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Hermeneutics 12 – Grammatico-Historical Interpretation Part 2

December 3, 2012

I mentioned in the last post that we would begin to examine the principles of grammatico-historical interpretation with general principles we can apply to the whole Bible.  I thought the example I provided about the meaning of the word, “speaker” in the context in which it was given provided a segue into a discussion about the definitions of words.  I will spend the next few posts discussing proper ways to determine what a given word means in any specific context.  I will do this also by discussing common mistakes that we should aim to avoid.

Perhaps the most popular tool used by Christians to determine the meaning of a word is a concordance.  Although there are different English concordances that have been written, Strong’s appears to be the most popular.  When we use our concordances we can tend to make a common error that we do not make when using an English dictionary.  Say you were reading a book written in 1850.  Back then people maintained a vocabulary that puts us to shame.  So, as you read you come across a word you have never seen.  You open up your dictionary and find the word.  What do you see?  Usually, you will see three or four various definitions for the word.  How do you determine which meaning was intended by your 19th century author?  Well, you read the definitions keeping the sentence and context in which the word was used in mind.  It is normally pretty easy to discard certain definitions because they would make no sense in the context in which the word was used.  Finally, you find a definition that fits the context and connection in the sentence and paragraph in which the term was used.  Notice what you do not do however.  You do not feel free to substitute at will any of the three or four definitions given in your dictionary.

Think of the example I gave you in the last post about the term “speaker.”  In context it was clear I meant the man who had just finished speaking at the seminar.  Now, although the term, “speaker” has other meanings (or definitions) in other contexts, you wouldn’t say that I meant all of those at the same time.  You wouldn’t say, “Yes Dan, in context you meant the person who spoke at the seminar, but your deeper spiritual meaning was that you liked my SONY B3000.”  You wouldn’t say, “Well yes Dan, on the surface you said one thing and meant one thing, but because the term speaker has other connotations I take it that you also said that you liked the Speaker of the House in Washington, your car stereo, your computer speakers, the PA system at the seminar and the man who spoke all at the same time, even if you didn’t know you meant all those things.”

Although we do not make random substitutions of all the possible meanings of a word in any given context in English, we tend to do this with the definitions given to us in concordances.  We pick and choose other definitions of the Greek terms given us and apply them at will to the Bible verse we are reading.  Since the significance of a term is determined by the connections it has to the terms around it, we can very easily misunderstand and misinterpret the sentence we are reading in the Bible when we do this.  We must try to remember that in Greek, like in English, the meaning of a word is determined by its context and connections.

Now of course, with everything must be caution.  The discussion above does not exclude the possibility of what Kenneth Talbot refers to as terms that are used with a “pregnant sense,” (Lecture 10, Hermeneutics, Whitefield Theological Seminary).  He gives an example from Luke 11:3, “Give us each day our daily bread,” (NIV).  The term “bread” here does not only mean bread.  It is used in a way that refers to the daily “necessities of life,” (Talbot, Ibid).  Dr. Talbot also speaks of the example of the term “peace” in John 20:21, which he says is used in a general sense which includes all of its specific connotations.   Notice however, that these example do not negate the discussion above since the context determines that the terms have more general meanings in the sentences and connections in which they are used.

We will continue to discuss the definitions of words in the next post.  Again, if you have any questions or comments, please feel free to post below.

From → Hermeneutics

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