Biblical Hermeneutics - Lesson 31

Hermeneutics for Epistles (Part 3)

Once you determine the meaning of the words, it's important to recognize how they are used in the sentence and how the clauses in the sentence are related. Understanding the different ways clauses can be used will help you determine the meaning of each sentence. The distinction between "means" and "cause" is significant. 

Robert Stein
Biblical Hermeneutics
Lesson 31
Watching Now
Hermeneutics for Epistles (Part 3)


I. How Sentences are Understood

A. Understanding Propositions

1. Clausal relationships

a. Cause

b. Result

c. Purpose

d. Condition

e. Concession

f. Means

g. Manner

2. Distinguishing between means and cause

  • Understanding the roots of the English language and knowing the history of the English translations of the Bible gives you a context that can help you understand the meaning of the passage you are reading. 

  • After William Tyndale published the first Bible in English in 1539 that was translated from the Hebrew and Greek texts, King James of England assembled a team of top scholars to create an English translation that was published in 1611. More recent translations are still being made to reflect new manuscript discoveries and changes in the English language. 

  • There is no such thing as an exact word equivalent when going from one language to another. Different languages as well as different cultures pose a challenge for translators. It's important to use the best manuscripts for your translation.

  • A few of the challenges that translators face are for the translation to be accurate but understandable, contemporary but universal, and to avoid a theological bias. Contemporary languages are always changing, and each translator holds theological beliefs based on years of training and experience. 

  • Inerrancy of the Bible is an important foundation for the process of translation. Some translations focus more on "word-for-word" equivalents and some focus more on "thought-for-thought" equivalents. Some translations include footnotes to explain a verse that is ambiguous or controversial. 

  • The three components that determine meaning in written communication are the author, the text and the reader. In determining the meaning of Biblical passages, it's important to know as much as possible about all three components. 

  • The author of a passage made an intentional effort to communicate a message. It is the job of the reader to determine the meaning and implications of the message by studying the text itself, then evaluating the literary form and other contextual factors. 

  • The first step in interpretation is to focus on the pattern of meaning the author consciously willed to convey by the words they used. Then, the implications of the text may also include meanings in the text of which the author was unaware but fall within the author's pattern of meaning.

  • It's important to define your terms when you are determining the interpretation and application of Biblical passages. Your goal is to begin by hearing the message of a passage as the author intended it and the first readers would have understood it. 

  • The written word correctly interpreted is the objective basis of authority. The inward illuminating and persuading work of the Holy Spirit is the subjective dimension. When 1 Cor. 2:14 says that an unspiritual man cannot understand Scritpure, it is referring to his lack of acceptance rather than his mental grasp of the words. 

  • You will gain a comprehensive understanding of the role of the Holy Spirit in relation to believers, the church, and the world. The lesson covers the Holy Spirit's work in the regeneration and sanctification of believers, empowering and guiding them, unifying the church, bestowing spiritual gifts, the conviction of sin, righteousness, and judgment, and drawing people to God. The conclusion summarizes the Holy Spirit's impact on all aspects of life.

  • Your presuppositions about whether or not the miracles in the Bible took place as they are recorded will affect the way you look at the Bible and at specific events. Three approaches to this question are the supernatural approach, rationalist approach and the mythical approach. 

  • Kinds of meaning and types of meaning are two of the main ideas in the book, "The Language and Imagery of the Bible," by G. B. Caird. Proverbs are short, pithy sayings that express a general truth. Exceptions are allowed. A good example of an exception to a proverb is the book of Job.

  • Judgment prophecy assumes that, even if not stated, if the people repent, judgment will not come. Prophets also tend to speak in figurative language, using cosmic terminology. 

  • The prophets use figurative and metaphorical language to describe future events and spiritual reality. They also use cosmic language to describe God acting in history. 

  • Dr. Stein discusses the possibility of a sensus plenior in some passages. In Mark 13, Jesus talks about coming events that are also prophesied in the Old Testament. 

  • Judges chapters 4 and 5 describe the same events. Chapter 4 uses prose, chapter 5 uses poetry. The book of Psalms is a collection of songs, prayers and reflections about human emotions, and God, his character and his work in the world. 

  • Jesus uses parallelism in the Gospels to illustrate and emphasize who God is and what the kingdom of God is like. In order to understand an idiom, you first need to identify it as an idiom and then determine what the meaning is in the culture.  

  • Exaggeration is overstatement. Hyperbole is literally impossible. When using exaggeration, both parties must agree that the expression is an exaggeration. Jesus uses exaggeration to emphasize and illustrate important teachings. 

  • Jesus uses exaggeration to make his point clear, especially on matters of morality, but doesn't take the time to discuss possible exceptions. Jesus also uses all-inclusive and universal language, as well as idiomatic language that no longer bears its original meaning. 

  • Some of the early church writers and the reformers interpreted parables, like the parable of the Good Samaritan, as allegories. 

  • Adolf Jülicher taught that parables tend to have one basic point of comparison, and the details are just there to make the story interesting. So you should try to understand what’s the main point of the parable. To begin with, seek to understand the parable as the first century audience would have. Consider what the Gospel writers were trying to teach. Ask how it applies to you in your current situation. 

  • In the parable of the hidden treasure and the parable of the pearl of great price, the message of the value of the kingdom of God is more important than the character of the man. In the parable of the ten virgins and the parable of the dishonest manager, it's important to focus on the main point of the parable and not to get distracted by the details. The parable of the lost sheep teaches us to pursue the lost. 

  • When interpreting the parable of the workers, determine the main characters, consider the rule of end stress and pay attention to what gets the most press. 

  • Some parables are best interpreted as an allegory. It's important to ask if Jesus with his audience would have attributed meaning to these details and if the audience of the Gospel writers would have understood the details as being allegorical. 

  • When you are determining how you should apply the parable of the final judgment in Matthew 25: 31-46, who Jesus is referring to when he says, "...just as you did it to one of the least of these, my brethren, you did it to me." In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, Jesus makes a point about what causes people to believe in him or to not believe in him. 

  • You read and interpret a passage that is historical narrative differently than a passage that is prophecy, poetry or a parable. Much of the historical information in the Bible is confirmed by archaeological discoveries including literature from other contemporary cultures. In the 1700's there was a group of scholars that began questioning whether the miraculous events in the Bible were supernatural. They tried to find meaning in the stories without saying that a miracle happened assumed that the real meaning is not the same as the author's literal intention. They did this by finding the meaning of the words, then conducting a historical assessment of what really happened. 

  • Supernaturalists believe that the miracles the Gospel writers recorded were supernatural events. The rationalists believe that either the Gospel writers knew that miracles did not take place, but they were accommodating their readers who did believe in miracles, or that they really believed them but they were just myths. This would require the Gospel writers to be liars or not very smart, neither of which seem consistent with the care and precision with which the Gospels were written. When you are preaching a narrative passage, it's important to include the whole context when you are interpreting the meaning of the events.

  • When interpreting the epistles, it's important to identify which words are used frequently, what the meaning of the words are and how the author uses them. It can be helpful to study the etymology of words and the meaning of words in their historical context. The process of moving from norms of language to norms of utterance is important. 

  • We can get information about the meaning of words from studying ancient Greek literature, the writings of early church fathers and the translators of the Hebrew Old Testament. We can also compare letters written by the same author, and also how the word is used within the same letter or passage. It can be helpful to look at the way different authors use the same word. 

  • Once you determine the meaning of the words, it's important to recognize how they are used in the sentence and how the clauses in the sentence are related. Understanding the different ways clauses can be used will help you determine the meaning of each sentence. The distinction between "means" and "cause" is significant. 

  • Romans 13:1-7 is a good example of the development of a logical argument. Most of the epistles follow the form of an ancient letter, which is greeting or salutation, thanksgiving or prayer, body of the letter and conclusion. 

  • Two types of covenants are the parity covenant and suzerain covenant. Covenant language is used in both the Old Testament and New Testament. The parts of a covenant, illustrated in the Mosaic covenant in Exodus 20, are the preamble, prologue, stipulations, provision for continual reading and witnesses.

  • God renews his covenant with Israel in Joshua 24. The three types of laws in the Old Testament are civil laws, cultic laws and moral laws. 

  • The book of Psalms is divided into five sections. The Psalms were written by different people at different times for different purposes. Some were for public worship and some were the result of personal reflection in times of joy, distress or repentance. 

  • In Jesus's day, the Scripture was the books of the Old Testament. Many of the books of the New Testament were written before 70 a.d. The Gospel writers produced a written record of the life of Jesus. Paul and other apostles wrote to churches to encourage and teach them. Eusebius, a church historian in 325a.d., recorded a list of the books that are currently in the New Testament.

  • Factors in recognizing the books that make up the New Testament were apostolic authorship, use in the church over time, unity and agreement and the superintendence of the Holy Spirit. The writing of the books of the Bible was inspired by God and it is inerrant. 

Dr. Robert Stein covers the history of the English Bible and then moves into the rules for interpreting the biblical text, including the role of the Holy Spirit in the hermeneutical process. He then spends considerable time moving through the different genres of literature (e.g., proverbs, poetry, parables, narrative). Dr. Stein did not provide us the notes he refers to in the class, but we did place links for the books he used as a basis for the class on the class page under the Recommended Reading heading.

Recommended Books

Biblical Hermeneutics - Student Guide

Biblical Hermeneutics - Student Guide

How do you even start to study your Bible? What are the guiding principles? Are the rules for interpreting narrative any different from parables and apocalyptic literature?...

Biblical Hermeneutics - Student Guide

Now after we understand the specific meaning of words, we want to know how they are together to be understood as a statement or a proposition.  Now you can’t isolate this completely.  And the very process of trying to understand the specific meaning of the word – you are wrestling with how that word is used in that particular sentence in this context.

What I am simply saying here is that – in the focus on the word, we are focusing more on the individual meaning of the word, no so much the entire statement. Here now we are going beyond the understanding of individual words and trying to understand the statement as a whole.

Now the key tool for understanding statements involves a grammar.  If we are talking about how to go from the norms of language found in a dictionary to the norms of an utterance, a lexicon is most helpful here. When we are trying to understand statements, now it is the grammar of the language that is most helpful and here we are talking about grammars – Greek grammars for Greek, Hebrew for Hebrew, English for English.

Grammars of different languages involve different syntax structures.  For instance in English, when you try to put a statement together, the position of words is all important.

For instance:
Bob loves Joan.
Bob, Joan loves.
Joan loves Bob.
Joan, Bob loves.
Loves, Joan, Bob.
Loves, Bob, Joan.

The words are identical. There is not a single difference between the words. All three of them have the same words. The meaning is completely dependent on the order of words in the english language.

But that’s not true in other languages for instance in Greek, its different here. It is the way words end that is most important. The endings on words.

So you have for you Greek:

Bobus agape Joanien
Joanien Bobus agape
agape Joanien Bobus
Bobus agape Joanien
Joanien Bobus agape
agape Joanien Bobus

Bob loves Joan in all three of those.

Well you say, “The order is different.”

Yes. But notice the endings are the same. It’s the endings that matter.

One of the screwy things about Greek is that the order is irrelevant and it drives you crazy.  German is somewhat similar to. German language always puts the verb at the end.  That’s why Germans are so neurotic. They keep waiting for the verb. When is it going to come up? Sometimes the sentences are so long, you have to look at the next month’s edition to get to the verb.

And over here, Joan loves Bob – same thing. No matter what the word order is, what we have are the endings that determine this.

Now, when we get to the Greek language we want to know how these words relate and clauses relate by little phrases that we tend to ignore and I think part of our English language is not interested in precision as to relationship of words.

For instance if you have the words, “The battle was lost - ________ the general died.”

You have all sorts of words that can change the meaning of this.  For instance if you put
“The battle was lost – after the general died,” now you have a relationship with the battle having taken place and being lost after the general died, but there is not necessarily a causal relationship.  This is just a matter of fact.  It is interesting to note that it was after the general had died and the battle was lost.  There was no relationship between the battle being lost and the general dying but that happened in time.

“The battle was lost –even as the general died.”

Now they are taking place at the same time.   Now when you say,

“The battle was lost –when as the general died.”

Now you have more than just a temporal relationship. You are talking about somehow, the general’s death being intimately involved in the battle being lost.

“The battle was lost –while the general died.”

Very much the same as “even as”.

“The battle was lost - so that the general died.”

Now the battle is lost and the result of the battle being lost is the death of the general.

“The battle was lost – for the general died.”

Now the battle’s being lost is determined as being grounded on the general’s death. If he hadn’t died the battle might not have been lost. 

“The battle was lost – and the general died.”

Two separate facts that are just related.

“The battle was lost – if the general died.”

Now you talk about – “I don’t know the outcome yet but if the general died, then the battle would have been lost because he was essential for victory.”

“The battle was lost – then the general died.”

You have a temporal ..

“The battle was lost – because the general died.”

It was the general’s death that is the cause of the battle being lost.  Then you have since, before, therefore, and you have all sorts of words like this.

And the one thing that we very seldom do in English and grade school and so forth, is to interact with – how do these clauses relate to one another.  And in our chapter on the epistles, the genre of the epistles, I give a lot of examples of relationship of clauses that talk about temporal, causal, instrumental and the like.

Now let me give a very famous passage in Scripture and we will talk about some of the clausal relationships. Its Ephesians 2:8-9.  Paul writes:

8 For by grace you have been saved through faith,
and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of
God — 9 not the result of works, so that no one
may boast.

For by grace. Here is the Greek here:

And by grace here is a … instrumental case.  What we have is a particular instrumental of cause. You are saved because of grace. The cause of salvation is grace. Because of grace. By grace you have been saved. 

Now you have through faith and that would be an ablative of means.  The means through which salvation comes is faith. Not the cause … the means.

You say, “What is the difference?”  Quite clear that cause and means are very very different in the relationship here. By grace through faith.

If someone says I am saved because I believe.  It is a very erroneous kind of statement.  You are not saved because you believe.  “Well. Sure I am saved because I believe. Bible says if you have faith, you will be saved and you are saved because you believe.”

No. You are not saved because you believe. 

Have the greatest faith in the world.  Eliminate Good Friday and Easter from history.  You are lost.  You are not saved because you believe.  The cause of our salvation is the death of Jesus Christ for our sins and His resurrection from the dead.  This gracious act of God, this grace is the cause of salvation.

You can have all the faith in the world, just remove it and it shows. No. You are not saved.  The means by which that grace is appropriated is faith.  Faith is not the cause. Faith is the means by which that cause brings about our salvation.

Let me give a… maybe not a great example, but one that is sometimes helpful.

You are dying in the hospital of a form of pneumonia and the doctor comes in and he has a vial of ampicillin and he says “This stuff will save you.”

The cause of your being saved will be that ampicillin.  But somehow there has to be means by which this is appropriated in the body. So you get a hypodermic needle and a syringe and you fill it with ampicillin and through the hypodermic needle the ampicillin, the saving medicine enters your body and you were saved.

Now what saves you?

It was the hypodermic needle which also saves you! No. You could be stuck with that all day and it won’t help you.  You just jab people with the hypodermic and it doesn’t do anything.  It is the means by which the cure – the ampicillin – enters in and brings about healing. It is not the cause of your healing.

When we talk about what saves us. It is Jesus’ death on Calvary that saves us.  Not our faith! And I think there is a sense in which we are insulting the grace of God and the death of Jesus on our behalf when we talk like that.

“Uh… Um… I am saved because I believe.”

You are saved because Jesus died for you. Your faith is the means – the hypodermic needle – through which God’s healing salvation, Jesus, the ampicillin comes into your life. It is by grace. It is because of grace.  It is through faith, but it is because of grace and all the faith in the world won’t save us apart from God’s remedy, His grace in Jesus Christ.

And I think we need to make sure that when we talk about people, we don’t emphasize our personal faith, but the grace of God that brings about that salvation.  By grace, the instrument, cause, if you want to use another word. By grace, because of grace; the instrument being the grace of God that saves us.

The means through faith.

Then he talks about, you have been saved, ok. We could talk a little about this being a perfect.  And that you have been saved and indicates something has happened that brought you in a state of salvation and state continues on, but lets not worry about that.

But then he goes on and says, “this is not your own doing” – touto (or τοῦτο ( = this))  – “this is not your own doing. It is the gift of God, not of works, lest any man should boast.”

Now, what is not of our own doing?  There have been people who have said, “Well, faith”.  That faith is a gift of God and that apart from God giving us this gift of faith we couldn’t never enter into the Kingdom of God. Well that may be true theologically, but that’s not what Paul is saying here.

Now we know that because this is feminine – grace. Faith is feminine. And this is neuter.  Now if this is referring to an antecedent, a specific one, it has to take on the same gender is what it is referring to.  It doesn’t take on the gender of faith or the gender of grace, so its not referring to that. Its not saying that “this faith saves you”.  It’s not saying that “this grace saves you.”  He says this whole thing is the gift of God, not of works lest any man should boast.

So the causal relationships here of these phrases towards one another – you who are learning Greek – you have an opportunity to be able for the rest of your life to read Paul’s actual letters.  To read what Luke says.  To read what Mark says, without translation.  I know languages are not easy and you just can’t let them sit there … unlike good cheese and good wine, they just don’t get better with age. You got to use it. Work on it.  But use the opportunity. There is something exciting for Dr. Stein being able to preach from the pulpit as a young pastor.  It was not a cockiness.  It was not an arrogance. But I had known that I had studied the text in the original language and I was able to share that – not telling the congregation my work.  I didn’t try to impress upon them that I can read Greek and they can’t or something like that.

But there is a confidence in the pulpit that comes about and therefore make use of it.

Now if you don’t have use of the language, well, then you are always translating, not the Greek of Paul, but the English of the translators.  So now when you get to study of Ephesians 2:8, “by grace you are saved through faith,” you have to say, “Now what do English translators mean by the word “by” and “grace” and so forth.  So you are a step removed. Now, compared to the rest of the world, we have a wonderful surplus of translations. And you have commentaries and others that can help you, but there is something exciting and wonderful about being able to work on biblical text in the original languages and I recommend that to you.

Lets look at a couple of others.  Turn with me to Romans 12:2. We are looking at how words are related in a sentence to one another. Here you have:

1 I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God,
to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God,
which is your spiritual worship. 2 Do not be conformed to this world,
but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may
prove what is the will of God — what is good and acceptable and

Now when Paul says, “Be not conformed to this world, you will note that it is an imperative, the present imperative of negation.  Usually that implies, you should stop doing what you are doing.  And you might be able to translate this, “I appeal to you therefore brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as living sacrifice holy and acceptable to God, which is your reason to worship.

Stop being conformed to this world!

Now, Paul is assuming, that Roman Christians, even without television, without the media, without CDs, the movies were being conformed by this world in its own image. And Paul says “Stop allowing this to take place.”

If that was true of the Christian church in Rome, think about whats happening to us today: being bombarded with the media all the time.

And perish the thought that anybody should drive a car without a radio on.  Or that they could jog without earphones.  I think we are scared of silence. I think we are going to go crazy if it gets silent or something like that.

But much of this non-silence that we are hearing is not necessarily edifying.  Much of it may be of this world and conforming us, shaping us into its own image. Paul says, “Stop doing that. Stop allowing that to happen to you.”

On the other hand, be transformed – metamorphosis is the word that we get there.  And now the question is “How are we going to be transformed?” And Paul gives us this expression, “By the renewal of our minds.” By the renewal of the mind.

The way we stop allowing ourselves to be conformed and start to be transformed, Paul says is the renewal of your mind.  Now Paul didn’t go further than that but he does say, that’s the answer. Our minds have to be renewed. Elsewhere he uses that very word renewal and talks about the Holy Spirit trying to renew us.  But I think there is more involved than this. And I would say that if we want to help our people to be transformed and no longer conforming, how do we help them get a renewal of the mind.

What are we going to fill their minds with?

When was the last time any of you read a missionary biography? Last year.  If you want to be transformed start reading missionary biographies.  Very challenging. Very challenging.  You begin to think differently.  You start filling your mind with different things.  You need to have in your church a book of the month club, where you emphasize a good missionary biography of some Christian work that will help them to think differently and to be transformed and so forth. Well Anyhow.  Lets go to another one.

Philippians 2:12-13

Now, we have looked at this verse from the perspective of trying to understand the meaning of terms and coming to the norms of utterance.

12 Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only
in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own
salvation with fear and trembling;

“Work out” doesn’t mean earn but to earn, merit, but to demonstrate, manifest, carry out your salvation with fear and trembling.  But we didn’t look at verse 13. And there is an intimate connection between them. Paul says,

13 for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to
will and to work for his good pleasure.

We are not being asked to work out our salvation in order that God would be at work in us.  He is talking to Christians – because God is at work in you.  Therefore manifest the salvation that you have with fear and trembling.

So verse 13 is the ground and cause of the exhortation.  We are never told to do certain commands so that God will work in our hearts. But because God is at work in our hearts as Christians therefore we have the exhortation.  The exhortation is built on our standing in Christ. The exhortations are never given in order to achieve a standing with Christ.  We already have that.  And because God is at work in you. Because you were His children. Because you came to faith in Him.  Therefore – work out – manifest that salvation with fear and trembling.  With reverence and care.

Alright. Thats about the only ones I had in mind to share with you in that way.  Anything here that you want to comment on before we go on to the next?