Syntax doesn’t always settle-in on the first reading. I read Romans 46 times in a row (not in one day!) before I ever looked at a commentary. Why? I wanted the syntax ingrained in my consciousness before I looked elsewhere. Once I read the commentaries, it became obvious to me which ones had taken the time to let the syntax settle-in. Most jumped right in and started parsing individual words without ever considering how they are connected to the larger thought-unit, much less the entire letter.
When I worked in the legal field, I quickly discovered: words matter, phrases matter, sentences matter, and paragraphs matter. The way you organize them matters, too. I learned this most profoundly when the inheritance of a multi-million dollar estate hung on the correct placement of a single word in a paragraph. When you write an important message, the way you construct it is critical to getting your point across. We choose our words carefully, and rightly so. The Bible is no different.
God chose His Words carefully, too. 2 Timothy 3:16 states, “All Scripture is breathed-out by God.” In Greek, the word “Scripture” is γραφή (graphe). It means God’s writings. It is the graphe, the actual words that form the sentences and paragraphs, which are breathed-out by God. That is an important point to remember. Theology is not said to be breathed-out by God. Context is not said to be breathed-out by God. Only the graphe, the actual writings, are declared to be breathed-out by God. The others are important, to be certain, but it is the text itself which must concern us most.
Up until now, I have focused on context: canonical context, book context, sectional context, and immediate context. Now, we must begin examining that which God crystallized from His breath: the text itself.
The Impact of Syntax
What is syntax? Walt Kaiser says syntax is, “The way in which words are put together so as to form phrases, clauses, and sentences.” We particularly are interested, at this point, to distinguish between “main” points and “supporting” points (or sub-points). We want to emphasize what the graphe (Scripture) emphasizes; nothing more, nothing less.
Analogy of Antecedent Scripture
In examining syntax, we must keep in mind the “analogy of antecedent Scripture.” I will write on this in more detail in a later article, but it’s so important I wish to plant the seed here. We all have heard preachers who read a preaching-text, and then jump all over the Bible to explain it. Theologians call this “systematic theology,” which at times is helpful. However, if our objective is to determine what this author is saying in this text, then we must (initially) limit ourselves to the Scripture this author knew at the time he wrote. That’s only fair, isn’t it? We can’t expect Paul, for instance, to know what was written in the book of Revelation when the book of Revelation wasn’t written until after Paul was dead. And notice, I said “initially.” There will come a time when we look at subsequent revelation (that is, Scripture written after this author wrote). Initially, though, we limit ourselves only to the graphe our biblical author knew at the time he wrote. This concept will become important later on in the interpretive process. For now, just keep it in mind.
Identify the Literary Type
Part of the syntax analysis will be determining the literary type. Common sense tells us we cannot analyze poetry the same way we analyze a didactic epistle.
There are five basic literary types (though some biblical books have variations of these types within them):
Prose. This is the most common. It is the plain speech of an author. Most of Paul’s letters are written in prose.