There are some basics in exegesis that Christians can learn and develop to improve their personal Bible study and their discussion at collective Bible studies. Drawing out of (ex-egesis) the Scripture will feed the soul.
Which is the most significant word in the following sentence?
“The red car went down the hill.”
You may say that you need to know the context before you can answer this question. True; but you can learn something about the context by “good and necessary consequence” (Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 1, Section 6).
Good and necessary consequence
One can deduce from the definite article – ‘the’ hill – that, in this context, there was only one hill being considered.
One can deduce that there was a red car on this hill, sufficiently far up that it was capable of going down it.
One can deduce that it is now lower than it was before. One would need to consider the tense of the verb and possibly the context to determine if the motion ‘went down’ was completed or if it was still on-going. The sentence does not say if the car has now stopped because it could have completed its descent of the hill and was now traveling along the flat. The latter point is not a ‘necessary’ consequence or inference. It may or may not be so, and the exegete needs to carry these options in their mind to see if the context will provide clues. A good imagination may consider other possibilities that need to be checked out by the context.
The significant word
So, having given you time to think about it, and a little prompting to consider the sentence, let us return to the question with which I began – which is the most significant word in this sentence? Having developed in one’s mind the above picture, where do we go from here?
A useful procedure is to remove words to see what difference it makes to the sentence. What happens when we remove the word ‘red’? Has it made any difference to the picture? Not much? Really? So what happens when you put it back in? Nothing? Not so. We now realise that there must be more than one car on this hill and only one of them is red! There may be ten cars but only one of them is red and it went down the hill. The picture is opening up. It does not say what the other car(s) did, but the exegete will carry this piece of information in mind when reading around the context.
It is for lack of a sanctified imagination that unbelieving Bible critics think that there are contradictions in Scripture. They need to think more. The Masoretes have often misunderstood the written Hebrew text and supplied the Qere ‘reading’ text through 1. their lack of understanding, 2. their lack of imagination and 3. their inadequate views of the divine preservation of the divinely inspired written text of Scripture. I adopt the Ketiv written text on the principles of divine inspiration 2Tim 3:16 and divine preservation Ps 12:6-7 of the Hebrew text and I have yet to find an example where the Ketiv is ‘wrong’.
The humble adjective
So, voilà! The humble adjective ‘red’ is the most significant word in the sentence. It is the distinguishing word.
Do not be misled by Mark Twain’s advice on verbosity: “As to the Adjective: When in doubt, strike it out.” The Bible uses adjectives in a distinctive manner, not in the flowery, verbosity that Twain sought to correct. In fact, he commented on this difference: “God only exhibits his thunder and lightning at intervals, and so they always command attention. These are God’s adjectives. You thunder and lightning too much; the reader ceases to get under the bed, by and by.” “They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are wide apart.”
Mark Twain’s complaint was about too much description with too many adjectives. I have felt the same when reading many a book. The difference in this sentence is that the adjective is distinctive as well as descriptive. Such is the poor standard of modern debate that many people do not understand adjectives. If one speaks of Christian care, they think you mean that only Christians care. Rather, it is speaks about a particular form of care.
The subject of the sentence is the red car, which went down the hill, whatever the other car (s) did.
Some examples of the importance of adjectives are here.
Adjectives are important in most discussions and debates, and for failure to realise this and use them accurately, communication ends up at cross purposes.
‘What is faith?’ is an interesting topic. It is not the same as ‘What is saving faith?’ or more specifically What is faith in Jesus Christ? (Westminster Shorter Catechism Question 86.) Assurance of salvation is a particular and specific exercise of faith.
‘What is repentance?’ is useful to discuss as a preliminary to ‘What is evangelical repentance’ or What is repentance unto life? (Westminster Shorter Catechism Question 87.)
There are a variety of definitions of a Christian. One will hear evangelicals ask: “Is he/she a Christian?” What they mean is, “Are they born again?” So to clarify issues they may ask if they are a committed Christian or a born again Christian or a true Christian. Notice the adjectives. By definition, a word (Christian) cannot mean the same thing as a word qualified by an adjective (committed Christian). A Christian is a baptised disciple of Jesus Christ who identifies with Christ and other Christians. They may or they may not be born again.
There is much more to the topic but this can begin your thinking and your developing some basic exegetical and conversational skills. Happy thinking, studying, speaking and conversation.
14 Jan 2014: mistaken forms of exegesis.
23 Sep 2019: Binary choices suggest a lack of imagination.
22 Jan 2020: imagination in the definition of impeachment.
15 Feb 2020: the police have still to learn that hate crime must be a crime before it can be a hate crime or a hate-crime incident. Adjectives are important.
17 Feb 2020: an example in exegesis – what happens when one removes “at least” from the positive discrimination agenda of “at least 50% women”? What happens when one places it back in? It means that there will be more than 50% women, so it demonstrates that “at least 50% women” is not promoting the ‘equal’ opportunity’ agenda at all but a dominant agenda. So much for “equality”.