Introductory Hermeneutics: Observing Literary Features

by Lauren Dyck

When you and I read a letter, we read it with the intent of understanding what the writer of the letter is trying to communicate to the reader. Any form of written communication contains within itself a code for the purpose of communicating thoughts or ideas. This code is comprised of characters that we call the alphabet, ordered in such a way as to form legible words. These words form the thoughts and ideas that the author is desiring to communicate to the reader through basic definitions, grammar, and figures of speech. The writer of the letter could be considered the encoder, and the reader, the decoder. It is then the task of the writer to ensure that what they are writing is done in such a manner as to be understandable to the intended audience, and it is the responsibility of the reader to attempt to understand that which is written as the author intended it to be understood.

The same idea of reading and understanding the intention of the author must also be consistently applied by the student of God’s Word, with a desire to know what is being communicated through the words of Scripture. With Scripture, though, we face the reality of dual authorship as Christians throughout the ages have recognized both human and divine authorship of the Holy Scriptures. For an example of this, we look to the apostle Paul’s letter to Timothy where he states in 2 Timothy 1:1-2: “Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ… To Timothy, my beloved child.” Paul is identifying himself as the human author, writing to Timothy. But later in the same letter, Paul states that “All Scripture is breathed out by God” (2 Timothy 3:16), revealing the divine inspiration of Scripture.

Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart address the nature of dual authorship of Scripture in this manner:

A more significant reason for the need to interpret lies in the nature of Scripture itself. Historically the church has understood the nature of Scripture much the same as it has understood the person of Christ – the Bible is at the same time both human and divine. “The Bible,” it has been correctly said, “is the Word of God given in human words in history.” It is this dual nature of the Bible that demands of us the task of interpretation.

Because the Bible is God’s message, it has eternal relevance; it speaks to all humankind, in every age and in every culture. Because it is the word of God, we must listen – and obey. But because God chose to speak His word through human words in history, every book in the Bible also has historical particularity; each document is conditioned by the language, time, and culture in which it was originally written (an in some cases also by the oral history it had before it was written down). Interpretation of the Bible is demanded by the “tension” that exists between its eternal relevance and its historical particularity.[1]

With this in mind, it then becomes the reader’s responsibility to interpret Scripture in such a way as to determine the intention and meaning of the original human author, as well as the divine intention of the text. So then, as has been said, “The speaker’s intention is never irrelevant – and if the speaker or writer is no longer available, we must search the context for further clues.”[2] The intention of the author can then affect the meaning of words or phrases in several ways, for example:

First, the author’s intention determines whether the words are to be understood literally or figuratively. Therefore, when the psalmist writes that the trees clapped their hands, it is clear that the joining together of an inanimate subject with a predicate usually attributed to animate beings is enough to give us the clue that the language is figurative. Second, the author’s intention determines the referent a word is to have.[3]

So, it is the author’s intended meaning that we must search out in our process of interpretation. This process of interpretation is what is known as hermeneutics and is traditionally defined as: “the discipline that deals with principles of interpretation. Some writers like to call it the science of interpretation; others prefer to speak of the art of interpretation.”[4] In using the terms science and art, we see two essential aspects of Bible interpretation:

First, as a science, hermeneutics provides the interpreter of Scripture with sensible principles to guide and direct his or her thinking with regard to interpreting the Bible. These principles are sometimes virtually self-evident while at other time they may require a little more conscious thought and effort. Some principles are rooted in the fact that the Bible is an ancient book, following certain cultural conventions of written communication, while others are based on the unique quality of the Bible as the divinely revealed and inspired Word of God.

Second, as an art or skill, hermeneutics provides the interpreter of Scripture with a methodical process that, with practice, may be applied to the biblical text and result in an accurate understanding of the Bible.[5]

One of the most widely accepted step-by-step processes of Bible interpretation is what is referred to the inductive method. This method is comprised of a three-step process that includes observation, interpretation, and application. Observation “seeks to establish a foundational knowledge of what the text is saying and to discern those issues that may warrant focused study.” Interpretation “seeks to understand the meaning of the text at its exegetical level, that is, what the text was intended to convey by its original author to his original audience.” Application “is a multifaceted step based on the idea that the Word of God is eternally relevant, speaking not just to an ancient audience but to a contemporary one as well.”[6]

Observing Literary Features

For the purpose of this paper, I want to look at the first step of the inductive method, observation, as this is a crucial starting point in establishing a consistent foundational understanding of any given passage prior to interpreting and applying the truths from the text. More specifically, this paper will examine multiple literary features used in the process of observation that help the reader better understand the intent of the passage being studied.

A key item to consider in the process of interpretation is literary genre. Examples of the various genres found in Scripture are narratives, poetry & wisdom, the gospels, epistles, and prophecy.[7] Richard Fuhr and Andreas Kostenberger discuss the importance of recognizing literary genres within the writings of Scripture and how it affects our reading of the Word in this way:

The literary gap stems from the fact that the Bible is an ancient human book written by dozens of authors in a variety of literary genres. As such, we should expect the text of Scripture to have been written in styles unique to ancient literary culture and language. What places the Bible in a class of its own, however, is the variety of literary techniques found in Scripture. Because the Bible was written by so many authors over such a long period of time reflecting such variety in purpose and origin, the outcome is a text representing a dozen or so primary genres and many more subgenres. God could have revealed to His people a list of laws, a procedural manual on how to do church, a theology textbook, or an apologetics guide answering difficult questions. To some extent, we find a bit of each of these features in the pages of Scripture. However, the Bible is so much more, a multifaceted masterpiece of unparalleled quality and diversity. God could have chosen to reveal a less complex Word, but He didn’t. And while this presents us with certain challenges, these pale in comparison with the rich benefits conveyed through the variegated literature of the Bible.[8]

Within these categories of genre, we also have what I have referred to as literary features. These various features are “meant as guideposts for the attentive observation of Scripture,”[9] and provide the reader aids in the process of not only reading the text but also perceiving the text. I will be looking at the following literary features as observed in Philippians 2:1-4 leading into v. 5-11 where the apostle Paul illustrates the ultimate example of humility found in Christ for the church to emulate as he urges them towards unity: (1) illustration, (2) conjunctions, (3) conditional clauses, (4) contrast and comparison, (5) repetition, and (6) escalation.

Illustration

An illustration is “an example of some kind which serves to clarify a point.”[10] This feature is “found throughout all portions of the Bible, serving to elucidate what is unclear and to enrich the rhetoric of the biblical writer.”[11]

In this well-known text of Philippians 2:1-11, the apostle Paul uses the illustration of Jesus Himself as the ultimate example of humility leading up to His exaltation. The congregation is seemingly somewhat divided (4:2), and Paul is promoting unity through an attitude of humility and unselfishness (2:1-4) which is epitomized in the illustration Paul uses of Christ’s own humility in the incarnation (v.5-11).

Philippians 2:1–11

[1] So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, [2] complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. [3] Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. [4] Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. [5] Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, [6] who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, [7] but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. [8] And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. [9] Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, [10] so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, [11] and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.[12]

We see in this passage, the apostle Paul’s desire for unity in the Philippian church (v. 2) and he shows the reader how to achieve this in verses 3-4, by being unselfish, humble, counting others higher than yourself, and looking at the interests and needs of others. In verse 5, Paul instructs the reader to “have this mind” of humility, then transitions into his illustration of Christ’s example by showing the reader that this attitude can be achieved because of Christ’s mind of humility (vv. 6-11).

Conjunctions

We have identified Paul’s use of illustration in our text, now let’s look at some other literary features that help guide the reader and point them to the ultimate example of humility seen in Jesus’ incarnation.

The next feature I want to examine is the use of conjunctions. Conjunctions are “words that direct the flow of discourse.”[13] These are words that conjoin – “and,” “yet,” “but,” “or,” “so,” “therefore,” etc. – and as simple, well-known words, their significance is often overlooked. Though conjunctions are used to establish parallel thoughts, make lists, or forming basic contrasts, they “also relay causal relationships, explain reasons, facilitate inference, and perhaps most significantly, link together independent clauses… assisting in the development of the line of argument and directing the flow of thought in a passage of Scripture.”[14]

Paul ties our text together with his previous statement when he begins chapter 2 with the conjunction, “so.” He has just instructed the church to let their “manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ,” and that they may stand “firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side,” indicating his desire for unity to exist within the church because they will be called to “suffer for His sake,” (Philippians 1:27-30). These verses precede Paul’s call to unity by giving a reason why unity is so important in the church and shows us the function of the conjunction “so”, we will suffer. We see here why the conjunction in verse 1 of chapter 2 is so important, as it leads the reader into what we call a first-class condition that is intended to offer comfort during times of suffering.

Conditional Clauses

As I mentioned in our previous section, Paul uses a first-class conditional clause following his use of the conjunction “so” in chapter 2:1. Conditional clauses are “clauses that contain a statement of condition,”[15] and are “typically framed around an ‘if/then’ relationship.”[16] Further, a first-class condition “assumes the condition as true for the sake of argument and thus clearly has a rhetorical function.”[17]

The if/then condition that Paul uses can be seen in the first 2 verses of chapter 2. “So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, [then] complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind” (Philippians 2:2). We recognize this as a first-class condition, because the protasis “if” clause of verse 1 is clearly assumed to be true; there IS encouragement in Christ and comfort from love, etc., and since these things are true, Paul gives us the imperative apodosis “then” clause as found in verse 2.

Contrast

The next feature I will examine is contrast. Contrast is “when words, phrases, concepts, or figures are juxtaposed against something else as a means of further explanation.”[18] Sometimes the reader may glean the greatest insight into what an author is saying through the means of contrast. For this reason, light is often contrasted with darkness, and likewise, love contrasted with hate. By using contrasts in this way, the author can draw attention to their point and help bring the reader into focusing on their main point or idea.

In our text, the apostle Paul uses contrast immediately after his use of the first-class conditional clause. He has just established that believers are to be “of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind” (v. 2), he then goes on to use contrastive imperatives in verses 3-4 to define what this ought to look like.

Verses 3 and 4 begin with the imperatives, “Do nothing,” and “Let each of you look,” then contrasts what we, as humans, would naturally be inclined to do – acting with “selfish ambition or conceit” (v. 3), and looking after our “own interests” (v. 4) – with how we should act in light of being Christians and having the Holy Spirit indwell us – “in humility count others more significant than yourselves” (v. 3), and look “to the interests of others” (v. 4). The key word used in identifying these two contrasts is the use of “but”. Paul shows us what we ought to do by contrasting it with what we are not to do, thereby using contrasts to bring clarity to his instructions for the reader.

Repetition

One thing a keen observer of any text will notice almost immediately is the writer’s use of repetition. Repetition is “when a word, phrase, or concept is used more than once in a passage,”[19] and “will often provide clues regarding the author’s purpose in a passage or at the very least will highlight the key point(s) of interest.”[20]

Paul uses this literary feature specifically in our text to help the reader understand how important unity is for him. Notice the repetition of the concept of unity by Paul’s use of “same mind,” “one mind,” “this mind,” in verses 2 and 5, and how this then ties his thought process to chapter 1:27 where he expresses his desire for the church to be “standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel.” Paul is clearly highlighting the importance of unity within the church body by this simple use of repetition.

Escalation

The final literary feature we will examine in Philippians 2:1-11, is Paul’s use of escalation. Escalation is “when a line of argument builds towards a climax,” and is “often coupled with repetition, (and) functions to heighten the impact of the message of the text.”[21]

Paul’s intention in verses 1-4 is clear, to point the reader towards a mind of unity through humility, and he seems to bring this argument to a climax in verse 5 by pointing the reader to Christ’s ultimate example of humility. As a result, we see escalation in these first four verses, but we see it again, and perhaps more clearly so, in verses 6-11. Verses 6-8 expound on Christ’s example of humility in becoming man, “though He was in the form of God” (v. 6). Then, verses 9-11 focus on God’s exaltation of Jesus as a result of his humility, to the confession that “Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (v. 11), leading the reader to the intended climax of this escalation, from Christ’s humility in incarnation, to His ultimate exaltation revealed in the title, “Jesus Christ is Lord.”

Conclusion

We see how the apostle Paul employs multiple literary features in drawing his reader’s attention to and highlighting Christ’s ultimate example of humiliation and leading to His glorious exaltation as Lord, “to the glory of God the Father.” A simple overview of the use of these features has given us an idea of their importance in biblical hermeneutics, and their function in determining the meaning of the text of Scripture when we take the time to observe them, which all leads to the proper interpretation of the text, and ultimately, better application as we seek to allow our lives to be transformed and directed by the Word of God.


[1] Gordon D. Fee, Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, (Grande Rapids: Zondervan, 2014), 25.

[2] Walter C. Kaiser Jr., Moises Silva, Introduction to Biblical Hermeneutics: The Search for Meaning, (Grande Rapids: Zondervan, 2007), 39.

[3] Walter C. Kaiser Jr., Moises Silva, 39.

[4] Walter C. Kaiser Jr., Moises Silva, 17.

[5] Richard Alan Fuhr Jr., Andreas J. Kostenberger, Inductive Bible Study: Observation, Interpretation, and Application through the Lenses of History, Literature, and Theology, (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2016), 20.

[6] The definitions for observation, interpretation, and application were taken from: Richard Alan Fuhr Jr., Andreas J. Kostenberger, 39–41.

[7] For a broader, more in-depth treatment of Literary Genre’s see: Walter C. Kaiser Jr., Moises Silva, Introduction to Biblical Hermeneutics: The Search for Meaning, 123–209.

[8] Richard Alan Fuhr Jr., Andreas J. Kostenberger, Inductive Bible Study: Observation, Interpretation, and Application through the Lenses of History, Literature, and Theology, 13.

[9] Richard Alan Fuhr Jr., Andreas J. Kostenberger, 121.

[10] Richard Alan Fuhr Jr., Andreas J. Kostenberger, 122.

[11] Richard Alan Fuhr Jr., Andreas J. Kostenberger, 135.

[12] All Scripture quoted is from the English Standard Version (ESV) unless otherwise noted.

[13] Richard Alan Fuhr Jr., Andreas J. Kostenberger, 122.

[14] Richard Alan Fuhr Jr., Andreas J. Kostenberger, 132.

[15] Richard Alan Fuhr Jr., Andreas J. Kostenberger, 122.

[16] Richard Alan Fuhr Jr., Andreas J. Kostenberger, 133.

[17] Richard Alan Fuhr Jr., Andreas J. Kostenberger, 133.

[18] Richard Alan Fuhr Jr., Andreas J. Kostenberger, 122.

[19] Richard Alan Fuhr Jr., Andreas J. Kostenberger, 122.

[20] Richard Alan Fuhr Jr., Andreas J. Kostenberger, 123.

[21] Richard Alan Fuhr Jr., Andreas J. Kostenberger, 125–26.

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