In Praise of Written Things and Writing Things


I am not a theologian. I have never upgraded Accordance software to a newer version with fancier tools because I have never owned any such software.

I am not a biblical linguist. I took one semester of Hebrew eight years ago, and my first Greek quizzes are eleven years behind me. The forms are now worn and wrinkled in my memory; when I read, I am clumsy and slow.

I am not even a Bethlehem College & Seminary student. Instead, I catch glimpses of what my husband is learning in his MDiv program by reading his papers.

I am, however, an English teacher, the daughter of an English teacher, the granddaughter of an English teacher. And from two dear, faithful women I have received an inheritance of the sincere love of grammar.

My mother and grandmother’s knowledge of grammar nurtured a deep love for the word of God, written in sixty-six God-breathed books, and a deeper love for the Word of God made flesh, who “upholds all things by the word of his power.” Their loves have become my loves, and their angst and frustration over pronoun-antecedent disagreement, passive constructions, and dangling participial phrases have been my school teachers in learning to read the Bible slowly and carefully.

Knowing the role of each word in relation to the others helps to clarify ambiguity because the rules of grammatical usage offer a series of Socratic questions that help a reader navigate the connections between the words when those relationships are not clear. While arcing and discourse analysis clarify the relationships between larger syntactical units, I like the specificity of diagraming and sentence analysis because these two methods account for the placement and function of every single word in a passage.

Consider, for example, what the Apostle John writes in John 20:31, “These things are written so that you might believe that Jesus is the Christ the Son of God, and that by believing, you might have life in his name.” First, we might have the following grammatical conversation with ourselves:

What is this sentence about? This sentence is about “these things,” so “these things” is the subject.

What does this sentence tell us about these things? This sentence tells us that “these things are written,” so “are written” is the predicate verb.

Why are these things written?

We could move ourselves through the sentence. Identifying the “so that” as the adverbial clausal opener enables us to answer why “these things are written.” The second “that” signals a noun clause that functions as the direct object of “believe.” It tells us what we should believe. The third “that” does not tell us more of what we should believe; instead, it is a second part of the “so that” clause. We have a compound adverbial clause modifying the verb “are written.”

Our grammatical analysis helps us conclude that John has two objectives in mind for his writing: belief and life-having. The prepositional phrase “by believing” not only tells us how we have life, but it also puts those two objectives into a chronological relationship: we must first believe since it is through believing that we have life in Christ’s name.

At this point, John’s claim leads me to wonder and worship: in his divine economy, God has given the written things a role in saving souls. He is pleased to use grammar to bring about belief to bring about life. Rosaria Butterfield claimed this very thing when she spoke about the impact of grammar on her own conversion at her breakout session at the recent The Gospel Coalition Women’s Conference in Orlando, Florida. Truly God has chosen the despised things to shame the wise: the period, the dash, and a teeny, tiny hyphen.

But grammar is not only useful for making sense of the message of Scripture; it is additionally essential for expositing it. God has graciously given us words to put in sentences and enabled us to develop rules of agreement, modification, and punctuation to help us communicate clearly.

Luke tells us early in Acts that the Ethiopian eunuch, who raced along in a chariot, reading the book of Isaiah, was completely confused until God sent Philip to explain the text to him. Philip used his own words to elucidate God’s words — sentence explicating sentence. By the power of the Holy Spirit, Philip’s subjects, verbs, and predicate nominatives set off a grammatical, theological, salvific reaction in the eunuch’s mind: Jesus is the Chosen One of God. Words empowered by the Holy Spirit led to more life.

In his graduation address on May 16, Chancellor John Piper exhorted Bethlehem College & Seminary’s graduates, faculty, staff, and guests to develop a habit of keen expression in order to articulate with truth, logic, pictures, and with love everything observed, understood, evaluated, and felt. In the liberal arts tradition, the logical and rhetorical force of writing relies at the most basic level on good grammar. Grammar, logic, and rhetoric are three of many handmaidens to theology, but these sisters share a special symbiosis. The more advanced of the two — logic and rhetoric — do not get very far without their little sister, grammar, and God has made her strong to serve the spread of the gospel.

Thus, correct coordinating conjunctions, clear modifiers, and active verbs have everything to do with a degree in theology. Knowing our grammar — English, Greek, or Hebrew — helps to elucidate for us what a passage of Scripture principally teaches, and then the same humble grammar undergirds our ability to articulate that message to others.

Betsy Howard
Assistant to the President
Bethlehem College & Seminary

Prayer Requests

  1. Pray for our staff and students, most of whom are working, serving, or resting Please pray that they would continue to grow in the joy of the Lord during the summer break.
  2. June 30 marked the end of our fiscal year. We’re thankful for the year the Lord has brought us through and hopeful for the year to come. Pray that as we wrap up the 2013-14 fiscal year tasks we would remember God’s faithfulness to us.
  3. Pray also for the new fiscal year beginning — that God would continue to provide for our needs and allow us to flourish as we seek to fulfill our mission.
  4. Students starting in the seminary or college will be moving to Minneapolis throughout the summer. Keep them in prayer as many of them are looking for housing and uprooting their lives to join us.