Christlikeness, Grammatically Speaking!

Bible scholars sometimes marginalize matters of importance without thinking through what they have done. Even New Testament Greek grammarians and commentators occasionally lose their way, and in doing so guide others onto the same detour. Daniel Wallace provides a case in point by consigning the Genitive of Description to what appears to have a syntactically vague and limited value for New Testament interpretation. He writes:

“This is the ‘catch-all’ Genitive, the ‘drip pan’ Genitive, the ‘black hole’ of Genitive categories that tries to suck many a Genitive into its grasp! . . . .  Hence, this use of the Genitive should be a last resort. If one cannot find a narrower category to which a Genitive belongs, this is where he or she should look for solace. . . .  The additional categories [of the Genitive] have exegetical value” (Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, p. 79, and footnote 24, italics his).

Some grammar explanations may clarify the issue.  Substantives in English relate to the other elements of a sentence by “case.” English has three cases, subjective (subject of the verb), objective (object of the verb) and possessive (denoting possession). The English Possessive Case correlates most closely to what Greek grammarians classify as the Genitive Case.

When the student of Greek encounters a noun in the Genitive Case not preceded by a preposition the standard translation is to translate the substantive with the preposition “of.” This English preposition is ambiguous because it can refer to numerous concepts only one of which is possession. Translating a Genitive, therefore, requires the student to interpret the New Testament. Every Genitive, the Genitive of Description included, plays a significant role in interpretation.

Philippians 1:8 undermines the attitude that the Genitive of Description carries little if any interpretive weight. The passage reads in the NASB and Greek text like this: “For God is my witness, how I long for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus.” The Genitive of Description is found in the phrase “with the affection of Christ Jesus” (ἐν σπλάγχνοις Χριστοῦ ᾿Ιησο)  and can be retranslated literally, “with the affection characteristic of Christ Jesus.” (see Wallace, Ibid., p. 80)   Paul’s statement can be restructured, “I long for you all with Christ-like affection.” “Affection” describes deep emotions, genuine feelings.  Literally, it refers to one’s viscera, inward parts, entrails; metaphorically, it speaks of the feelings itself, love, affection (Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, 3rd ed., 938). Hawthorne describes Paul’s use of the phrase in Philippians 1:8 as “striking and powerful,” an “astonishing metaphor,” “in the viscera, entrails of Christ Jesus” (Hawthorne, Philippians, 25). F.B. Meyer expressed it this way, “The Apostle had got so near the very of heart of his Lord that he could hear its throb, detect its beat; nay, it seemed as though the tender mercies of Jesus to these Philippians were throbbing in his own heart” (Meyer, The Epistle to the Philippians, 22).

A few simple questions will punctuate the point of this discussion, “How could Paul say that what he feels for the Philippian Christians is characteristic of Christ?” How could he know the nature and depth of Jesus’ emotional state? How can he be so bold as to make such a statement calling upon God to witness to its truth—“For God is my witness, how I long for you all with the affection [characteristic] of Christ Jesus”?

To personalize the issue, again in question format: About whom can a Christian affirm what Paul claimed, and boldly call upon God to witness to its truth? A spouse? A child? Practically, how does a believer achieve this level of Christ-like affection?

To “get inside” another person’s heart, to know for sure how he or she feels, requires extensive relational connections. The only way that this level of knowledge of Christ’s feelings can be gained is through the medium of Bible study and prayer, with prayer probably being the more effective of the two activities to arrive at feeling what Jesus feels. Perhaps Paul’s injunction in 1 Thessalonians 5:17, “Pray without ceasing,” provides part of the answer.

The emotion-packed term, “affection,” coupled to “Christ Jesus” by the Genitive of Description places the concept of discipleship on an almost unreachable plane! Perhaps one could classify Paul’s remark in Philippians 1:8 as hyperbole and summarily dismiss it, but that would be dishonest intellectually and exegetically. This article suggests that the Genitive of Description should not be marginalized as a weak or non-player in the process of Bible interpretation. It demonstrates the exegetical importance of this Genitive category in a manner that makes it an equal partner for interpretation among the other uses of the Greek Genitive Case.

But for the Bible interpreter, grammar serves a nobler purpose than simply making a translation possible. It begs for theological reflection. Although Christians may be inclined to reduce “over the top” statements like Paul’s to something more “reasonable,” it would not be there if the Holy Spirit had not inspired it.  And if the possibility of achieving Christ-like affection exists, it must be a spiritual and attainable goal.  In the case of Philippians 1:8, that goal, grammatically speaking, is to “long for fellow-believers with Christ-like affections.” 

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