Berkhof on Grammatical Interpretation


Louis Berkhof was a Reformed theologian best known for his Systematic Theology (1932). He taught for almost four decades at Calvin Theological Seminary and served as its president from 1931-1944. In his work on systematic theology Berkhof followed in the line of John Calvin and embraced the development of Reformed theology by the Dutch theologians Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck.

The Interpretation of the Thought

As the Bible is written message, the reader interprets the writing sentence by sentence, understanding each sentence as a whole before looking at ‘particulars’ – ‘specific words and concepts’. The less desirable way to proceed, what Berkhof recommends, is to work from the words to the sentence (bottoms-up), because the Bible is foreign literature.

  1. The Etymology of Words – It is not advisable that interpreters indulge in etymological investigations – this is difficult work to be left to specialists. ‘Moreover, the etymological meaning of a word does not always shed light on its current signification.’
  2. The Current Use of Words
    • Semantic range of meaning of a word over time
    • Significance of how the word is used by Biblical authors

    NOTE: The ‘current’ signification of a word is far more important than its historical uses.

    This is the work of good lexicons, but lexicons are not perfectly reliable, especially when they ‘descend to particulars.’ They ‘merely embody those results of the exegetical labors of various interpreters that commend themselves to the discriminating judgment of the lexicographer…’ We need to be cautious of dogmatic bias [and liberal bias]. The interpreter needs to inductively study of words for himself by use of concordances and ‘internal’ helps.

  3. The Synonymous Use of Words – Synonyms can be used as a literary device to allow an author to vary his expressions or they may be employed to convey different shades of meaning. Understanding synonyms/antonyms is the ‘sina qua non of a discriminating knowledge of Biblical revelation.’ This area of study is fascinating and dangerous. Synonymous words usually have general and ‘distinctive’ meanings. An expositor can create fanciful interpretations by always resorting to distinctive meanings of words. Only context can determine which meaning must be understood. As a general rule, ‘if two or more synonymous words or expressions are found in the same passage, it is generally safe to assume that their special signification requires attention.’

REFERENCES: Patrick Fairbairn, Hermeneutical Manual, pp. 79-106; Milton Terry, Biblical Hermeneutics, pp. 73-100; Richard Trench, New Testament Synonyms.

The Meaning of the Words in their Connection

The most important consideration when looking at the words of a text is the literary context in which they are used. Words have meaning in connection with other words in a sentence, not apart from them.

  1. The Sense of any Expression is Determined by the Words Employed – the sense of scripture is determined by what is says and not by pre-conceived opinions or systems of theology.
  2. A Word Can Only Have One Fixed Meaning in its Context (see NOTE on A above) – Words can have various meanings, but only one meaning is carried in a particular place in scripture and that meaning is the most obvious plain one that fits with the surrounding context.
  3. [Some] Cases in Which a Word Implies Multiple Things (i.e. Peace in Jn 20:21 implies peace with God, peace of conscience, among men, etc)
  4. A Word Used In the Same Connection More than Once Carries Same Meaning Throughout – Ordinarily an author will not use a single word with various meanings within a single passage (obvious exceptions, ‘dead’ in Mt 8:22, ‘Israel’ in Rm 9:6)

Internal Helps

What a word means in a particular passage should be determined by internal helps before consulting external helps (lexicons and commentaries).

  1. Definitions Which Authors Themselves Provide
  2. A subject and Predicate of a Clause Explain Each Other
  3. An Examination of Parallelism May Help (especially with regard to synonyms) – Many times a second parallel clause explains the meaning of the first
  4. Parallel Passages Provide Help – A parallel passage in which a word or phrase is used in a more clear way may help interpret a passage where a word or phrase is used in an unclear way. The clear helps understand the unclear, never the reverse. Also, parallels from the same author take precedence over parallels from a different author – especially from a different time period.

NOTE: A phrase may be repeated in the Bible, but is not a parallel unless a similar sentiment is expressed.
REFERENCES: Milton Terry, Hermeneutical Manual, pp 79-88, 119-128; Patrick Fairbairn, Hermeneutical Manual, pp. 76-106

The Figurative Use of Words

  1. Principal Tropes (Figures of Speech) Used in Scripture
    • Metaphor – something stated to be something else for comparison purposes (“the world is a stage”)
    • Metonymy – a word is used as a figure for something it represents (“to read Calvin” means to read his writing, not him)
    • Synecdoche – a part is put for a whole or a whole is put for a part (“50 noses” means 50 people or referring to people as souls)
  2. How to Determine Whether Figurative or Literal Sense is Meant – Interpreting something literally that is meant figuratively can be disastrous (Jn 4:11,32; 6:52; Mt 16:6-12) – especially “this is my body.”
    • Laws, historical writing, philosophy, scientific works, etc. aim at clearness and not literary quality.
    • ‘Words should be understood in their literal sense unless such interpretation involves a manifest contradiction or absurdity.’ (subjective)
  3. Useful Principles for Interpreting Figurative Language
    • Interpreter must understand the things on which the figures are based – geography, religious practice, history, life and customs
    • Interpreter must understand the principle idea and not focus too much attention on smaller details
    • All figures of God are not perfect and complete – light, rock, tower, fortress, shield

REFERENCES: Milton Terry, Hermeneutical Manual, pp 157-176; Patrick Fairbairn, Hermeneutical Manual, pp. 157-173

Berkhof, Louis, Principles of Biblical Interpretation, pp 87-109. Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, MI, 1952.

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  1. Pingback: Hermeneutics of Baptist Covenant Theology « Abraham's Seed

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