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Of What?

by Tim O'Hearn

Grammar is rarely a popular subject. One of the requirements for studying another language is often a basic understanding of your own. Some colleges make English grammar, for instance, a prerequisite course for biblical Greek or Hebrew. One of the most confusing aspects of the grammar of most languages is the use of the genitive case. In English it is often indicated by “of xxx,” but in the possessive form may be simply the addition of “’s” to a noun (ex: Paul’s). The confusion comes because there are multiple uses of the genitive. When we read, “through this man is preached unto you the forgiveness of sins,” (Acts 13:38) we have to make a distinction whether “of sins” is a genitive of source (forgiveness as a result of sins) or of object (forgiveness that acts upon sin). Context and general theology point toward the latter. Otherwise we could say that we should sin more so that we can get more forgiveness. Paul dealt with some in Rome of that persuasion, saying, “What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound? God forbid.” (Rom 6:1-2)

Because of this possibility of confusion, perhaps it would be proper to begin with an analysis of the genitive The breastplate of Righteousness is not possessive, being figurative. case. It may be “boring grammar,” but it will help in our understanding of the Bible, and especially of the Bible in English.

The most common use of the genitive is probably that of possession. Examples would be “Paul’s letters” or “the church of God.” If that were the end of it, life would be simple; but it isn’t. Grammarian’s even distinguish between inalienable possession (something that can’t change hands, like Peter’s nose), alienable possession (something that can change possessor, like the belt of Agabus), and possession of relationship (Timothy’s wife). There is a genitive of origin (citizens of Rome), and of apposition (further explanation, such as the city of Rome, not to be confused with the citizens of Rome), and a descriptive genitive (a God of love). Another group are the genitives of composition: substance (a belt of leather), elements (a group of elders), and source (the tribes of Israel). Finally, there are also the genitives of participation, either as an agent (the love of God, as his love for us) or an object (the love of God, as our love for Him).

With that as a background we can look at some passages to get a better understanding of what is meant. Understanding that the context determines which genitive is intended, as in the last examples above, an analysis of certain scriptures may help us know the intent of the writer.

Ephesians 6

One passage in Ephesians is sometimes misunderstood because of a fundamental mistrust of grammar. It is the passage about the whole armor of God.

Wherefore take unto you the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. Stand therefore, having your loins girt about with truth, and having on the breastplate of righteousness; And your feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace; Above all, taking the shield of faith, wherewith ye shall be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. (Eph 6:13-17)

It is easy enough to determine that the “armour of God” (and the earlier phrase “wiles of the devil”) refers to the source. The armor comes from God. The devil is the source of wiliness, although you could also say that it is a genitive of inalienable possession; the devil possesses wiles that are an essential part of his nature. Some of the other phrases are equally easily understood.

The breastplate of righteousness is generally accepted as descriptive. The breastplate does not possess righteousness because it is a figurative item. It does not have its source in righteousness, nor is it a participant in righteousness. It may be appositive (explanatory), so that it could be rendered, “put on the breastplate (righteousness).” Whether descriptive of explanatory, it is understood that the breastplate is righteousness itself. The same could be said of the shield of faith and the helmet of salvation. It could also be said of the preparation of the gospel, but that phrase adds another complication. It is the preparation which is the gospel, but that gospel is source of peace.

The problem of interpretation comes with the last of the genitives, “the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God.” There is a ministry called Sharpening the Sword that helps people learn the Bible. Unfortunately, their name violates their purpose. People talk of carrying their sword, referring to carrying the Bible. In the context of Ephesians 6, however, those phrases may be either inaccurate or, at least, inexact. Paul is using a rhetorical device here in which he uses the same type of phrase over and over for emphasis. “Breastplate of righteousness;” “shield of faith;” “helmet of salvation;” “sword of the Spirit.” It would make sense, then to understand that the sword and the Spirit are equal, but many people make the sword and the Word equal. In the context, the sword is the Spirit. Grammatically (in Greek and English) the Spirit is the Word of God. In the Greek, the word “which” is of the same gender as the Spirit, but not that of the sword. In English, the word “which” would refer to its immediate antecedent, which is the Spirit. So it should be rendered, “the sword of the Spirit, which Spirit is the Word of God.” Indirectly, then, the sword may be the Word, but the Word is not necessarily the sword.

What difference does it make whether the sword or the Spirit is the word? In this context, probably very little; but in the broader context it effects our understanding of the action and person of the Holy Spirit (assuming this is the Spirit being talked about). Is the Spirit’s sword the word, or is the Spirit the word? Can the Holy Spirit act independently of the word of God, or does the Spirit act through the word? Does God save people by giving them the Holy Spirit miraculously, or is Paul correct in saying, “how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher?” (Rom 10:14) Ultimately it affects the doctrines of salvation, immersion, and grace.

The Gift of the Spirit

Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost. (Acts 2:38)

What is the gift of the Spirit? Is it the same as the gifts of the Spirit in 1 Corinthians 12-14? How you interpret the genitive in Acts 2:38 directly effects your theology regarding the charismatic.

Basically the question boils down to this: is the gift that results from immersion the Holy Spirit itself, or is it the miraculous powers that have as their source the Holy Spirit? For about 200 years now this has been the essential distinction between “mainstream” Christianity and Pentecostalism. How can we know which is Peter’s meaning on Pentecost?

The scriptures can give us an idea of how to interpret this. If it can be shown that everyone who was immersed (baptized) immediately received the miraculous gifts, then the charismatics are correct. If it can be shown that some people did not receive the miraculous gifts, then it must mean that the Holy Spirit is the gift, independent of the miraculous gifts.

In Acts 8 we read of a group of people in Samaria who were immersed. They all marveled at Philip’s ability to perform miracles. It wasn’t until the apostles came from Jerusalem and laid hands on them, though, that they were able to perform the miracles themselves. It appears that the miraculous gifts had to be conferred in a special way (no longer available to us) rather than being automatic upon immersion.

Going further in the book of Acts (chapter 19), we find that Apollos immersed twelve people. It wasn’t until Paul laid hands on them that they received the miraculous powers.

From these two examples we can infer that the gift “of the Holy Spirit” uses the genitive of substance. The gift was the Holy Spirit, not the powers that had the Spirit as their source.

The Angel of God

There are many references to angels. There are even two references to the devil and his angels. (Matt 25 and Rev 12) There are six references to “the Angel of God.” Based on the look at possible genitives above, there are several ways that we could view this phrase. It could be an angel from God. It could be an angel that is God. It could be an angel in a relationship to God (asIs the gift of the Spirit the same as the gifts of the Spirit? opposed, perhaps, to “the devil and his angels”). While it may not be of essential theological significance, there are some passages that might indicate that “the Angel of God” is God himself.

First of all, the phrase refers to an angel in the singular, not angels in the plural. More specifically, it is “the” angel, implying uniqueness. There are two angels specifically named in the Bible (Gabriel and Michael), and several others that people refer to by names not specifically given in the Bible (Raphael, and possibly Uriel). Because there are at least two of these named angels, they cannot be “the” angel of God. Because Michael is the only one given the title Archangel, the phrase could conceivably be applied to him.

Among the six references to “the Angel of God,” two specifically equate this angel with God. Jacob said, "The angel of God spake unto me in a dream.” (Gen 31:11) Two verses later he quotes the angel as saying, “I am the God of Bethel,” thus making the angel to be God. When Paul was on the ship bound for Rome he tells the sailors, “there stood by me this night the angel of God, whose I am, and whom I serve,” who related that he must go to Rome. One possibility is that he is saying he serves the angel of God (thus making him God), but the context could also imply that the angel came from “God, whom I serve.” Does it make a difference in our understanding of God? Probably not.

Grammar, spelling and punctuation are important (although the Greek had no punctuation). Sometimes it can be the difference between “Let’s eat, Grandma” and “Let’s eat Grandma.” Or the distinctions made above.