Knocking at the Door of Meaning

When Gary told me he had found Jesus, I thought, Yahoo! We’re rich! Then I found out it was something different- Jack Handy

Lately, I have been reflecting on the nature of grammar as it applies to our lives.  When it comes to sentences, I used to just go with my instincts and the complex nature of our compound constructions was often lost on me.  Yet, in my master’s work, I was forced into learning about subjects and objects and prepositions in sentences – things I had previously thought useless.  I have discovered the pleasure of good rhetoric.  Further, I learned the value of syntax in day to day existence.  You see, without syntax, there can be no sentence because the technical definition of a sentence demands that meaning be present within.
It may seem self-evident that meaning is important.  As with sentences, the search for meaning defines humanity.  Human beings are like a sailor in the crow’s nest – we stare unblinkingly into the abyss in search of meaning.  In particular, the generation I work with, those in their twenties, are trying to figure out who they are and what their purpose is.  They are Post-Moderns, the category of persons that has of late been accused of destroying truth along with other absolutes.  Yet the paradox is that this destruction lies in the wake of their ravenous search for meaning.  The previous generation was used to accepting such foundations and find their erosion disconcerting at the least.  The current generation is overly concerned with discovering things for themselves and discussing the relative value, and ambiguous nature of truth.

Yet ambiguity, which is often the substance of a good joke, is frequently used in good writing.  The Bible is a well-written book, whatever your opinion of its content.  Take for example 2 Corinthians 5:14a”The love of Christ urges us on because we are convinced that one has died for all…” The passage goes on to make a convincing case: that if a person believes Christ died for all then we wouldn’t be able to look at the people around us in the same way.  We would see them as people who Christ found worthwhile enough to die for. This change in perspective then, would, if we experienced it, change our behavior, the treatment we offer to the people around us.  The question, which leads us back to the subject of ambiguity, is a classic “what’s my motivation?!”

     The above chart outlines two ways to take the motivating phrase  “love of Christ.” If we take this as a subjective genitive, then, “Christ’s love for” us would be something that propels us forward.  Christ’s love for me is so great that I feel a need to respond appropriately, out of gratitude, to be less self-absorbed. However if we take “love of Christ” as an objective genitive then our “love of Christ” is something that impels us to love others, because we love him.  This works much in the same way I might voluntarily do the dishes- not because I find the experience enjoyable, but because I love my wife and realize that this is a way to express that love.  There is a Greek scholar named Wallace who would say that in this case we don’t have to choose.  While some disagree, he would call this a “plenary genitive,” it does “double duty,” if you will (Biblical Greek Beyond the Basics 118).  The phrase’s ambiguous use in this case implies a mutual relationship.  I might add that this could be called an adjectival use of the genitive, one which describes the type of love, i.e. Christ-like or Christ-ly love, which motivates us.
This is one of many examples where the Bible uses rhetorical ambiguity to allow for greater meaning.  Obviously, an excess of this could eventually obscure any and all meaning, and make communication impossible.  One can not move like a hummingbird from truth to truth without needing a place to call home.  A balance is required between the enjoyment of searching for answers and a willingness to accept that eventually one must make choices or all the possibilities you have collected become meaningless.  Yet, I am grateful for the gift of Post-Moderns, grateful for flexibility and a desire to seek out answers for ourselves, grateful for the search for meaning.  I believe that if we keep knocking, we may indeed get an answer.
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2 thoughts on “Knocking at the Door of Meaning

  1. Wonderful reasoning, Luke. I always assumed the subjective genitive, as you describe it, which, in my performance-oriented mindset, requires my payback, my dutiful owing-it-to-Jesus to love and serve others since He has died for me. But I’m delighted by the idea of a plenary genitive that works both ways. Thanks for posting your insight (and for doing the dishes).

  2. I think your last paragraph touches on the importance of context, especially in the case of the Bible. I have to admit I’ve never thought of the love of Christ in the objective genitive as explained above.

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