Friday, July 24, 2009

Antecedent Assumptions

A pronoun is a word used in place of a noun and that noun is called an antecedent. In Greek, a pronoun generally agrees with its antecedent in gender and number. That is, either masculine, feminine, or neuter in gender and either singular or plural in number. The italicized pronoun that/this in each of the following translations of Philippians 1:28 confirms the need to verify a pronoun’s antecedent instead of assuming it.

And in nothing terrified by your adversaries: which is to them an evident token of perdition, but to you of salvation, and that of God.

without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you. This is a sign to them that they will be destroyed, but that you will be saved—and that by God.

and are in no way intimidated by your opponents. For them this is evidence of their destruction, but of your salvation. And this is God’s doing.

in no way alarmed by your opponents—which is a sign of destruction for them, but of salvation for you, and that too from God.

Each of the above translations is somewhat ambiguous and could lead to the conclusion that salvation is the antecedent for that/this. The demonstrative pronoun in this example is τοῦτο, neuter, singular. The expected antecedent, therefore, would be neuter and singular. It cannot be salvation, a feminine noun, or the term destruction, also a feminine noun. To further complicate the matter, there is no neuter singular noun in the context to serve as the lone antecedent.

The answer to this antecedent question can be found in A.T. Robertson, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research, pages 704 and 729—the antecedent consists in the general ideas of the preceding contrasting clauses. In this case, two concepts are involved: destruction of the adversaries and salvation of the Philippians. Thus theologically, God acts both in destruction and salvation.

Failing to sufficiently analyze a pronoun as to its gender, number and antecedent, limits one’s grasp of the full meaning and theology of the text. A careful Bible interpreter must never make antecedent assumptions without checking all the relevant details. And to press the point of the value of knowing the biblical languages, many of the needed details are “invisible” in the English Bible.