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Biblical theology and discourse analysis – Part 4

Posted by on Apr 14, 2009 in biblical theology, discipleship, scripture | 7 comments

In this series, I’m examining how macro-structure analysis (specifically some of the tools of discourse analysis) can be used by the biblical theologian in order to find the themes and categories of Scripture. In previous posts, I’ve examine the relationship between biblical theology and exegesis and the relationship between biblical theology and systematic theology. Also, I’ve looked at the methodologies used by several biblical theologians to determine themes in Scripture. In this post, I introduce discourse analysis and discuss how several aspects of discourse analysis can be helpful to the biblical theologian.


In his discussion of issues related to biblical theology, Carson suggests that one challenge “is the daunting need for exegetes and theologians who will deploy the full range of weapons in the exegetical arsenal, without succumbing to methodological narrowness or faddishness.” (“Current Issues in Biblical Theology,” 34) He says that biblical theologians should utilize every exegetical tool, including grammatical and literary analysis. One set of “weapons in the exegetical arsenal” which may be helpful to biblical theologians are the tools of discourse analysis. As Carson says, these tools do not solve all of the problems encountered when the biblical theologian attempts to determine themes and categories for synthesis, but these tools can offer additional information on the structure and meaning of the passages at hand. Also, the methods and tools of discourse analysis are part of the exegete’s toolbox, to be used along side of morphological, grammatical, and syntactical analysis, as well as textual, literary, and rhetorical criticism.

Discourse analysis refers to “the linguistic analysis of naturally occurring connected spoken or written discourse.” (Michael Stubbs, Discourse Analysis. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983, 1) Guthrie defines discourse analysis as “a process of investigation by which one examines the form and function of all the parts and levels of a written discourse, with the aim of better understanding both the parts and the whole of that discourse.” (“Discourse Analysis,” in Interpreting the New Testament. Ed. David Alan Black and David S. Dockery; Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 2001, 255) Discourse analysis provides tools and methods to assist in the interpretation of discourses, either spoken or written. Since each book of the New Testament is presented as a coherent discourse between an author and his recipients, the linguistic tools of discourse analysis may provide additional information for the interpretation of New Testament texts beyond the information available from traditional micro-level interpretive methods.

The tools and methods of discourse analysis interrelate well with the goals of biblical theology, especially when the biblical theologian seeks themes within the texts, because biblical theology often seeks to analyze the macro-level (sentence level and above) of the text. As mentioned above, the background and interests of the theologian can hinder his objectivity. As Louw says,

All people have their own cultural, political, religious, and psycho-personal convictions. These convictions reinforce each other to impose a set of presuppositions so deeply rooted that we hardly question their validity. Our understanding of a text is thus enlarged beyond the word level by reading a text from preconceived perspectives. Even though people may agree that it is important to be aware of not misled by their subjective opinions, sociological, marxist, capitalist, catholic, calvinist, pentecostal, evangelical, and other orientations do offer a framework for reading a Bible text. Such a reading may be called a secondary reading of a text since it entails semantic reinterpretation of the vocabulary, the discourse structure, and the pragmatics of the text. (“Reading Text as a Discourse,” in Linguistics and New Testament Interpretation. Ed. David Alan Black; Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 1992, 17)

These “secondary readings” often remain undetected. Thus, tools and methods such as those offered by discourse analysis help theologians recognize “secondary readings.” As Louw continues, “Discourse analysis is not a recipe that can be applied to ensure a final reading of a passage, void of any subjective notions. It is rather a demonstration, a displaying or showing, first of all to oneself, how the text is being read, then giving account to others how the text is read and used to eventually come to an understanding of the text. In short, it is revealed reading; it charts the course of the reading process.” (Ibid., 18. This seems very similar to what Köstenberger describes as a “literary-theological reading” of the text.) Thus, analyzing Scripture as a discourse does not remove all subjectivity, but it does provide the theologian with a method of reading and analyzing the text which is one step removed from the theologian’s own background, tradition, and interest.

Discourse analysis depends upon the intrinsic coherence and structure of communication. (Peter Cotterel and Max Turner, Linguistics and Biblical Interpretation. Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1989, 230—31) This coherence and structure begins at the lowest levels of discourse: the phoneme, morpheme, and lexeme. Discourse analysis also depends upon grammar and syntax at the sentence (or colon) level, the paragraph level, the section level, and the level of the whole discourse. While introductory and intermediate grammars usually discuss phonemes, morphemes, lexemes, grammar, and syntax to some extent, few include details of coherence and structure above the sentence level.

Because most scholars study the language of the New Testament between the levels of the phoneme and the sentence, those who utilize the methods of discourse analysis primarily focus on the development of discourse above the sentence or clause level. (Stubbs, Discourse Analysis, 1) By studying the relationships between words and sentences, analysts can describe how the author developed his communication at the level of the paragraph, section, and even the discourse in its entirety. Therefore, the analyst must study the text in relation to the other parts of the discourse.

Louw suggests that discourse analysis begins with the colon. By definition, the colon represents a unit of thought that is characterized by certain grammatical structures, similar to a sentence in English. (Semantics of New Testament Greek. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1982, 95) Primarily, a subject and an independent verb delineate a colon, whether the subject and verb is explicit or implicit. The colon will also include all lexemes that are dependent upon or modify the subject and verb. Colons relate to one another by content and by various grammatical structures at an intermediate level in the discourse. These related colons are called paragraphs. (Robert E. Longacre, The Grammar of Discourse. New York: Plenum Press, 1996, 101) Similarly, paragraphs link together to form sections, which in turn form the entire discourse.

While Louw recommends analyzing a discourse beginning with the colon, or sentence, he also suggests that meaning is found at the paragraph level. He says,

Though the colon is the basic unit employed in discourse analysis, the most relevant unit for explication of the semantic content of a discourse is the paragraph, since it is the largest unit possessing a single unitary semantic scope. The colon, however, is the most convenient starting point for the analysis of a text, since paragraphs are generally too large to handle from the outset. Though the colon is the most tightly structured syntactic unit, the paragraph is rhetorically more significantly structured than the colon, and since any text must be analyzed both from the standpoint of its syntactic as well as its rhetorical form, both the colons and the paragraphs are of fundamental importance. (Semantics of New Testament Greek, 98)

Tuggy agrees that writers and speakers organize their thoughts into paragraphs in order to communicate their meaning. (“Semantic Paragraph Patterns: A Fundamental Communication Concept and Interpretive Tool,” in Linguistics and New Testament Interpretation. Ed. David Alan Black; Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 1992, 45—67) Outside the realm of biblical studies, but within the general field of linguistic analysis, Gee agrees that discourse should be analyzed beginning with the sentence level—which he calls “lines”—and that an author’s meaning is found at the paragraph level—which he calls “stanzas”:

The information embraced within a single line of speech is, of course, most often too small to handle all that the speaker wants to say. It is necessary usually to let several focuses of consciousness (which lines represent) scan a body of information larger than a single focus. This is to say that the speaker has larger chunks than single focuses of consciousness in mind, and that several such focuses may constitute a single unitary larger block of information… I will call such sets of lines devoted to a single topic, event, image, perspective, or theme a stanza. (An Introduction to Discourse Analysis. London: Rutledge, 1999, 108—9)

Thus, we find that speakers and authors general form their themes and categories in paragraphs. By studying the paragraphs of Scripture, the biblical theologian can trace the themes of a book.

Meaning is also found above the paragraph level. Multiple paragraphs combine together to form sections (called units or macro-structures) or entire discourses. Just as sentences form the structure and argumentation for paragraphs, paragraphs form the structure and argument at the section and discourse level. Most exegetes (or commentators, at least) perform this type of analysis when they outline a book or section. As Guthrie says, “[W]hen, in processes of exegesis, we consider ‘literary context,’ for example, we are presupposing that thorough work has already been done on the macro-discourse level. Also, if we attempt to set a unit’s boundaries or outline a passage under consideration, we have engaged aspects of discourse analysis.” (“Discourse Analysis,” 260) The difference, however, is that discourse analysts find semantic information at the section or unit or discourse level, while exegetes sometimes only use their structural analysis as an outline for later exegesis, without considering meaning at the level of the macro-structure. Besides using boundary markers, authors also set apart different macro-structures using overt statements (such as the purpose statements of Luke 1:1—4, John 20:31, Hebrews 13:22, or Jude 3) or changes in content.

Sometimes, however, it is not enough to simply trace the themes found in the paragraphs or macro-structures of a document or discourse. Some sentences are more important than other sentences in a paragraph, and some paragraphs are more important than other paragraphs within a section, and some sections are more important than other sections within an entire discourse. Discourse analysts use the term “prominence” to indicate the relative importance of the sentences, paragraphs, and sections.

Determining prominence at the macro-structure level is important because it helps clarify an author’s focus and meaning. Reed describes prominence as follows:

One way to build thematic structure in discourse is by creating prominence (also known as emphasis, grounding, relevance, salience), i.e. by drawing the listener/reader’s attention to topics and motifs which are important to the speaker/author and by supporting those topics with other less significant material. (“Identifying Theme in the New Testament: Insights from Discourse Analysis,” in Discourse analysis and other topics in Biblical Greek. Ed. Stanley Porter and D.A. Carson; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1995, 75—76)

Since the New Testament was not written with section titles or in outline format, the authors drew their readers’ attention to certain parts of their text using various grammatical and syntactical structures. Each of the grammatical and syntactical structures indicates a choice by the author. These choices represent elements of prominence included by the author for the benefit of his readers. The structures functioned to identify which parts of the text were more significant than other parts of the text.

Other terms often associated with prominence include focus, markedness, grounding, and theme. Westfall suggests that these terms are often used interchangeably, which causes confusion. (A Discourse Analysis of the Letter to the Hebrews. London: T&T Clark, 2005, 31) She suggests that analysts use the terms emphasis and focus to refer to prominence at the level of the colon. Markedness, according to Westfall, should refer to the amount of prominence associated with certain grammatical and linguistic structures such as verbal aspect, mode, tense, and voice. Finally, the grounding categories of background, foreground, and frontground refers to perceptual relationships in the text in relation to the standard pattern of grammar and syntax used by the author using Westfall’s categories.

The various aspects of prominence—focus, emphasis, markedness, grounding—work together to form zones of turbulence within the text. According to Longacre, the author marks a peak in his discourse by using various devices which are uncharacteristic of his normal patterns. (The Grammar of Discourse, 38) As the author stacks these uncharacteristic devices together, they function as zones of turbulence, identifying significant material within the discourse. By identifying these zones of turbulence, the analyst can identify the important material at the level of the colon, paragraph, section, and discourse.

Prominence functions at all levels of a text. However, prominence operates within a certain domain within the text. Thus, a prominent element within a colon may or may not be prominent within the paragraph, section, or discourse. Brown and Yule suggest that determining “relative prominence” helps the interpreter determine how the author “staged” his discourse. (Discourse Analysis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983, 134) As Westfall explains:

The level of prominence for marked clauses or clause complexes must be determined not only by the identification of emphatic indicators, but also by recognizing their scope: the units which serve as their domain of prominence and their function in those units. The domain of a prominent sentence or entity may be determined in part by the cohesive ties and bonds that are formed with the surrounding co-text. Words, phrases or sentences can be prominent at the level of paragraph, section or discourse. (A Discourse Analysis of the Letter to the Hebrews, 35)

Therefore, once the analyst has identified a prominent element, he must also determine the domain of prominence for that element: the phrase, colon, paragraph, section, or discourse level.

At the phrase or clause level, the author primarily indicates prominence by placing a particular phrase or clause in an emphatic location within a colon. For example, an author can emphasize a word or clause by fronting the word or clause, that is, by placing the word or clause before its presupposed position. The fronted text continues to function grammatically and syntactically within a clause or colon. However, since the author has chosen to front the word or clause, it also functions in a more pragmatic role such as indicating topic or theme. (Robert A. Dooley and Stephen H. Levinsohn, Analyzing Discourse. Dallas: Summer Institutes of Language, 2001, 66)

Above the phrase or clause level, other grammatical and syntactical structures indicate prominence between colons. For example, Porter concludes that verbal categories can be ranked with regard to aspect, tense, voice, and mood. (Verbal Aspect in the Greek of the New Testament, with Reference to Tense and Mood. New York: Peter Lang, 1993, 92—93) However, the markedness of the various verbal categories should be compared to the normal verb usage in the discourse, section, and paragraph. Thus, an author could mark a sentence as prominent within a paragraph if the aspect, tense, voice, or mood differs from the characteristic aspect, tense, voice, or mood used by the author within that paragraph or section. By using a different verbal category, the author could create a zone of turbulence that marks one colon as more significant within a paragraph.

Authors group paragraphs into sections that operate as a unit within a discourse. Just as paragraphs allow the author to develop his argument and theme within a section, the section itself allows the author to present his theme or themes across a variety of topics. Authors mark prominent paragraphs within a section using methods which are similar to the methods they would use to mark a prominent colon within a paragraph. Interpreters can identify prominent paragraphs by looking for extended zones of turbulence within the section.

As the first step in biblical theology, and as part of a complete exegesis of a passage, the theologian should analyze a particular text beginning at the sentence level, looking for prominent words or clauses within each sentence. These prominent words or clauses may give a clue to the author’s theme or argument. After analyzing the sentence, the theologian should analyze the paragraph, this time looking for prominent sentences, recognizing that the author may utilize different methods to mark a prominent sentence than the methods he used to mark a prominent word or clause. Finally, the theologian should analyze the paragraphs within a section in order to determine if one or more of the paragraphs are prominent.

Once the theologian has determined the prominent paragraphs, sentences, clauses, and words, he is better able to determine the author’s theme in that section. Plus, he has the added benefit of having a specific method of determining that theme, thereby reducing the likelihood that his own background, tradition, or interests will affect his decision. Also, by analyzing the text at this level, the theologian will be able to determine subthemes and how those subthemes relate to the main theme of the paragraph, section, or entire discourse. These subthemes may be synthesized with similar themes in other passages of Scripture, but the theologian should always keep in mind the greater context which is found in the section or paragraph level of the text.

In the next post in this series, I’ll examine the macro-structure of Romans 12-15 as a case study to demonstrate how the tools of discourse analysis can help the biblical theologian determine the themes of Scripture.


Biblical theology and discourse analysis series
1. Relationship between biblical theology and exegesis
2. Relationship between biblical theology and systematic theology
3. Methods of discovering themes in biblical theology
4. Discourse analysis in biblical theology
5. Case study from Romans 12-15 and conclusion


Comments are closed. If you would like to discuss this post, send an email to alan [at] alanknox [dot] net.

  1. 4-14-2009

    Hi Alan, I have a question for you. I know this may sound rhetorical, but I am totally serious here..

    Discourse analysis sounds all well and good, but is it biblical?

    Or maybe another way to ask it is this.. is it the way the NT church read the NT?

    Your blog is dedicated to the church and post after post is asking us to shed the structures and institutions not present in the NT church.

    So if this is the goal, to be like the NT church, why should we read the NT in a way that was totally foreign to them? Paul certainly never taught this approach, he just wrote some letters, people read them, and then lived together as church. So why should we use an approach to Scripture that is foreign to the NT church?

    Okay, so sorry that sounds confrontational, but I know you think about this kind of stuff and so there is probably no one better to answer a question like this than you brother.

    Thanks for your thoughts my friend.

  2. 4-14-2009

    PS, maybe I should also add that I personally find value in what you are talking about here in understanding Scripture. 🙂

  3. 4-14-2009


    That is a really good question brother. I often struggle with this myself, even with the way we do “expository” verse by verse teaching. There were no verses thus studying the way we do and even memorizing proof texts seem to be foreign to the New Testament. But my thoughts, I look forward to hearing Alan’s answer. Good question bro!

  4. 4-14-2009


    I couldn’t get through the first paragraph. Hopelessly lost before I begin. I know someone has to be the plumber and unplug toilets and fix septic systems. Our homes need those things working for our health and well-being. I appreciate that plumbers do this for us VERY much.

    I appreciate that you wrestle for us with that stuff you wrote about (and I am SO glad I don’t have to be the one to put on the waders and rubber gloves).

  5. 4-14-2009

    The purpose of discourse analysis is to determine the meaning that the author intended. It recognizes that texts were structured in Greek (or whatever language) differently than in English (i.e. no pargraph markers, chapter headings). Thus, using macro-structure analysis, we look for markers in the text itself to show us how the author structured the text. These can included markers within a phrase or sentence (which most exegetes study) or markers at a higher level (paragraph, section, etc.).

    So, if these tools help us determine the author’s meaning, then I think they help us understand Scripture and how the original readers understood it. Certainly, discourse analysis tools are not perfectly objective, but at least they give us a reason for choosing one meaning over another.

    One example would be from 1 Cor 12-14. These three separate chapters in our Bibles seem to be one discourse around the topic of “spiritual gifts”. So, we should understand what Paul is saying in those chapters as being about spiritual gifts (though there could be various sub-topics withing that section). Therefore, the passage about love in 1 Cor 13 is not really about how married people should “love” one another, in spite of many people using it in their wedding ceremonies. (we did, by the way)

    One of the reasons that we have problems understanding anceint texts is that the ancient forms are different from our modern forms. For example, look at the forms of letters. However, even if someone couldn’t write a letter in the 1st century, they probably understood the form. They new the author would announce himself first, then he would tell who the recipients are. Next would be a greeting and prayer, followed the body of the letter. Finally, the author would end with travel plans and further greetings.

    Today, our letters have different forms. But, even someone who is very young, or someone who can’t read or write, can understand the form of a letter.

    Similarly, people today can understand paragraphs and chapter/section divisions. The ancient writers did not use paragraph identation or chapter divisions. Instead, they used other means to mark a change of subject or direction. Similarly, they didn’t underline important or italicize or capitalize important words in a sentence. Instead, they changed the placement of words in a sentence to show what was important. The same process (but different markers) were used for larger parts of the text. Just as we are accustomed to look for paragraph and chapter markings, I think they were accustomed to listening (because they letters were usually read by someone else) to discourse markers.

    So, while these concepts seem foreign to us, that’s only because we are finding markers that we’re not accustomed to using. Certainly, there is always a chance to discovering markers that aren’t really there. Thus, there is always an amount of subjectivity, as with any translation from a foreign work.

    By the way, we all practice “discourse analysis” when we read entire books or large sections of Scripture at one time, that is, when we don’t just read one or two “verses”, but we try to understand the big picture of what the author is trying to say.


  6. 11-22-2012

    I come across your page when investigating on the state-of-the-art of biblical discourse analysis. Your weblog is more than insighful on the matter. Now I know why a systematic discourse analysis, and what it is good for.

    Surely the discourse analysis tools provide good reading means. Furthermore, they provide good translation tools. Of course it is a good thing if translators have a good awareness of the authors intention and style. The intention being the author’s thinking and the style the way the thinking is couched.

    Only a fine-grained and systematic discourse analysis can provide the translator with such a knowledge. Of course, it goes without saying that some diachronic text linguistic knowledge is needed because the notion of textuality has changed. You mentionned the case of the discourse markers. They indeed show how the style of the New Testament letters is closer to spoken language than to nowadays written discourse. So a good translation may take this into account.

    In summary, discourse analysis tools are useful not only for a better reading but also for a good translation. The former being a crucial condition to the latter. Therefore if we want better Bibles, i.e. carefully and accurately translated Bibles, a systematic discourse analysis is needed. And I will end in a question. Can you suggest me some readings on the matter?

  7. 11-26-2012


    Thank you for your comment. There are many good resources for discourse analysis… too many to just name one or two. You could start with the resources that I listed in this post (and in the other posts in this series) and go from there.