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Biblical theology and discourse analysis – Part 5

Posted by on Apr 16, 2009 in biblical theology, discipleship, scripture | 4 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. Next, I introduced discourse analysis and discussed how several aspects of discourse analysis can be helpful to the biblical theologian. In this post, I examine the macro-structure of Romans 12-15 as a case study.


Most commentators agree that Paul divides his letter to the church in Rome at the beginning of Chapter 12. This section begins with the apostle encouraging his readers to live in view of the teaching in the previous chapters. Paul uses cultic religious language (παραστῆσαι, θυσίαν, ἁγίαν, λατρείαν – “to offer”, “sacrifice”, “holy”, “worship/service”) to introduce this section and tο set the tone for the remainder of the letter. As Cranfield explains, “[T]he true worship which God desires embraces the whole of the Christian’s life from day to day. It implies that any cultic worship which is not accompanied by obedience in the ordinary affairs of life must be regarded as false worship.” (C.E.B. Cranfield, The Epistle to the Romans Volume II, in The International Critical Commentary. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1979, 601.) Thus, Paul uses language of cultic worship which would be familiar to both Jewish and Gentile readers, but he uses the language in a new sense.

This cultic language becomes even more important when the reader reaches 15:15—16. In this passage, Paul once again uses cultic religious language (λειτουργὸν, ἱερουργοῦντα, προσφορὰ, ἡγιασμένη – “worship/service”, “serve as priest”, “offering”, “make holy”), but in this case the cultic language refers to Paul himself and his own work. As Peterson says, “In Romans 15:16, Paul again describes his work using transformed worship terminology… Indeed, he is engaged on Christ’s behalf in discharging a ‘priestly’ ministry.” (“Worship,” in New Dictionary of Biblical Theology. Ed. T. Desmond Alexander and Brian S. Rosner; Downers Grove: IVP, 2000, 861) The concentration of priestly and sacrificial language in these two passages (12:1 and 15:15—16) seems intentional, since the only other possible concentration refers to Israel, not to Christians (9:4). Thus, these two passages probably form an inclusio around this section of Scripture (12:1—15:33). The commentators listed above unanimously disagree with this conclusion, choosing instead to limit this section of the letter to 12:1—15:13. However, none of the commentators notice the literary connections between 12:1 and 15:16, indicating a possible structural connection as well. This macro-structure, then, would form a semantic unit, centered on the λατρεία/λειτουργὸς word group (worship/service) which Paul repeats at the beginning and end of the section.

As an example of paragraph analysis, consider the second paragraph of this section, found in 12:3—8. The first colon (sentence) begins with the verb λέγω (I say – 12:3), which gives the following infinitives an imperatival (command) sense. (James D.G. Dunn. Romans 9—16, in Word Biblical Commentary. Word Books: Dallas, 1988, 720) Thus, this colon (sentence) could be divided into two with the two imperatives μὴ ὑπερφρονεῖν (“not to think highly” )and φρονεῖν (“to think”). These two imperatival infinitives (along with the corresponding infinitives in the colon) build prominence. In this colon (or colons), Paul warns his readers about the way they think about themselves. The second colon (ἒχομεν – “we have” – 12:4a) and the third colon (ἒχει – “they have” – 12:4b) combine to form a complementary reason for the first colon. Paul’s readers should not think too highly of themselves because there are many of them and they do not have the same function. (Leon Morris. The Epistle to the Romans. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988, 438-439) The fourth colon (ἐσμεν – “we are” – 12:5—8) repeats Paul’s emphasis of unity among diversity in reverse order, spelling out the means of service through repetition that builds rhetorical prominence (three occurrences of εἴτε – “if” and four substantive participles – “the one teaching”, “the one encouraging”, “the one giving”, “the one showing mercy”).

Considering this paragraph, Paul sets the first colon and the last colon apart through the use of imperatival infinitives (the remaining verbs in this paragraph are present active indicatives) and repetition. Thus, Paul intends his readers to think correctly about themselves (not more highly than they should), and he says that they will demonstrate that they are thinking correctly about themselves by serving in the manner that God has graciously gifted them. By serving in the manner that God has gifted them (not in any other manner), they will also prove Paul’s reasoning: that there are many believers in the church in Rome, and they are all gifted differently, implying that all of their gifts are important.

Placed within the context of the macro-structure, Paul is telling his readers more than to think properly about themselves by serving each other through the grace gifts that God gives them. Since he centers the larger unit on service/worship, their prophecy, service, teaching, exhortation, giving, leading, and acts of mercy are forms of worship to God in the same way that the OT and pagan priests serve by offering sacrifices on altars. Similarly, Paul relates the Roman’s service to one another through their gifts to the manner in which he takes the gospel to the Gentiles: both are expressions of worship (priestly service) to God. When the Romans think rightly about themselves and others, and attempt to serve one another in the manner in which God gifts them (not attempting to serve in another way that may seem more important or valuable), they are worshiping God.

Certainly, the theologian could pull the theme of spiritual gifts out of the passage. However, in order to keep the theme within its context, it should remain in the realm of worship or service performed to God, not simply service to other people. Similarly, an analysis of the remaining paragraphs of Romans 12—15 reveals that Paul teaches the Romans about various ethical and life issues (hospitality, submission to government authorities, etc.). As long as the theologian remembers that Paul gives these instructions with worship as the central theme, he will keep the passages in their context. When the theologian analyzes the various sentences or paragraphs without considering the macro-structure, he is likely to miss the context as well.

Scobie does not mention Romans 12:3—8 in his section on worship, but he does refer to this section under the categories of the Spirit (especially related to “The Gifts of the Spirit”) (The Ways of Our God, 288) and service to one another (especially related to “Ministerial Functions”). (Ibid., 635) Marshall does group Romans 12:3—8 with the following paragraphs of Romans 12—15. However, he places them under the category of ethics (“Living the new life”) instead of worship. (New Testament Theology, 326) Again, it is true that this section of Romans deals with ethical issues, but the macro-structure reveals that these are primarily issues of worship. As the follower of Christ lives “ethically,” she is worshiping God. On the other hand, Peterson includes serving one another through spiritual gifts as a form of worship. He says, “Acceptable worship is the service rendered by those who truly understand the gospel and want to live out its implications in every sphere of life. In common parlance the word ‘service’ is so linked to Christian gatherings that the Bible’s teaching on the whole life as the context in which to offer ‘divine service’ is easily forgotten.” (“Worship,” 861. It is interesting to note that Peterson also recognizes the connection of Romans 15:16 and Paul’s use of “worship” terminology.) Depending on an author’s analysis (or lack of analysis) of the macro-structure of Romans 12—15, he either will or will not include spiritual gifts (and ethical living) as an act of worship to God.


Biblical theology begins in the realm of exegetical analysis. However, the exegesis must include analysis at the macro-structure level in order to determine an author’s theme. Discourse analysis adds tools and methods to traditional exegetical methods which can aid the theologian in interpreting the text above the sentence level. If the exegetical analysis remains at the sentence or even paragraph level, then the likelihood increases that the theologian will miss the biblical author’s main points and themes. Once the biblical theologian has determined the author’s theme by examining the macro-structure of the text, he is better able to organize the sub-themes.

As demonstrated by Scobie and Ladd and the case study from Romans 12—15, interpreters and theologians alike often miss the greater context of a passage. By using the tools and methods of discourse analysis, the theologian can better recognize that context and better organize his information according to the authors’ intentions. Certainly, discourse analysis will not solve all of the problems related to biblical theology. Similarly, discourse analysis will not guarantee that the theologian’s own tradition or interests will not drift into his analysis and synthesis. However, as the theologian analyzes the biblical material, including an analysis of the macro-structure will help him keep the information in biblical categories when he begins the synthesis step.


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. 5-12-2009

    Thanks for these helpful observations, Alan. Knowing what you now know, what would your process be to discover the biblical theology of the subject of the church? If you haven’t already undertaken such a process, do you feel a little more tentative about your understanding of the church until you do undertake it?

    would appreciate your thoughts

  2. 5-12-2009


    When I study the church in Scripture, I try to use the methodology described here. That is, I try to study the passages in context, trying to understand what the author intended and how he organized his information. I think this methodology helps me feel a little less tentative about my understanding of the church.


  3. 5-13-2009

    Thanks Alan. It really makes it a lot of work, doesn’t it, this forming a theology based on patient working with each individual text. It’s so much easier to just read what Grudem or Erickson says!


  4. 5-13-2009


    In some ways, it is alot of work, but in other ways, it’s normal and natural. We’re accustomed to authors dividing their works into chapters and sections, and we read with those divisions in mind. We simply need to read Scripture in a similar way. We my have to try to determine where the divisions are first, but otherwise it’s similar to the way we read books now.