Plenary Genitives

The title of this post probably doesn’t promise a whole lot of excitement.  You might even be a seminary student looking up plenary genitives for your first year Greek class and have just realized that you’ve stumbled upon a site that isn’t going to offer the help you had hoped for (well, maybe it will; I hope you’ll read on and give it a chance).  At any rate, stay with me for a few minutes and I hope you will be encouraged, as well as enlightened.

At the beginning of 2 Thessalonians 3, Paul appeals for prayer for him and his partners in ministry.  He doesn’t only ask for prayer, but he offers prayer in vv 4-5, culminating with this benediction of sorts: “May the Lord direct your hearts to the love of God and to the steadfastness of Christ” (v 5, ESV).  First, let’s consider what the verse means (especially by studying the two key phrases) and then we’ll consider how it speaks to us today.

Paul prays that the Lord will direct their (and our) hearts.  The question is, direct them to what?  Paul says, “to the love of God” and “to the steadfastness of Christ.”  In Greek, these are called genitive phrases.  The preposition “of” is the standard way to express the genitive case in Greek.  However, “of” is rather vague.  In a way, this is a safer, more responsible translation, because it allows the reader to interpret the phrase for themselves.  On the other hand, it isn’t helpful in giving any indication of the more probably ways that the author intended the phrase to be understood.

Maybe an example will help.  If I blessed you by saying, “May the love of God fill your heart” what do I mean?  This could be taken at least two ways: 1) a wish that God’s love for you would fill your heart, or 2) a wish that your heart would be full of love for God.  The genitive phrase (love of God) can be interpreted various ways (in this case, the first option is a subjective genitive—God is the subject of the action), and the second is an objective genitive (God is the object of the action).

So back to 2 Thess. 3:5, what do we make of the two genitives: “to the love of God” and “to the steadfastness of Christ”?  In interpret these as plenary genitives, that is, they carry both subjective and objective senses.  We could translate thus: “Now may the Lord direct your hearts to the God’s love for you that you may increasingly love him, and to Christ’s steadfast resolve that you may stand steadfast in him.”  In this translation, the subjective nuance leads to the objective.  In other words, it is what God does for us that invites our response to him.  He first loved us, and so we love him.  We endured suffering for us, and so we endure it for him.

Okay, now that we’re done with the more technical nature of this essay, let’s consider the spiritual significance.  Remember, this verse is a prayer, a blessing upon the church.  Paul prays that the Lord (Jesus) would direct their hearts to the love of God and the steadfastness of Christ.  If we look to Jesus, we can see the ways that he continually leads us to be nourished by God’s love and to live in that love by sharing it with others.  And as we look to Jesus, we can see the ways that his own example of patient endurance continually guides us to remain steadfast during trials.  He is constantly directing us towards these things.  The question is: are you paying attention?  And, are you surrendering yourself to the guidance of the Lord?

May the Lord direct you hearts to God’s love for you that you may increasingly love him by loving others, and to Christ’s steadfast resolve, that you may stand steadfast through suffering in him.

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3 thoughts on “Plenary Genitives

  1. Very good. Appreciate it. With knowledge comes understanding and with the H.S’s help it can be applied to our life. “Those that hunger and thirst after righteousness shall be filled.”

  2. I was thinking of another verse with plenary genitives (I think) “faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Does it need further interpretation? Like, their meaning of substance and things not seen? thanks.

    • This verse in Hebrews is a tough one to translate and my ability is admittedly limited here. These aren’t true genitive phrases, but are something quite similar. I like the way N.T. Wright renders it in “The Kingdom New Testament”: “What then in faith? It is what gives assurance to our hopes; it is what gives us conviction about things we can’t see” (Heb. 11:1).

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