Restoration Quarterly Vol. 1 No. 1 (1957): 35-40


Exegetical Helps: The Genitive With Nouns of Action

J. W. Roberts

A common phenomenon in many languages is the use of the possessive or genitive ease with a noun implying action, where the possessive noun expresses either the one originating (subjective) or the one receiving (objective) the action implied in the noun. Thus the phrase "the love of God" may imply the proposition (1) "God (subject) loves man," or (2) "Man loves God" (object). If the expression "of God" means the’ former it is called subjective genitive; if the latter, it is coiled objective genitive.1

This construction and urged a special treatment of the subject. The objective genitive especially comes in for much discussion in the grammars and must often be translated by a paraphrase in the English to bring out the idea in the original. Few grammatical usages are more productive for the eager student of the New Covenant than these which are proposed for study in this paper. The meaning of many passages turns upon the decision as to whether the genitive is objective or subjective; actual differences in translations frequently occur because one translator decides that the context (which is the chief ground of decision) favors one point of view while another will take the opposite viewpoint. This writer has noted in teaching beginning Greek that many students have difficulty in comprehending the idea involved. Once learned the distinction is clear and it S a rewarding experience to trace the construction through the different Biblical writers.

It should be noted in the beginning that the noun on which the genitive depends is a noun of action, that is, it is a noun which implies a verbal idea’ of doing, whatever is contained in the word. Such nouns as "work," "love," "fear," or "preaching" are good examples and, of course, imply the verbs corresponding to them. When John said (20:9), "the doors were shut where the disciples were on account of the fear of the Jews" he affirms that someone was afraid and that that fear had caused ‘the doors to be shut. The questions of exegesis arise: "Who was afraid?" and "Who was feared?" Two possibilities are present: either (1) the Jews were afraid of the disciples and had shut the door to the place where they were gathered because of this fear, in which case the words in the genitive ("of the Jews") is subjective, or (2) the disciples were afraid of the Jews and so had shut the doors in view of their safety, in which case the words "of the Jews" are objective. In one interpretation the Jews were the subject of (the ones doing) the fearing; in the other they are the ones being feared. It is obvious in the context that the genitive is objective: the disciples shut the door because they were afraid of the Jews. Compare John 7:13, "Now no one spoke openly about him on account of the fear of the Jews."

A few examples of each type which seem unquestionable will help to illustrate both the wealth of expression and the ideas inherent in these constructions.

The Subjective Genitive

The subjective genitive differs little from the possessive. Indeed Moule says3 that it "merges indistinguishably into the possessive genitive." In 1 John 2:16 he epithuinia tes sarkos "the lust of the flesh" the genitive is subjective being equal to the words he sarks eipthumnei "the flesh lusteth" (Gal. 5:17). In 1 Tim. 4:1 the expression "teachings of demons" undoubtedly is subjective meaning the teaching originated by demons and not (objective) the teachings about demons. So Easton interprets, "Deluded men would not only give heed to perverted doctrines, but would listen credulously to the utterances of prophets inspired by evil spirits" (1 Cor. 12:3; 1 John 4:1-3).4 The term "the righteousness of faith" (Rom. 4:13) is further explained by Paul as he ek pisteos dikaiosune "the out-of-faith righteousness" (Rom. 9:30) and again "the righteousness which is through faith" (Phil. 3:9) and is probably subjective. In Romans 1:17 "a righteousness of God," according to Robertson,5 is "the righteousness which God has and wishes to bestow on us (through the gospel)." Bauer defines it in these passages as the righteousness bestowed by God.6 "The obedience of one" (Rom. 5:19; i.e., of Christ) is subjective (compare Heb. 5:8), as is the "obedience of you all" (2 Cor. 7:15; 10:6; Phile. 21), the "obedience of the nations" (Rom. 15:18).

The preacher who is looking for an idea for a sermon may find it in Paul’s three subjective genitives in 1 Thess. 1:3, "the work of faith," "the labor of love," and "the patience of hope." Here we have as Blass-Debruner observes "the enduring or patient hope" beside the "acting faith" (Cf. Rom. 5:6) and the "labouring love." One of my teachers used to say: "Faith energizes; love motivates, and hope stabilizes."

One might consider also: "dangers of rivers" and "dangers of robbers" (2 Cor. 11:26); "comforts of scriptures" (Rom. 15:4); "hope of the Gospel" (Col. 1:23). If one has trouble in understanding the "preaching of Christ" (Rom. 16:25) which is cited by the grammars as subjective, he should remember that "preaching" here is a noun (kerugma) which refers to the substance as distinct from the act which would be expressed by keruksis.7 Abbott-Smith takes this passage as objective, however. "The preaching of me" (1 Cor. 2:4) and "of us" (Ibid. 15:14) are certainly subjective.

The Objective Genitive

The objective genitive is much more unique and requires careful exegesis. Let us consider some of the more obvious examples: In Matt. 12:31 "the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit" is obviously objective, as the Holy Spirit is the object of blasphemy by the enemies of Jesus. "A good deed of an impotent man" (Acts 4:9) is correctly translated as objective: "a good deed done (by Peter and John) to an impotent man." "Taking wages for the ministry of you" is rightly interpreted: "taking wages that I might minister unto you" (2 Cor. 11:8). Such expressions as "authority of all flesh" (John 17:2), "authority of unclean spirits" (Matt. 10:1) and "the authority of you" (1 Cor. 9:12), are correctly understood as meaning authority over these things. He was "in the prayer of God" means "prayer to God" (Luke 6:12). "Fear of God" (Rom. 3:18), "Fear of the Lord" (2 Cor. 5:11) and "in the fear of Christ," (Eph. 5:21) all express the object of fear, not the subject. "Teachings of baptisms" (Heb. 6:2) means "teachings about baptisms." In 1 Cor. 8:7 "to eat in the conscience of the idol" means to eat in the consciousness of the idol’s existence. With this compare 1 Pet. 2:19 "through conscience of God"; i.e., "a conscience toward God." The "reproach of Christ" (Heb. 11:26) is that heaped upon Christ; while the "zeal of God" (Rom. 10:2) is zeal for or toward God.

How To Translate

It will be observed that the translation of many of the above phrases is quite unlike the simple genitive or possessive idea. The change of construction is often necessary to bring out the objective idea. Blass-Debrunner observes that many times the objective genitive stands beside a transitive verb and its object. They cite such parallels as: Rom. 10:2 "a zeal of God" beside Zeloun tina "to be zealous of something" (Gal. 4:17); compare 2 Cor. 11:2. 1 Cor. 1:6 "the testimony of Christ" stands over against "testifying Jesus to be the Christ" (Acts 18:5). Various expressions utilizing the expression "the gospel of," e.g., the gospel "of the kingdom" (Matt. 4:23) may be compared with "evangelizing the kingdom" (Luke 8:1) or preaching Christ Jesus (Acts 5:42).

Again the genitive has the appearance of the Greek dative case: Rom. 3:22 "faith of Jesus" is equal to "believing in Jesus Christ"; compare "faith eis" (Acts 20:21) and "believing in (en) Christ" (1 Tim. 3:13). In those places where the "obedience" is followed by an objective genitive ("the obedience of Christ," 2 Cor. 10:5; "the obedience of truth," 1 Pet. 1:22) one might compare "they were becoming obedient to the faith" (Acts 6:7), where the noun is in the dative.

Moule8 notes that in English we tend to use the inflectional genitive for the subjective idea (e.g., "Mankind’s thoughts — The thoughts which mankind thinks") and to reserve the "prepositional" genitive for the objective (e.g. "thoughts of mankind" — the thoughts in which we ponder mankind.) This distinction is not invariable though.

On the ambiguity of some of these genitives Buttmann once remarked

that exegetes, especially where dogmatic interests come in, differ very much in interpreting a Genitive, whether as subjective or objective; and yet the settlement of the matter is properly left to them, because grammar, from its point of view, must concede in most cases the possibility of both opinions; Cf. Winer 186 (175). As the subject, however, is one of weighty importance for the understanding of Scriptures, and the decision in all disputed cases necessarily presumes thorough investigation of the usage of individual writers, exposition of the internal connection in every passage, comparison of parallel expressions, and the like, it well deserves a separate and systematic treatment of its own.9

Thus it is seen that it is often difficult to determine which idea the writer means to express. As has been said, only the context can determine which point of view is intended. Doctrinal prejudice may, as Buttmann observed, affect the viewpoint of the interpreter. Buttmann’s suggestion that experience in working with an author’s idiom is well taken; that comparison of similar phrases in works of similar nature is invaluable has been demonstrated above. Still the commentators and translators differ widely in some places. This is because in some cases the construction represents real amphibologia. expressions capable of double meanings.


Recently a question was sent this writer in which he was asked which translation was according to the Greek of 2 Tim. 1:12. This verse says, "I am persuaded that he is able to keep what I have committed unto him against that day" in the King James and American Standard Edition of the Revised Version. In the new Revised Standard Version the verse reads, "He is able to keep what he has committed to me against that day." I replied that the Greek says neither; it merely says "he is able to keep the commitment of me against that day." The different translations reflect the decisions of the translators as to whether the genitive is subjective or objective. The weight of opinion among the commentators favors the objective ("what he has committed unto me") interpretation. So Simpson,10 Easton, Gealy,11 and Lenski.

The genitives with the word agape "love" have been much discussed. It is generally conceded that they are usually subjective. Abbott has a lengthy discussion on the question and concludes that there are only two passages in the N. T. where the construction is objective. These are 2 Thess. 2:10 "the love of the truth" and Luke 11:42 "ye neglect the love of God." He regards all others as subjective, especially "love of God" and "of Christ."12 Robertson thinks John 5:42 "Ye do not have the love of God in yourselves" will make equally good sense taken either way, but cites Rom. 5:5 as a possible parallel where the love of God is said to have been shed out into our hearts, a subjective idea.13 Moule thinks that 2 Cor. 5:14 "The love of Christ constrains us" may well be taken as objective.14 On this verse the commentators differ widely.

Another difficult problem is the "worship of angels" in Col. 2:18. This is usually taken to mean that the leaders of the rising cult of gnosticism taught that angels were to be reverenced or worshipped. Winer-Moulton say that the objective is preferable and cite mentions of angel worship from Eusebius (H. E. 6:41) and Philo. (11:259) as well as the comparable he tou theou latreia from Plato (Apol. 232). Lenski takes an opposite view. He questions the historicity of worship paid to good angels by the Judaizers. He contends that en tapeinophrosune kai thraskeia, "with lowliness and worship," since they have only one preposition, are to be taken together. He thinks Paul means that "the angel’s lowliness with which they bring worship to God" had been set by the Judaizers as the standard for the worship of Christians and that in this way they threatened to rob the Christians of their rightful prize or crown.15

The phrase "fellowship of the Holy Spirit" in the doxology of Paul (2 Cor. 13:13) has been much discussed. Plummer in the Cambridge Greek Testament says that all three genitives in the passage make, good sense as subjectives. The fellowship of the Holy Spirit would then be "the true sense of membership which the One Spirit gives to the One Body" (quoting J. A. Robinson in Hastings DB. 1. p.460). Plummer also thinks that this interpretation is the best sense in some cases. Phil. 2:1 in the subjective sense would mean "If there be any Spirit-given sense of fellowship." The objective interpretation (preferred by Lightfootl6) would mean "if there is any communion with the Spirit." Lightfoot is quite confident of the objective genitive in Philemon 6.

While the phrase "gospel of someone" has already been shown to be subjective in such phrases as "my gospel" and "our gospel," it is not always subjective. "The gospel of God" is debatable (Rom. 1:3) although ‘’concerning his son’‘ in the following verse favors the subjective idea. The "gospel of Jesus Christ" (Mark 1:1) certainly is the good news about Jesus Christ.17 The phrase "gospel of the circumcision" (Gal. 2:7) is equivalent to "among" or "to" the circumcision and is similar to euangelizesthai tina "to preach the gospel to someone." Meyer says the genitive with the word gospel is always objective when it does not denote a person.

The list of passages for possible discussion is practically endless. Enough has been cited to illustrate the scope and difficulty of the problem involved in this construction and to indicate the means at our disposal in interpreting it.

Students who wish to pursue the matter further may consider the following among the many illustrations of this construction which will be found in his N. T.:

"Have faith of God" (Mark 11:22); "these things are types of us" (1 Cor. 10:6); "the sign of Jonah" (Luke 11:29); "looking for the consolation of Israel" (Luke 2:25); "the zeal of the house" (John 2:17; "the word of the cross" (1 Cor. 1:18); "patience of good work" (Rom. 2:7); "resurrection of life" (John 5:29); "the peace of God" Phil. 4:7); "the removal of Babylon" (Matt. 1:11f); "the shadow of turning" (Jas. 1:17); "faith of truth" (2 Thess. 2:13); "the proof of you" (2 Cor. 2:9); "the promise of life" (1 Tim. 4:8); "ransoming of transgressions" (Heb. 9:15) and "purification of sins" (Heb. 1:3).



1 Abbott, Edwin A., Johannine Grammar (London: Adams and Charles Black, 1906) p.84.

Buttmann2 long ago called attention to the difficulty involved in

2 Buttmann, Alexander, Grammar of the Greek New Testament (Andover: Warren F. Draper, 1891). pp. 154f.

3 Moule, C. F. D., An Idiom Book of New Testament Greek (Cambridge: University Press, 1953) p.40.

4 Easton, Burton Scott, The Pastoral Epistles (New York: Chas. Scribner’s Sons, 1947).

5 Robertson, A. T., A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research (Nashville: Boardman, 1934), p.499.

6 Bauer, Walter, Woerterbuch zum Neuen Testament, (Berlin: Alfred Toepelmann, 1952).

7 Abbott-Smith. G.. A Manual Greek Lexicon of the New Testament (Edinburgh, T. S. T. Clark, 1937).

8 Moule, Ibid., p.40.

9 Buttmann, Ibid., p. 154f.

10 Simpson, B. K., The Pastoral Epistles (Cambridge: University Press, 1954).

11 Gealy, Fred D., Interpreter’s Bible (New York: Abingdon Press, 1955) Vol. XI.

12 Abbott, Edwin A., op. cit., pp.84-89.

13 Robertson, A. T., op. cit.

of Christ constrains us" may well be taken as objective.14 On this

14 Moule, C. F. D., op. cit., p.41.

15 Lenski, R. C. H., The Interpretation of St. Paul’s Epistles to the Colossians, to the Thessalonians, to Timothy, to Titus and to Philemon. (Columbus: Wartburg Press, 1946).

16 Lightfoot, J. B., Epistles of St. Paul, Colossians and Philemon (New York: MacMillan, 1892).

17 Robertson, A. T., Word Pictures (New York: Harpers, 1930).

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