Participles That Elaborate
The first post of this series described how Greek participles can serve as substitutes for nouns, and then for adjectives. Adverbial participles—those functioning as an alternative to main or finite verbs in a clause—bring about different effects depending upon their location in the clause. The adverbial participles that precede the main verb generally convey situational information (see here and here), what grammarians typically label attendant circumstances. From a functional standpoint, these circumstantial participles are backgrounded with respect to the main action. They could have been independent main actions in their own right, but use of a participle represents the writer’s choice not to do that. This choice also prioritizes the participle’s importance vis-a-vis the main verb. This technique keeps the spotlight on one main action instead of potentially dispersing it over several actions. The participles preceding the main verb may also bear little semantic connection to the main action, i.e. they are largely independent. These two traits—backgrounding and independence—form the point of departure for the discussion that follows.
Adverbial participles that follow the main verb typically bear a much closer semantic connection to the main verb, and consequently tend to elaborate on the main action. The close conceptual relationship means the participles expand on what is meant by the main action, offering practical detail about about what it looks like or how one might go about doing it. Consider the usage in Matt 28:19—20 illustrated below from the Lexham Discourse Greek New Testament. The text πορευθέντες in grayscale signifies the backgrounding achieved by using a participle before the main verb. Note that “going” has little relation to “making disciples.”
But look at the semantic relationship between disciple making and baptizing/teaching people to obey. This elaborating function is not a rule but a general principle that holds true in most cases. As with anything, there are exceptions. And instead of backgrounding the action, the participles that follow generally offer illustrative detail of what is meant by the main verb. There is still a prioritizing that occurs, in that disciple making is the overarching umbrella under which baptizing and teaching operate. Had all three been rendered as imperatives Jesus would have been giving us three commands rather than one.
Another great example is found in Phil 2:2—3, where the participles that follow practically illustrate what being likeminded looks like.
All of the actions that follow have a natural thematic connection back to the governing idea of making Paul’s joy complete by being likeminded. It involves positive things like being united in spirit and considering others more important than yourselves. He also lists things to be avoided like doing things out of selfish ambition or empty conceit.
Elaborating participles should not be understood as exhaustively listing what the main action looks like as much as illustrating what it looks like. It is a starting point rather than the finish, as illustrated in Eph 5:18—21:
All of the actions that follow elaborate on what it looks like to be filled by the Spirit.
Applying These Principles in the Pulpit
When I am preaching or teaching, I use rhetorical questions to help people understand the relationship of the elaborating participles to the main action, even if the translation we are using translates the participles as though they were main or finite verbs. Questions like “What does this practically look like?” or “Like what?” can serve as a bridge without needing to go into detail about grammar or discourse principles.
Another implication of the main verb versus participle distinction is the structuring of my outline. I need to make sure that the main/finite verbs are my points and that the participles are sub-points nested underneath them. The writer’s grammatical prioritization of the action must be respected as much as possible. If Paul or Matthew had wanted to place the actions on an equal status, each could have reflected that intention in the kind of verb chosen. The choice not to use a finite verb thus has exegetical and homiletical implications.
If you enjoyed today’s post, like and share it with your fellow grammarians. Get into the classroom with Dr. Runge with his Mobile Ed courses, LA 211: Introducing New Testament Discourse Grammar and NT 346 Exegetical Study: Paul’s Letter to the Philippians. Don’t forget to check back each week for the next installment of HiDef Mondays.