An Interview with Dr. Steve Runge

This is the complete interview conducted with Dr. Steve Runge about discourse grammar and his High Definition Romans Commentary.

Dr. Runge, tell us a little bit about your journey to scholarship and specifically discourse grammar.

I started seminary a few years after coming to faith in Christ, wanting to learn how to study and teach the Bible more effectively. I had some excellent language and exegesis profs, but saw that languages were in a steady state of decline. Despite all the talk about how important languages were, few scholars I met could offer a very compelling case for the practical payoff for the average pastor. A two month mission trip to Ethiopia in 1993 really solidified what turned into “a holy discontent” like Bill Hybels describes. Frankly, it just pissed me off to see the decline, so I made it may mission in life to do practical things that demonstrated the practical payoff of language study for ministry. My inner framing contractor overshadowed my inner scholar.

What led to the idea of your grammar, the Lexham Discourse Bibles, and now the High Definition commentaries?

When I first began reading my way into linguistic approaches to biblical languages, it was terribly difficult. I felt like I was looking into this wonderful convention center full of amazing things, but all the doors were locked. Part of my discontent consequently focused on making it easier for others to come behind. The Lexham Discourse Greek and Hebrew bibles stemmed from my experience teaching. I found it terribly difficult to train students to master that level of analysis, yet even introductory students could interact meaningfully with a marked-up text. Stephen Levinsohn had come to the same conclusion in his work training Bible translators. So when I pitched the idea to Logos, they agreed to fund me for two years, and Levinsohn agreed to consult. Once the GNT project was completed, I felt something like Doctor McCoy in the “Star Trek: the Search for Spock.” I had the grammar in my head as a result of analyzing the entire Greek New Testament. I desperately wanted to get it out and on paper while it was fresh. I was given 100 calendar days by Logos to write the book, and I hit the deadline with a draft by Labor Day 2008.

Runge Books

The High Definition commentaries stemmed from a personal challenge from Bob Pritchett, CEO of Faithlife/Logos Bible Software. He said if discourse studies is so useful, then prove it: write a commentary that offers a rigorous analysis of the text, but that doesn’t require any background in Greek. Oh, and include graphics to help pastors and their congregation better conceptualize the text.[1] He sketched these ideas on a napkin and then left my office. I came back a month later with some ideas, we thrashed on them, then put it up for Logos customers to pre-order.[2] We ended up getting all the orders we needed to fund the project in about 8 hours. The Philippians volume was well received, so I decided to tackle on of the hardest ones next: Romans. It really turned out to be hard, and family crises added to the length of the production process.

See all Runge’s work at Logos here.

Some people may be thinking do we really need another commentary on Romans? What makes your commentary unique to the field and what benefit is it to both pastors and scholars?

The primary goal of this commentary is to help you trace the flow of the writer’s argument, and to understand the various devices he used to pull this off. You will not find much if any discussion about backgrounds, authorship, or theology, as there are great resources available already. What I felt was missing was a text-based commentary that didn’t get bogged down in the detail, but could walk you through a tour of the text so that you could go and do the same for others. Whether I succeed or not is something different, but this was my goal.

How long did you work on this Romans commentary?

The book was in process for three years, but I did not work on it consistently during that time. Other projects and the needs of my folks kept me away more than I wanted, and I also learned some important lessons about how NOT to write a longer book. ‘Nuf said.

How does discourse grammar allow you to both zoom in to understand the particulars of a passage while maintaining the overall picture of the book?

I’ve heard complaints from some that what I do isn’t really “discourse” anything because I don’t go above the sentence level. Hmm. Whatever you call my approach, identifying lower level features is not the end of the game, but just the beginning. The theoretical model I follow, based on the work on cognitive comprehension of reading by Walter Kintsch, views reading as an iterative process rather than bottom-up or top-down. So as I analyze lower-level features, these necessarily inform the next level of analysis as I move up the text. But after I have analyzed smaller units into higher-level structures, my approach demands that I corroborate my findings by reconciling them with the lower-level features. This lead to the the kind of conundrum presented by bibles making a major break at Romans 8:1.

The problem? All the linguistic markers point to the major break being at 7:25b with ἄρα οὖν. This data forced me to rethink the relationship between 7:14 ff. and Romans 8. So although I may not be doing what some think discourse analysis demands, I never claimed that I was doing that. But I am certainly moving in that direction, as the HDC Romans volume will demonstrate. Discourse grammar was a necessary precursor to master lower-level features, setting the stage to move from discourse grammar to discourse analysis. Look for more on the latter in 2015.

One of the more controversial passages in Romans is 7:14–25. The major question is whether Paul is speaking of his pre-Christian self or himself as a Christian. How specifically does discourse grammar shed light on your interpretation?

The conundrum I hit at viewing 7:25b as the beginning of the talk about the Spirit necessarily impacted my reading of 7:14–25. I’m not going to spoil it, but I believe we have been asking the wrong questions about this passage, especially if it is without carefully considering the connection to 8. Paul has dealt with the penalty of sin, but not with the ongoing problem of sin in the flesh that we all face until our bodies are finally redeemed (8:23). Paul is well aware that we will need to contend with sin until either our death or Christ’s return. 7:14–25 describes the universal struggle all of us contend with until the final redemption. The devil is our adversary, but the desires of our flesh are an even more present one, as he makes clear. The solution to these two laws that he sees at work in us (7:25)? No longer living enslaved to the flesh, but with our mind set on the Spirit so as to put to death the deeds of the flesh (Rom 8). That’s it in a detail-less nutshell, but there are all kinds of thematically-loaded references in these chapters that clarify Paul’s intentions. I don’t think Paul is talking about either his pre-Christian experience or is present struggle, but rather the universal struggle that we all face in this present fallen flesh until we are fully redeemed.

Just a quick note from Brian: These are actual images from the commentary. One of the great aspects of these are they they are easy to save and implement into powerpoints for teaching or preaching. Also, Logos provides blank templates with the corresponding background so you can also add your own slides as well. Personally, I think the images throughout the commentary add both another way of examining the passage but also to be able to understand the concepts better.

How does one enter the world of studying discourse grammar?

I have a blog post on that very topic at my site that covers that very topic, as it is one of the most frequently-asked questions I receive. You’ll also find a lot of introductory materials to work through including a free sample of the Discourse Grammar. I blogged my way through the chapters as I wrote in order to test out my explanations. Most all of my conference papers and articles are posted on the Publications page.

Thanks Dr. Runge for doing this interview! It was great to talk with you.

From Logos:

Organized into preachable portions of Scripture and featuring over 100 custom graphics, Romans is perfect for sermons, Bible studies, and small groups. Using principles of linguistics and Biblical exegesis, Dr. Runge illuminates the key principles and overall message of the book of Romans. This commentary not only helps you identify the big ideas of a passage, it gives you custom slides that you can export right into sermons and Bible studies. Dr. Runge provides applicable and approachable examples throughout, making clear every-day connections between ideas in Romans and practical living. The High Definition Commentary: Romans is a one-of-a-kind Bible teaching tool, and only available from Lexham Press.

Dr. Runge also has an excellent blog related to all things discourse grammar at NT Discourse.

  1. In way of a preview to my review the graphics are one of the best features of the commentary. They both help explain the concepts but also provide resources for pastors and teachers to use when explaining the text.  ↩

  2. Speaking of pre-order, the High Definiton Commentary on James is available for pre-order now!  ↩