My guess is, you’ve encountered some sort of word study in the last couple of months: a Bible study, a sermon, a commentary, a quip about agape love or a defense of a biblical viewpoint you’re not sure of. But sometimes it’s hard to wade through the muck and know when you’re being short-changed.
How can a lay person (or pastor) know whether a word study is legitimate? Here are some bad ways to do a word study, courtesy of Dr. Jennings of Gordon Conwell and Dr. Grant Osborne of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School:
1. The Root Word Fallacy
You’ve heard this: “The word ekklesia is a Greek word for the church that literally means 'called out ones.' ” Technically, this isn’t true. While combining the two root words (“called out from”) does indeed create something like “called out ones,” the truth is, the word ekklesia is never used that way in the New Testament or its contemporaries.
In fact, ekklesia was used to refer to a group of philosophers, mathematicians or any other kind of assembly in the Greco-Roman world. So unless we’re supposing that actors and gladiators were called to a holy lifestyle by assembling together, we can’t create a relationship between holiness and ekklesia necessarily.
While it’s true that the church is composed of “called out” ones — that’s not the particular point of this word. It just means “assembly” or “gathering.”
2. The Origin Fallacy
If a commentary ever drives you back 50–100 or more years to find the origin of a particular word, steer clear.
Fifty years ago, “gay” meant something totally different in America than it does today. I would hope someone living 300 years from now wouldn’t pick up a newspaper and say, “Aha! The debate about gay marriage in the early 2000s is, in fact, a debate about whether marriage ought to be ‘happy.’ Just look at the word’s origin!”
The meaning of a word can change very quickly over time, so any legitimate word study won’t find much help by going back to the “origin” of a word, or even looking too far to the future.
3. The “Everything” Fallacy
John writes, “God so loved the world that he gave his only son.” The word “world,” or “kosmos,” is one of John’s favorites. But the word kosmos has a flexible meaning — it can mean man, mankind, humankind, world, universe or dirt.
So which meaning did John intend?
We can be sure of this: John did not intend all the meanings. In other words, John didn’t mean to say, “God so loved not just sinful mankind, but the entire creation, even the dirt we walk on!” No — John uses the word “kosmos” in a very particular way in all of his writing, and by knowing John’s writing we know that he meant “the sinful world,” not “all of the above.”
While certain Bible translations might lead you to believe that we can pick and choose any one among a number of alternate meanings (ahem … maybe just one translation) this is a recipe for a Bible that means whatever we want it to mean.
4. The Lexical Fallacy
While it might be tempting, pointing to the lexical definition of a Greek word doesn’t tell you what the word means in a particular context.
Consider this sentence: “I know a pilot who likes to fly, who went camping and put a fly over his tent, went fly fishing, then realized he was late for a plane and had to fly to an airport, where he realized he didn’t look very fly because his fly was undone, and just at that moment a fly landed on his nose (Thank you, Dr. Jennings!).”
There’s one word used seven times in seven different ways, and my guess is you had no question what I meant each time I used it. Words have meaning only in relationship to other words; for this reason, a lexicon can only tell you potential meaning, not actual meaning.
5. The Word-Argument Fallacy
No matter what anyone tells you, don’t suppose that the definition of one word can solve a theological argument.
As a general rule, resorting to the meaning of a particular word to make a theological point is unhelpful at best, destructive at worst. If I need to appeal to the meaning of a word in a certain verse to settle a theological debate, I’ve already lost.
Don’t get me wrong — sometimes word studies are great aids to good theology. But if my whole argument hinges on one flexible word, I’m probably off.
6. The Authorless Fallacy
Not every author speaks the same way. James doesn’t use the word “justify” the same way Paul uses the word “justify.”
By the same token, the same author usually speaks the same way. So when Jesus says to Peter, "Do you agape me?" or "Do you phileo me?" is he making a giant distinction between selfless love and brotherly love that can only be seen in the Greek? Actually, no. John uses the words phileo and agape interchangeably in his narrative to refer to Jesus’ love for his disciples, their love for them, etc. To make a credible case, we’re going to need to cite the same author’s use of the same word to justify its definition.
7. The “Webster’s Dictionary” Fallacy
First, Noah Webster didn’t write the Bible.
Second, taking a Greek word like “Dunamai” (I have power or authority) and saying, “This is where we get our word for 'Dynamite,' which Webster defines as 'a high explosive, originally consisting of nitroglycerin mixed with an absorbent substance, now with ammonium nitrate usually replacing the nitroglycerin,'" is just plain abusive. It's a backward way of defining a term. Just because we borrow from the Greek doesn’t mean there’s a univocal relationship between root words and modern terms.