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How to do a Bad Word Study in the Bible

A while back, I came across an excellent article on a blog called, “7 Ways to Do a Bad Word Study.” The author does a great job of highlighting some common traps that preachers, Bible class teachers, and would-be scholars frequently fall into as they try to delve into the original languages of the Bible (primarily Greek and Hebrew).

I had the article bookmarked for a long time, but I ultimately decided that it was so helpful that I would share it, in full, on my blog. To be clear, I did not write the content below, but I am quoting from the blog linked above because I figured more people would read it here than click through and read it on the original page.

This week has been a fascinating walk through the world of “Word-Studies”. My guess is, you’ve encountered some sort of word story 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. 50 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 2000’s 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 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 (ehem…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 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 romantic love that can only be seen in the Greek? Actually, no. John uses the word 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. Secondly, 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. Its 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.

If you are someone who preaches or teaches from the Bible, I urge you to take note of the problems described above and seek to avoid them. As readers of this blog are aware, I have spent the last three years involved in intensive study of Greek and Hebrew as part of my graduate school program, and that study has made me much more careful in the way I teach about these languages.

The information above is perhaps overstated at times and confusing in one or two places, but on the whole is extremely helpful.

6 Comments

  1. Thanks. As one of my old Bible teachers Kevin Youngblood used to say, words don’t express theology. Passages do. One mistake that is sort of a combination of the ones above is to build a study off of all the times a word appears in scripture.

    I hate the Webster fallacy. I facepalm whenever someone says “The Webster dictionary defines” and then tries to build an argument off of it. Dictionaries try to record word meanings, not create them. And if you’re going to use a dictionary academically, at least use the Oxford.

  2. Luke

    July 2, 2014 at 9:12 AM

    Hey Caleb, thanks for the comment.

    I haven’t gotten to have Dr. Youngblood as a teacher, but I have heard good things about him and I agree with him. Unfortunately, there are entire resources out there (like the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament) that operate largely from this premise. Words are obviously an important part of meaning, but they derive their meaning largely from the context, which is why it is entire passages that express theology.

    The Webster thing gets me too…people don’t really stop and think what they are doing, but ultimately they using Webster as an authority on what is ultimately a Hebrew or Greek word.

    Anyway, all of these fallacies are frustrating, but I try to remember to be gracious as well. Generally people who use them are doing so simply because they don’t know any better. If we can show them a better way, they will likely follow it.

  3. Luke,
    Thanks for sounding a much needed warning. I think the most egregious abuse of these fallacies is committed when one uses them to try and prove a biblical truth. Thanks again for posting this, very informative!
    Respectfully,
    Bill Robinson

  4. Luke

    July 3, 2014 at 8:53 AM

    Hey Bill, thanks for reading and commenting!

    I agree with you. It’s bad enough when the fallacies described above are used to flesh out a point or provide interesting extra details. It’s even worse when an entire argument or the thrust of an entire sermon hinges upon one of them.

    Again, I think people tend to use them not out of dishonesty, but just because they don’t know better. We must teach and model a better way.

    Blessings to you and your ministry.

  5. I’m still waiting for the “How to do a Good Word Study in the Bible” post. : )

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