The Dangers of Word Studies

Biblical Exposition | Theology

Published on September 02, 2021

Many of us have probably either seen or heard of word studies in the Bible. Perhaps it was a preacher telling you about how God’s “agape” love is special and distinct from all the other types of love in the Bible. Or maybe it was a Bible teacher talking about how this particular Greek word is so special and unique and then expounding a wealth of insights you’d never seen before in the text. Or it could have been a commentary pointing out that Paul uses a similar group of words to tie together a certain part of one of his letters.

Sometimes original word studies can really blow our minds and open us up to a depth of the Scriptures that we’ve never seen before due to reading a translation of the original languages. However, not all word studies are equal. Some may actually be wrong interferences based on a shallow study of a single word (as in the first example above). Others may be legitimate, but need nuance and context to be fully appreciated (as in the second example). Or perhaps it could be a legitimate insight of a purposeful feature in the original text due to creative use of the language by the original author which was intended to communicate something to the reader.

The point is, word studies can be good or bad. It depends on the quality of the study.

A Little Greek

While I was in seminary, I had a Greek professor once tell me, “A little Greek can be useful. But only a little Greek can be dangerous.”

What she meant by that is that knowing the original languages can often be useful in pulling out nuances and legitimate insights from the text that you would otherwise miss if you only read a translation. However, if you don’t have a proper working knowledge of the original language – how it’s grammar and syntax work, and some understanding of the original context and culture – then you could end up coming to wrong conclusions.

It can easily happen that people who have no working knowledge of the original languages will draw inappropriate conclusions when trying to do original language word studies. You’ve perhaps run into this if you’ve ever tried to learn another language or interacted with someone who is ESL. It is a part of the process of learning a language that we make mistakes in interpreting it properly as we grow in our understanding of its vocabulary, idioms, nuances, grammar and syntax.

Perhaps some examples to illustrate what I mean will be helpful.

Common Examples of Word Studies

Sometimes the component parts of a compound word help to reveal its meaning. This can be seen in the English word “hippopotamus,” which is derived from two Greek words—ἵππος [hippos] for horse and ποταμός [potamos] for river—and thus this animal is a kind of river horse.

Many of us may have heard of the Greek word ἐκκλησία [ekklēsia], usually translated “church.” It is a compound word that comes from ek (“out of”) and kalein (“to call or summon”). Thus, many have asserted that it came to refer in the New Testament to those who are “called out” from the unsaved to form a group of believers.

However, there needs to be a little nuance. Originally, ekklēsia referred to an assembly of citizens in a Greek community who were summoned by a town crier for transacting public business. According to the most popular and respected Greek-English lexicon (BDAG), the word was used in the Greco-Roman world prior to the New Testament to refer to a regularly summoned legislative body, a casual gathering of people, and people with shared belief. It was this third usage of the Word that both Jews used in their Greek translation of the Old Testament and Christians used to refer to their assemblies. So, while the word’s root does have the sense of being “called out”, it was in the sense of being summoned by a town crier and not quite in the same way some Christians imply beyond that just on the basis of the word’s roots (although it is true that the true church is comprised of those called by God).

Another example is the Greek word μακροθυμία [makrothymia], translated “patience” or “long-suffering.” It consists of two Greek words – makros, which means “long,” and thymia, which means “feeling.” In putting the two words together, the word means long-feeling. That is, having control of one’s feelings or emotions for a long period of time. Thus, “patience” is a suitable translation and understanding the roots of the word does give us a little insight.

We can see from understanding the construction of some words, it can help us to deepen our understanding of them. However, not all words work this way.

Bad word studies

Sometimes a word in its development takes on an entirely different meaning from what it originally meant. The root derivation of a word can often be an unreliable guide for the meaning of a word, because meanings change with usage over time.

For example, the word enthusiasm in its original etymology means “to be possessed by a god.” Obviously the derived meaning today differs significantly from its root meaning. None of us today mean that someone was possessed by a god when we say they are enthusiastic. Another example is the English word “good-bye”, which is a derivation of “God be with you.” Yet few people think of its original meaning when they tell someone “good-bye” today.

Perhaps a humorous example is the English word “nice” from the Latin nescius – which originally meant “simple” or “ignorant.” This is hardly related to its present-day meaning! We don’t mean that someone is ignorant when we describe them as nice today. As Cotterell and Turner have written, in the 13th century the word nice added the meaning of “foolish” or “stupid,” in the 14th century, “wanton,” and in the 15th, “coy” or “shy.” But each of these is now obsolete.

Just doing simplistic word studies may lead us in misleading directions if we don’t also take into account a word’s history of usage. How was it used in the period of time and area where the original work was written?

Biblical Word Studies

This applies especially to the Bible.

A Biblical word should not be explained on the basis of its English etymology (the study of the origin of words). This is to read back into Scripture what may not there. For example, how many have heard that ἀγάπη [agapé] is different to φιλέω [phileó] for love? Perhaps it was in a really stirring sermon on God’s love, and the preacher used it to point out how amazing and unique God’s love is from all other kinds of love. Perhaps they were pointing out Jesus’s usage of agape and phileo with Peter in John 21:15-17. While this is perhaps well meaning—it is another example of an argument based upon a root word fallacy.

In reality, there is a substantial overlap in the usage of these two words so that they are practically interchangeable. For example—in John 3:35—John uses the word agape to say that the Father loves the Son. In John 5:20, he repeats the thought, but instead uses phileo for the same meaning! So, clearly, at least in John’s mind for his Gospel, the two words are interchangeable. Thus, drawing a conclusion from Jesus’s usage of the two words in chapter 21 may be unwarranted. For those noting the usage of “agape” versus “phileo”, more nuance is needed to draw any solid conclusions. We should be careful in trying to put too much weight of an argument solely on the basis of a word study. We must also consider context.

Here’s another funny example of a bad word-study application: “God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Cor 9:7) – uses the word ἱλαρός [hilaros] for “cheerful”. However, do we conclude that God loves a hilarious giver? Should we play laugh tracks while we collect tithes? Of course not! Yet some prosperity preachers misuse this to overemphasize that people should be overjoyed to give money to their ministry.

Word studies done correctly are invaluable! But beware of those who load words with too much baggage and make overly subtle distinctions.

Other Word Study Fallacies

Now, all of this is not to discourage eager students of the Bible from doing word studies. It’s simply to alert you against doing bad word studies or to help you identify a bad word study. Some other common word study fallacies to look out for are:

Root fallacy – that every word has a deeper meaning bound up in its root shape or components. This is perhaps the most common fallacy fallen into by overly eager inexperienced preachers. We often want to show just how amazing God’s Word is by providing some new insight never seen before to our audience. But God’s Word doesn’t need us to make it more relevant or powerful than it already is. There is a big difference between novelty and insight.

Semantic anachronism – this is when a later use of a word is read back into its usage at an earlier time. For example, the Greek word for might or power is δύναμις [dynamis] and is where our English word ‘dynamite’ is derived from. However, to read the English derivation back into the ancient Greek text would be wrong (English didn’t even exist then!). Paul is not talking about the Gospel being the dynamite of God unto salvation in Romans 1:16. Another popular example of this fallacy is substituting the modern understanding of a martyr into the New Testament’s use of the word. However, prior to widespread persecution of the church, the word martyr in Greek simply meant a witness. While that started to take on the meaning of being willing to suffer for that witness as well during the New Testament times, it would be wrong to import its later meaning onto all the New Testament usages of the word. We must understand what the word means in the time of the author to understand the meaning. Words in any language have a tendency to shift meanings over time.

Semantic obsolescence – this is the reverse of anachronism. Instead, the interpreter puts an old meaning that the word used to have on its later use in the text, but is no longer found within the word at that time.

Verbal parallelomania – this is where someone uses “parallels” of questionable worth. While it is sometimes true, not every verbal parallel in a body of literature means that there is a conceptual link or dependency. Just because this word is used somewhere else doesn’t mean that you can necessarily link that passage to the other passage. There must also be a contextual link to make that leap.

Expanding or constricting a word’s semantic range – Every word has a range of possible translated meanings. If we try to expand a word to every single possible meaning it could possibly be, or conversely try to restrict it too much to only one possible meaning without warrant from the word’s context in the thought being expressed, we will miss the author’s point. Words have meaning in their context. So, we must first look at the context (big picture) to figure out which translated meaning or range of meanings is appropriate. A word in a sentence does not mean every single possible meaning from its range of meanings – it means one of those – and the context it is used in will help you determine that.

Doing Word Studies Right

This is obviously not meant to be an exhaustive article on word study fallacies. There are books such as D.A. Carson’s Exegetical Fallacies and many great books on Biblical Hermeneutics (the science of interpretation) that will help you deepen in those skills.

To properly exegete the Hebrew and Greek texts, one must have a good working knowledge of the languages, their grammar, the historical context and a solid grasp of Biblical and Systematic Theology. We don’t expect to be able to pull new insights from other languages we don’t speak or read today – so why do we do this with the Biblical languages? I basically agree with Dr. Carson that we should not try to pull out new insights from Greek/Hebrew without a few years of reading and studying those languages under our belt.

For those who are not proficient in the original languages, it is safest to consult good commentaries and study Bibles instead of trying to pull insights from a language you cannot understand yourself. I can pretty much guarantee that if Bibilcal scholars who devote their lives to studying the original languages and contexts cannot find the same insights you might have “found” looking in a lexicon, then what you’ve found may not legitimately be there. We are very blessed to have a preponderance of amazing Bible commentaries, dictionaries, and scholars to glean from – let’s make use of them! While we each must give attention to personal Bible study, this does not mean that we read the Bible in a bubble apart from the community of faith and many men and women who have devoted their lives to its study throughout church history.

Both Ligonier and Challies have great lists of the top commentaries for every book of the Bible.

In the end, we must all give it our best to obey 2 Timothy 2:15,

“Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.”

Sometimes bad word studies are innocent mistakes, and there is grace for that. But oftentimes, they can be due to laziness or carelessness. We should do our best to avoid that as we seek to humbly interpret and apply God’s Word rightly (Isaiah 66:2).

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