Common Exegetical Fallacies

Article: Common Exegetical Fallacies (original source here)

Every good preacher or teacher wants to present the Scriptures in their original context and give the application for the modern listeners. We call the processes of discovering the original meaning, context, and application exegesis. Anytime exegesis takes place the exegete must go back to the original language to determine what is really being said, among other things. An Exegetical Fallacy (EF) is when the original language is misunderstood, misused, or misapplied to say or teach something that was not intended by the language.

The issue of Exegetical Fallacies stemming from a misuse and/or misunderstanding of Biblical Greek is deeply relevant and far too common in our day. These fallacies happen more often than most of us recognize. The scary thing is that so many people assume that they are excluded from them. When EF are being committed, they are usually done by a sincere, well meaning pastor or teacher, who genuinely is trying his best with the tools he has to communicate from Greek what he believes is being said. This person usually does not have any idea that they are teaching a fallacy. More so, it is thought that if someone has a Biblical Hermeneutic and sound “Reformed Theology”, then they are protected for the most part from exegetical fallacies. This could not be farther from the truth. In fact, these fallacies may be as common in Reformed pulpits as they are elsewhere. Indeed, those often responsible for committing the fallacies which follow are those who do not have a working knowledge of Biblical Greek, but rather attempt find the meaning of the Greek through computer programs, lexicons or dictionaries, or some other means, but have not actually studied the language and learned it for themselves. In short, they are fully dependent on second-hand sources.

The best and most thorough treatment of this topic is D.A. Caron’s wonderful book Exegetical Fallacies. This little book should be carefully read by everyone who preaches or teaches the Word of God. If you have read it, then there is probably not much new below. Nevertheless, I will attempt to mention a brief list of some of the most common EF today.

I usually do not use transliterations of the Greek alphabet, but since the words referred to are commonly heard today and are already somewhat familiar to those without Greek, for the sake of clarity, I will use transliterations here so that there is no misunderstanding.

1. The Root Fallacy

This fallacy is based on the assumption that a word always derives its meaning from the shape or components of which it is made. This says that a word’s meaning, regardless of its other parts, always can be determined by its root.

Examples:

Agapao and Phileo – It is commonly taught that these two words, usually translated as “love”, describe two different types of love. Agapao is often used to refer to God’s “divine” love for people, whereas phileo speaks of a “friendly” or “brotherly” love, one that is not divine and is to be distinguished from God’s agape love.

Observe that agapao and its related noun agape are used in 2 Sam. 13:15 (LXX) to describe Amnon’s incestuous rape of his half-sister Tamar. See also 2 Tim. 4:10 (agapao); and compare John 3:35 (agapao) with John 5:20 (phileo). See also the famous exchange between Jesus and Peter in John 21:15-17. None of this is to suggest that there isn’t a special quality to God’s love for us. Certainly his love is sacrificial and divine, etc. But this is not because of some intrinsic meaning in the verb agapao or the noun agape. When looking at the Greek text, we have no reason to derive any hidden or special meaning of word usage in the exchange between Jesus and Peter and the supposed two types of love.

Monogenes – This fallacy has existed for years and caused much confusion and damage. It is thought by many to be derived from monos (only) and gennao (to beget), hence “only-begotten”, however this is untrue. The word is found in John 1:14, 18: 3:16, 18; Hebrews 11:17; and 1 John 4:9. The KJV is famous for using the wording “only begotten”, though it did not originate there. This mis-translation of the Greek word has existed for centuries, and can be found even in some of the best early church creeds, such as the Nicene Creed and Athanasian Creed. The best translation would probably be something like unique, special, well-beloved son, as the two Greek words which it is comprised of properly suggest: monos (only) and genos (type, class).

For a brief yet helpful explanation of this fallacy, see the appendix “The Monogenes Controversy” in Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology.

Apostolos – The fact that this word is related to the verb apostello (to send), is often used to argue that the root meaning of “apostle” is “one who is sent.” But as Carson points out, the “NT use of the noun apostolos does not center on the meaning “the one sent” but on messenger or envoy. Now a messenger is usually sent; but the word “messenger” also calls to mind the message the person carries, and suggests he represents the one who sent him. In other words, actual usage in the NT suggests that apostolos commonly bears the meaning of “a special representative” or “a special messenger” rather than someone sent out” (Exegetical Fallacies, p. 29).

The danger with this fallacy is that it is often used to say that there are “modern day apostles”. It is said that since an apostle is “one who is sent out”, therefore when we send missionaries we are sending “apostles”. Regardless of whether or not there are modern day apostles, this misrepresentation of the word apostolos cannot in any way be used to support the claim that there are.

Ekklesia – One often hears that since this word is built from the preposition ek (from) and the verb kaleo (to call) it means “the called out ones” or something similar. The following fallacy has far too often be preached from the pulpit: “The word which we have for Church in the Greek is ekklesia. It is comprised of two words which together compose the meaning ‘one who is called out’ or ‘the called out ones’. When this word is used in the NT, about 114 times in the Greek New Testament, it is referring to the Church, either universal or local, as the ones who have been ‘called out of the world and into the Body of Christ and now congregate in His churches.’”

As true as it may be that Christians have been called out of the world and into the Body of Christ or Family of God, there is absolutely no indication that this was its emphasis or meaning in NT times. It simply means congregation or assembly and refers to a gathering of people, really any people, yet in the NT that group of people happens to be Christians. This faulty translation could in part be due to the reader misunderstanding the nature of the Greek language used in the New Testament. It is was the common language of the day used by the common man, and not a divine spiritual language with special spiritual meanings particular to the New Testament.

2. Semantic Anachronism

This is when a late or modern use of a word is read back into earlier literature.

Dunamis – A very common example and fallacy is the Greek noun dunamis and the verb form dunamai, from which we derive our English term “dynamite.” Semantic anachronism would be interpreting the meaning of the first century Greek word by an appeal to the meaning of the twentieth century English word. This sounds silly indeed, yet it is one of the most heard EF in the world.

The application of this fallacy often goes something like this: “The gospel is the power of God unto salvation…” (Romans 1:16). The word ‘power’ here is the Greek word dunamis from which we get our English word dynamite. So that means that this word power is not just any power, but a dynamite-like power. The gospel therefore is the dynamite of God unto salvation. What a great and powerful gospel we have”

Another application shall suffice: “For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted” (Hebrews 2:18). The word ‘able’ here is the Greek word dunamai from which we get our English word dynamite. This means that Jesus is able with ‘dynamite-type power’ to help Christians when they are tempted.”

Idiotes – One more common example is the Greek word idiotes. This fallacy is sometimes used in connection with Acts 4:13, where Peter and John are said to be “uneducated, common men” (ESV). The word “common” here is the Greek word idiotes. So it is sometimes said that “this is where we get our English word idiots from, so Peter and John were idiots.” It is very unwise to define a 2000 year old Greek word by a modern English definition, or even to suggest a relation in meaning. If someone tried to use this analogy in Spanish it would be highly offensive, as the translation for idiot is a cuss-word. Surely this was not Luke’s intention when he penned it.

The traditional meaning for our English idiot is someone who is mentally retarded, however the slang modern meaning would be a fool or buffoon.

According to Meriam-Webster’s Dictionary the English word idiot means:
1 – a person affected with extreme mental retardation
2 – a foolish or stupid person

Neither of these is what the Jewish rulers had in mind when they spoke these words about Peter and John, nor is it what Luke intended us to understand them as when he wrote the words down. An idiotes in the Greek language and world of the 1st century is simply a “common man, layman, one without formal training in the rabbinic tradition”, but is certainly not a modern day “idiot”.

Conclusion: We should never under any circumstances define a 2000 year old word according to the definition of a modern word, and especially not from a different language. A word’s meaning must be derived by its use in the context of it’s specific time of usage.

3. Semantic Obsolescence

This is when the interpreter assigns a meaning to a word that it had in earlier times, but which is no longer within the semantic range of the term. [The semantic range of a word is a list of the ways the word was used in the period when the author was writing.] An example of this would be defining a New Testament Greek word by a no longer used meaning from the Classical Greek period.

4. False Assumptions About Technical Meaning

Here the interpreter falsely assumes that a word always or nearly always has a certain technical or theologically immutable/unchangeable meaning.

Some examples include: 1) “sanctification” (1 Thess. 4:3 and 1 Cor. 1:2); 2) “revelation” (Phil. 3:15); 3) “call” or “calling” (in Paul and in the synoptic gospels); 4) “justify” (in Paul and in James); 5) “mystery” (in Col. 1:26-27 and in Eph. 3:4-6); and 6) “foundation” (in 1 Cor. 3:11 and in Eph. 2:20).

The problem here is that these words do not always have the same meaning. The meaning of words such as these must be ultimately determined according to the context in which the writer is writing. For example: sanctification may mean sanctification, but it may also mean consecration or setting apart. In the NT it can refer to the believers sanctification as in 1 Cor. 1:2 where the Christian is set apart after justification, or also to the ongoing process of conformity into Christ’s image as in 1 Thess. 4:3.

Think of this in terms of the English language: I “have” to go to the store. I “have” ten books in my library that I’ve started. The first use of “have” implies necessity, while the second possession. There are tons of examples of such differences in our own language and Greek is no different.

5. Illegitimate totality transfer

Many Greek words have a wide and vast semantic range (mentioned above). There may be numerous meanings for the same word; however context usually tells us which is correct. This fallacy is rooted in the idea that the meaning of a word in a specific context is much broader than the context itself allows and may entail the entire range of a word’s meaning. Or, this fallacy “assumes that a word carries all of its senses in any one passage” (Darrell Bock, in Introducing NT Interpretation, p. 110).

In the words of David Alan Black, “Most Greek words are “polysemous”, that is, they have many possible meanings, only one of which is its semantic contribution to any passage in which it occurs. (In case you were wondering: Reading all of the meanings of a Greek word into any particular passage in which it occurs is called “illegitimate totality transfer” by linguists.)”

6. The One Meaning Fallacy

I am distinguishing this one from number 4 as you will see, though there may be some overlap.

This belief results from the erroneous assumption that Greek words typically have one meaning which can be found by looking in the dictionary/lexicon, then applying it to the passage. Most Greek words do not have just one meaning. There are several factors which determine the final outcome of the meaning of the word. Yet, how often do we hear in a sermon, “This word in the Greek means…”? It would be more accurate and truthful to say, “This word in the Greek/original translates here as…”

It can be then, very dangerous to define a word simply based on looking in a lexicon and then applying what you find there, without actually knowing the language and its grammar and correct function. While word studies may be profitable, for the above mentioned reasons, they can also be highly dangerous if the user does not know what they are doing. It can be just a matter of moments before a detrimental exegetical fallacy is committed that does no justice to the text, but only harms it and its hearers. Even more so, Greek is useful for more than just word studies. It is such a rich and deep language, and word studies by one not knowing the language usually in the end do not get any closer to it.

The Reason for Exegetical Fallacies: Why are so many exegetical fallacies rampant today? As was said earlier, it can easily be noted that usually when EF are commited with NTG, it is by someone who does not actually know the language them-self, but rather is dependent on some secondary source or knowledge, such as a computer program, a lexicon alone, a commentary, or a Strong’s Bible, but without personal experiential knowledge of Greek grammar, syntax, etc. Imagine me, someone who does not know German, trying to translate and explain the German Bible to English listeners while deriving my knowledge from a computer program to assist me and a German-English dictionary. I may even use a commentary written in English which at times interacts with the German text. The result of my labors would be an eclectic mixture of inaccuracies. However this really is not that different from a preacher doing the same with Greek while having no personal and experiential studied knowledge of the language. Using Greek without knowing Greek can be and is often exceedingly dangerous.

The Solution for Exegetical Fallacies: How can we fix these all too common fallacies? The answer is quite simple: Study and Learn Biblical Greek and most of them will disappear! If preachers and teachers would study the language of the New Testament, even just the basics of first year Greek (something which can be done at home through self-study) in less than a year, the majority of Greek related EF would quickly disappear. As long as men teach and preach and believe that it is sufficient enough to use computer programs and commentaries without actually studying and learning the language for themselves, we should not expect EF to diminish, but only stabilize and increase.

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