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. Continue reading

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