7 Ways to Do a Bad Word Study.

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.

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  1. a) I’m stoked you used the word “univocal”.
    b) Didn’t Noah Webster do the dictionary thing?
    c) This is one of the best cautionary tales on word meanings I’ve ever read. Nicely done, Nick.


  2. Nick,
    My mind is officially blown. There are so many angles to consider when doing a word study! This post has challenged me to be more discerning. By your thoroughness, you express a deep reverence for God’s Word.

    I’m really enjoying this blog!


    • Thanks so much, Adriana – really glad you’re enjoying! I just have to stress once again that this post in particular is all borrowed wisdom…but I suppose that’s the best kind.

  3. Great post

    Have you read Don Carson’s superb book Exegetical Fallacies? he deals with these and others in more detail – your readers may appreciate it.

    • Hey Jmark – admittedly, reading through these made me realize I need to pick up Carson’s book. I’ve committed them all! Thanks for the tip.

  4. Which bible translation “might lead you to believe that we can pick and choose any one among a number of alternate meanings” for any word?

    • Hey Adam – my guess is those who read it already know what I’m talking about, but I really have a hard time with the “Amplified Bible”; I feel it’s deceptively flexible, but I’ve also heard others say that they just appreciate the synonymns…even when their not legitimate!

      • Hm; you find the AB deceptively flexible, supple, bendable, malleable, accommodating, compliant, and acquiescent?

        Yeah, I can see that.

        And, to avoid spamming your meta: this is a terrific list. I think my eyebrow only raised at point 3, particularly given that you use John. Of course I agree with your point; but I’m sure you know that the trend of scholars in recent decades seems to see John as sometimes using words with multiple shadings. Deliberate Johannine ambiguity makes frequent appearance, doesn’t it? “John meant both.”

        But still, of course, not everything!

      • Dan – that made me chuckle. You could be right about the passage in the John passage I cited. But what if we took that principle and applied it to the rest of the Bible, so that the word phileo always meant “casual” and agape always meant “unselfish love”?

      • Mr McDonal
        Considering all this Webster stuff, methinks we have another word problem – probably the phonetics; their versus they’re.
        But a great article for someone who has used these word games in preparing Bible Studies. I now know to use with extreme caution.

      • Thanks for responding. No, that’s not what I’m saying, and I’m not faulting your handling of any particular verse from John. I was just reflecting on your saying (if I understand you correctly) that John has a single intent for each use of a given word. I lay that against what I’ve read often in Johannine scholars on various verses, along the lines of “The word can mean A, or it can mean B — but it’s characteristic of John that he probably intends both meanings / is deliberately ambiguous.” Clearer?

        As to “world” in particular, John uses it in a number of senses; three, just in John 1:10. That’s why I chuckled when I read a very new commentary (Derickson) on 1 John 2:2 insisting that “world” must mean “world,” and everyone knows what “world” means — but then on other verses, he says, “Now, kosmos can mean A, or B, or C…”

        So I guess it’s univocal when your theological position needs it to be univocal.

        But I digress.


      • Dan – I think somewhere in the middle is the answer. Before we can know what a particular word means, we absolutely must know how the author generally uses that term. That’s the starting point. From there, I think we can see some places where there’s room for flexibility. Certainly there are plenty of places where John uses the same word in the same paragraph interchangeably for different definitions. That’s the whole beauty of his writing! No need to be rigid with it, but its essential to understand any author’s vocabulary and style before narrowing down whether a word is flexible or not. I think we’re on the same page, here.

      • Yes, sir, probably so. I wish writers were more univocal. I WANT John to be univocal. But reading him in Greek for about 40 years, that’s awfully hard to make stick in many cases — the way he uses pempo/apostello being yet another example (cf. 20:21). Ay yi yi.

  5. Found this post from Tim Challies. Really enjoyed this and it should prove helpful to me in the future. Thanks!

    P.S. Please add a Google+ share button

  6. Great blog post. Wonderful cautions. I’ve probably committed all of these. How about a post on how to do good word studies?

  7. Nick,

    I’m with you on all this, except possibly the agape / phileo thing. John may have used the words interchangeably, but did Jesus? In other words, is John exactly quoting Jesus here? And if so, is the distinction Jesus made important?

    On this hangs the interpretation of the whole incident – does Peter react the way he does because Jesus’ three “askings” answer his three denials, or because Jesus asks each time with a decreasing intensity (“love me more than these”, “love me”, “like me”), finally matching Peter’s own use of phileo? Or both?

    Of course, nothing regarding faith and practice hangs on this, so we can allow leeway of interpretation…

    • Hey Mark – I’d say that the distinction between John’s “feed my lambs/sheep” is the focus of the passage. It’s a good point to remember that this isn’t a letter, but a narrative. So I suppose it’s not quite fair to say that John is writing, when its actually Jesus speaking. Fair distinction. My concern is that we see “agape” from this point on or before universally representing “selfless love”, and “phileo” universally meaning, “casual love.” I don’t think it’s a fair distinction, and personally, I think those definitions are too precise to fit even Jesus’ meaning here, even if he is using a synonymn to signify a change in degree of the intensity of love. Good thoughts.

  8. Pingback: Nick McDonald – 7 Ways to Do a Bad Word Study » Christian Apologetics & Intelligence Ministry

  9. Some tools for effective word studies would be helpful. I can suggest two – the BDAG and the TDNT. Both of these are useful for understanding context and variations in meanings. And LOGOS software’s word study feature, which uses the BDAG and TDNT (and more), even includes insight into the use of Greek words in the LXX – the Greek Old Testament.

    Dr. Michael Heiser at his Naked Bible podcast has also just addressed in detail the in’s and out’s of good word study – http://michaelsheiser.com/TheNakedBible/podcast/

  10. Mark, I agree with your interpretation of decreasing intensity. I was surprised to find 3 matching words in Hebrew, which could mean that John could actually have quoted Jesus’ very use of different words in decreasing intensity! Agape is more or less equal to ahaba (Song.8:6) fileo (friendship love, not romantic!) to reya (Song.4:7) and eros, (romantic love) which is not used by Jesus in this conversation, to dode (Song. 1:2)
    Very good post anyway. Thank you. Looking forward to the right way to do word study!

  11. I did all the theology stuff, got my M.Div., still do some word studies, but I always try to remember that God’s Word is for everyone. We “scholars” make Bible study only for those who can look up the Hebrew and Greek, blah, blah, blah. Keep it simple. God wants to talk to us. I think some preachers wouldn’t have a message unless they took half the time explaining “the original language.”

    • I think some preachers wouldn’t have a message unless they took half the time explaining “the original language.”

      interesting view. I’ve been listening to sermons for 5 decades and haven’t run into one of those preachers, Bill.


      • I think there’s some truth in what you’re saying, Bill. The Bible isn’t inaccessible in English. Fortunately, like Tim, I haven’t met any preacher who takes up a lot of time expounding original languages either.

      • Bill,
        I’d like to add something a very wise man once told me,
        “Who says bringing up Greek or Hebrew meanings isn’t keeping it simple? Sometimes it’s those insights that actually make it simpler and easier to understand Scripture.”
        As a layperson with little education to speak of, I’ve found this to be true.

  12. Now, “7 Ways to Do a Word Study”, please. 🙂 Also, sorry if someone already mentioned this, just commenting, not reading all of the comments!

  13. Thank you for the caution or warning, as the case may warrant. I do have a question on #2. It seems that the argument presented would be in favor of the origins of the word, rather than the prevailing definition. As you mentioned I may use the word ‘cool’ to mean ‘hip’, but the origins of the word will help me understand that the original meaning is ‘moderately cold’. Maybe I am not understanding the actual issue. Would someone be referring to the origins of a word to get to the proper meaning of a word used in the Bible or in the commentary?

    • Good question, John. Someone might refer to the origin of the word in a commentary, when most of the time it doesn’t really clarify the issue. The prevailing definition at the time of the biblical writers is the one you want.

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  22. A professor of mine once advised that in preaching/teaching, “Greek and Hebrew should be like pots and pans at a fancy dinner. They are used in the kitchen but don’t sit out on the table.” Wise words, I believe. Not that there are never times to talk about the original languages, but I think it should be done responsibly, purposefully, and rarely. Thanks for this post! Very helpful.

  23. For me, James Barr, no friend of evangelicals, did us a great service in Semantics of Biblical Language (1961), which was a significant seminary read for me on just this issue of linguistic mishandlings of language masquerading as “word studies.” It is the already noted D.A. Carson in Exegetical Fallacies who discusses fully the phileo/agape issue in his section on word studies, pages 51-53. (Paul Wells’ James Barr & the Bible responds to Barr’s low view of scripture: Barr’s critique of word studies still stands). Equally important to me was Moisés Silva’s Biblical Words and Their Meaning: An Introduction to Lexical Semantics; he comments on this John 21 issue linguistically on page 96. [I’d add that the Pharisees AGAPE the best seats in Luke 11:42]. It would seem to me that the significance is not just in feeding the sheep. It’s what the word study fallacy obscures . . . Here is Peter, after denying His Lord three times, being reinstated by being led by the resurrected Lord to three times reaffirm “I love you.” Restored with a deep sense of forgiveness and now ready to do what Jesus had prophesied he’d do . . . Luke 22:31ff. (This insight may be from Carson’s commentary on John, can’t remember!)

    I think it’s important, occasionally, for the congregation to understand how word studies are rightly and mistakenly done, as there is no end to the long line of people distorting the scriptures by how they misunderstand language, a sad state only magnified by the availability of the internet, part of our people’s daily diet. Finally, the immediate context, and then the broadening circles of the context, in which the Spirit inspired the text must trump all concerns [as well as an appropriate humility bourn from our finitude (at least!)]

    What I like about this list is that any one can get a clear sense of the typical ways of misinterpretation they are likely to encounter. If preachers just stuck with these that you’ve listed, Nick, 95% of the linguistic errors in sermons could be eradicated.

    • Thanks, Steve. Your point about concentric circles of context is exactly what I’ll be addressing in my next post (7 Ways to do a Good Word Study). I’ve tried to do with this post what you said: make word-errors accessible for lay-people and pastors alike. Now the problem is, I’ve published this and I expect to hear my future congregants using it as a corrective tool for my preaching. All the better, I suppose.

      • 2 tim 2.14-18 talks about studying to show yourselves approved unto God, workman that need not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.ff While I am a long way from being a Greek scholar, I do know and trust some who are. And they are the ones I turn to for help when I do word studies. If no one trusted a scholar/teacher to be correct, then where does that leave us..? I suppose each to fend for themselves and all would be confusion. but God has put in the body some Teachers that have proved themselves and are the ones I turn to. (in the multitude of counselors there is wisdom” So I use a few trustworthy teachers that have been well received and studied from by those who know far more than I. And they and I are still wrong at times, I am sure. As is everyone. When we get to Heaven we will all be straightened out. All divisions will cease. All demonations and discussions will be over. We will know as we have been fully known.
        The miss application of what a word means in context reminds me of what I just heard and I don’t remember who to give credit to for this but they talk about the saying “out of sight, out of mind” in english could mean “blind and crazy” to someone just trying to determine the meaning of words without context and understanding of the typical use of the term.

  24. I totally forgot to make my point. I like what has been said about being careful and the book refered to, I intend to get. Without doing a word study and turning to trusted greek scholars I might have mistaken the greek word for being “saved” to mean it always applied to “from sins”, but Paul used that word for being saved from phisical death when speaking to his shipmates and when applied to a woman being saved through childbirth also uses that same word but cannot mean saved from sins as only through Jesus can that happen so it has to mean something different ie saved from the stigma of Eve’s tramgression most likly, thanks for keeping me thinking.

    • I suppose the answer, Dave, is in Acts 17:11 – The Bereans listened to the teachers first, then searched the word of God for confirmation. I think we need to do both – if we go to the extremes at either side of the spectrum, we have, as you said, either “everyone for themselves” or a blind trust in human authority.

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