The Benefits and Dangers of Word Studies


Introduction to Word/Phrase Studies

One of the most helpful tools in interpretation is a word or phrase study.  How can we strive to have faith if we do not know what it is?  What does Paul mean when he says that we are justified from the faith of Jesus Christ (Galatians 2:16)?  What is the righteousness of God that is revealed in the gospel (Romans 1:16)?  The answers to these questions come from word and phrase studies.


It is very important that we understand how words work before we start on such ventures.  There a number of fundamental misunderstandings of words that have often led down immensely inappropriate avenues in interpretation.  Pastors (and even scholars) are notorious for the way they misuse words from the pulpit (and in commentaries!).  Read what follows carefully and beware!



Fallacious Approaches to Word/Phrase Study


1. Words do not have fixed or intrinsic meanings.  A word is a "sign" that "signifies" something to the mind looking at it.

A word is only a squiggle on a page--it means nothing in and of itself.  Occasionally a sound might resemble what it signifies (onomatopoeia; e.g. "gargle" sounds a little like what it signifies).  But in the overwhelming majority of cases, the sounds and letters of a word are completely arbitrary.  Thus, a "Brief" in German is a letter; "brief" in English is short.  In neither case do the letters and sounds have anything to do with the meaning.  It is when a mind finds significance in those squiggles and sounds that they come to have meaning.


2. The meaning of a word is in the way it is used. 

This is essential to an appropriate understanding of words.  A dictionary does not tell us what a word means in any specific occurrence of the word, as if the meaning of a word was somehow fixed.  A dictionary records the various ways that a word is being used at any given point in time.  It lists these meanings from the most frequent use to the least frequent.  Since usage changes, dictionaries have to be updated continually.  New meanings are constantly being added to the list.  Could you have found the word email in a dictionary fifteen years ago?  On the other hand, older meanings are removed or move down in the list.  How often do we use the word intercourse in reference to conversation these days?


Here are a number of facts about words that follow from this observation, along with some of the more common fallacies that relate to them:



2a. Words can have a number of distinct and different meanings.

I heard of a Bible translation once that always translated a Greek or Hebrew word in the same way every time.  It thought that this made it a better translation.  On the contrary, it indictated that the translation was horrible.  Words mean different things in different contexts, and none of these meanings have to relate to one another in any way.


Warning 1: You cannot assume that words in one book of the Bible mean the same thing they mean in other parts of the Bible.  Much of popular Christian literature is based upon a mixing and matching of words and imagery from biblical texts that originally had entirely different situations in view (e.g. most prophecy books today).  You cannot assume that Paul uses the word righteousness in the way Matthew does or that Genesis means soul in the way Paul does.  This is the "one meaning" fallacy.


Example: Matthew 10:28 and 10:39 both use the Greek word psyche, but translations rightly translate the word differently in each case.  They generally render 10:28 as "soul" (fear the one who can throw both soul and body into Gehenna) and 10:39 as "life" (whoever loses his life will find it).  This is a perfect example of the fact that words can mean different things in different contexts.


Warning 2: Words usually don't come loaded with an entire theology.  Kittel's Theological Dictionary was a favorite of a previous generation of scholars, but it repeatedly committed the "word-concept" fallacy.  That is, it ransacked all the places in Greek literature, including the New Testament, where a word was used and then dumped all those meanings into every place where the word occurred.  It implied that an entire theological system could be present every time a particular word was used rather than recognizing that words frequently have a number of distinct and unrelated meanings.  A theology is not in a word; a word in a context may relate to an overall theology.


Examples:  The word faith can mean "trust," but it can also mean "belief" and even "faithfulness."  All three meanings are valid yet they can be distinct meanings.  You cannot assume that all three meanings are there in every occurrence of the word.  James 2 is primarily focusing on faith as belief; 1 Corinthians 13:2 focuses on trust; while Hebrews 10:39 emphasizes faithfulness (cf. Romans 3:3).


The old "four loves" debate can fall in here as well.  C.S. Lewis lived in the heyday of the word-concept fallacy.  Even if on some occasion there is a distinction between phileo and agapao (and this is debatable), you cannot invest every instance of each word with as much theological baggage as Lewis and others have tried to do.  The Greek Old Testament says that Amnon "loved" (agapao) Tamar--and then that he raped her (2 Samuel 13:1).



2b. The different ways a word is used may have nothing to do with the other ways a word is used.  There is often no "essential" or root meaning to a word.  Michael Jackson furnishes us with a good example of this in the way he uses the word bad.  When Michael Jackson is "bad," he is really, really good--the exact opposite of the connotations the word usually has. 


Greek teachers are sometimes guilty of trying to relate the different meanings a word has in various forms to the other meanings it has in other forms of that word.  This may help a student remember, but it is sometimes fallacious.  The word archo in Greek means "I rule" in the active voice, but it means "I begin" in the middle voice.  It is the same word, but don't try to figure out how the same word can mean both "to rule" and "to begin."  Even if there is a historical (diachronic) explanation, this is quite a distinct issue from what a Greek speaker was thinking when s/he used the word (synchronic).


The idea that a word has some essential, basic meaning that plays itself out in some way every time a word occurs is called the "lexical fallacy."  The idea that the meaning of a word always relates to some meaning of a root stem is the "root fallacy."


Example: The Greek stem baph- does have connotations of immersing, but this fact does not necessarily imply anything about how any biblical author used the word baptizo, "to baptize."  The meaning of a word comes from the way it is used on a specific occasion and may have absolutely nothing to do with its root.  This is the root fallacy.



2c. The history of a word may have nothing to do with its meaning now.  In a sense we are saying the same thing over and over again.  The meaning of a word derives from its use on a specific occasion--its context.  You cannot necessarily dump the meaning that word has or had anywhere else into the particular instance at which you are looking.


One of the most frequently committed fallacy pastors use is the so called "etymological fallacy"--using the component parts of a word to explain what the word means.  On the one hand, this practice can have great illustrative power and sometimes it seems to work.  But the etymology of a word doesn't necessarily have anything to do with the current meaning of a word.  People don't normally think of a word's etymology when they use it--no one thinks of "standing under" something when they use the word understanding!!


Examples: The Greek word for church is ekklesia and pastors often point out that ek means "out of" while kaleo means to "call."  Thus you often hear pastors speaking of the church as the "called out" ones.  There's no problem with this theology, but I assure you that Greek speakers were not thinking anything like this when they used the word.  In fact, Acts 19:41 uses the word in reference to a mob riot in Ephesus!  Trying to figure how such a chaotic group could be the "called out ones" has nothing to do with what Luke meant.  The word had come to refer to an assembly of individuals for hundreds of years before any New Testament author used it.


Nevertheless, I do sometimes use such breakdowns (with a warning) in preaching and teaching Greek because sometimes it really does help make a point.  But we must always be very cautious.  The Holy Spirit is indeed the one "called along side" us to help us (=para + kaleo), but it is highly unlikely John was thinking anything like this when he wrote his gospel.  To be holy is to be "not of the earth" (=a + ge) in a sense, but no one was thinking this when they used the word. 


We know the meanings of words because of specific "language games" in use at particular times and places.  When you say "the fire has gone out," I need to know whether we are camping or in church to know what you mean.



2d. You cannot take meanings a word later came to have and read them back into earlier uses of the word.

This is what I might call the fallacy of anachronism.  Words change their meanings, and we must be careful to locate a word in its correct context.  When Acts 1:8 says that the disciples will be witnesses (martyres), it did not imply that they would all die--which is what the word martyr eventually came to mean.  When Isaiah 45:1 calls the Persian king Cyrus God's meshiach, "anointed one," it did not mean the same thing as what Peter meant in Mark 8:29 when he called Jesus the Messiah, the "anointed one" (Christos).  Indeed, even Peter did not mean the same thing by this word as what Jesus understood the word to mean (cf. Mark 8:33)!


Example: My own denominational history (the Wesleyan Church) provides me with an excellent example of this kind of anachronistic use of Scripture, as well as of the word-concept fallacy.  I grew up to read almost every occurrence of the word holiness in the Bible as an allusion to the doctrine of entire sanctification.  I read Hebrews 12:14 ("follow peace with all and the holiness without which no one will see the Lord") as an indication that unless someone was entirely sanctified, they could not make it into heaven.


The problem here was two-fold: 1) I was investing an entire system of theology into every instance of this word (the word-concept fallacy) and 2) I was reading a meaning that the word holiness came to have in the nineteenth century back into a biblical text that did not process, categorize, or formulate the word holiness in that way.



A Legitimate Approach to Word/Phrase Study

The following approach to word/phrase study avoids the preceding fallacies and embodies a more appropriate understanding of language:


Step 1: Write down some basic meanings the word can have.

Get a feel for the word (or for the words in the phrase) by looking it (them) up in an original language dictionary.


You should use a Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic dictionary to get a sense of the range of meaning the word can have.  English words do not have exactly the same range of meaning as words in other languages that overlap with them.  That is, words in one language almost never map onto words in other languages in a one-to-one kind of way.  Even then, the connotations of the word are often quite different in different cultures (e.g. the connotations of the word dog in America and Korea).


Remember, this is only a rough draft.  Write down some basic meanings the word can have to get started, but remember that only a specific context can tell you for sure what a word means in that particular instance!


The standard New Testament Greek Lexicon is Bauer, Arndt, and Gingrich's A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (I think this is on BibleWorks).  I hardly ever use it myself.  It is best used to give me a sense of a word's range of meanings.  If I slavishly follow the meaning it suggests for the passage I am interpreting, then I have let it do my interpretive work for me.  And the further you get down its list of possible meanings, the more interpretation is involved--and the more debatable its conclusions!


Warning:  Avoid the root fallacy and the etymological fallacy.  The word's root cannot tell you what it means elsewhere, nor can its component parts.  If you realize this, however, you can use the root and the etymology guardedly to give you a "rough draft" feel for the word.



Step 2: Brainstorm

I suggest that you start by creating a list of some possible meanings that jump out at you from your work up to this point on the passage in question.  Ideally, you have surveyed broader units and perhaps even done a detailed observation on the verse in question.  You hopefully have at least some sense of what the options are.  Brainstorm and jot down all the possibilities that come to mind.



Step 3: Create a list of possible meanings by looking at the various places the word occurs.

Warning: Avoid the one-meaning fallacy, the lexical fallacy, and the word-concept fallacy.  You are creating a list of distinct and separate meanings.  Do not assume that every place the word occurs it has the same meaning (one meaning fallacy).  Do not assume that all the occurrences of a word are spins on a single, essential meaning (lexical fallacy).  Do not load a system of theology into every individual occurrence of the word or load all the nuances a word can have into every occurrence of the word (word-concept fallacy).  Even if some of the meanings are closely related, discipline yourself to think of them as distinct from one another.


3a. Start with the book in question.

How does the book you are studying seem to use the word/phrase elsewhere?  Again, don't assume that the book always uses it in the same way.


Some critical considerations can come into play here, particularly when an author has incorporated sources.  In the case of Matthew and Luke, for example, we may have some discontinuity of word usage when these gospels are incorporating Markan material (according to the prevailing hypothesis).


3b. Look at other books by the same author.

Unfortunately, more often than not we do not have the luxury of a second book by the same author.  But we do in the case of Luke, Paul, and possibly John.  We should assume there may be less continuity of meaning in the other writings of an author than there is within the book in question.


Critical considerations also come into play here.  The differences between the Gospel of John and Revelation, for example, are significant enough that we must be very careful not to assume they both use words in the same way (most scholars would say they come from different authors).  Similarly, regardless of what one thinks about pseudonymity in the New Testament (writing under the name of a dead authority figure from the past), it is clear that a number of shifts do take place between the language/imagery of Paul's earlier writings and books like Ephesians or 1 Timothy.  We must be very careful not to assume that these writings use words in the same way as Paul's other writings.


3c. Look at other books in the New Testament (or Old Testament if you are looking at a Hebrew word).

Here we must be very cautious about assuming that other authors use words in the same way (e.g. compare Mark's use of the word sign with John's!).  Nevertheless, we are expanding our list of possible meanings for a word.


3d. Look at the Greek Old Testament (Septuagint: LXX for short).

We of course are thinking here of a word/phrase study on a Greek word from the New Testament.  Since all the books of the New Testament are in Greek, there is an excellent chance that the LXX was primarily the "version" they used (the author of Hebrews even makes some points from the Greek text that couldn't be made from the Hebrew original).  Expand your list of possible meanings by looking at how the word was used in the LXX (Hatch and Redpath's Concordance to the Septuagint is the standard work here--BibleWorks should have all these tools on it). 


You might focus especially on any OT passages that seem central to the author's argument in the context of what you are interpreting.


3e. Consider background literature.

Here we mean a couple of things.  On the one hand, we mean how the word is used in the Greek language as a whole.  Kittel's Theological Dictionary did spade work of immense value, although you must be extremely cautious of the word-concept, root, and etymological fallacies into which it repeatedly falls.  Harris, Archer, and Waltke's Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament can perform a similar function for Old Testament word study.


The Dead Sea Scrolls can provide helpful background information for the NT now as well, although they were in Hebrew.  As much as I hate to say it, you may have to consult an up-to-date commentary in the end to get a sense of possible background possibilities outside the canon.  Please put this off until after you have completed the remaining steps below, however, so that the evidence is not "tainted" with the conclusions of someone else.  A "methodical" IBS student is frequently a better observer than half the commentators out there!


Now systematize the list: 1, 2, 3.  Try to list them in the order above: 1) in the same book, 2) in books by the same author, 3) in the NT, 4) in the LXX, 5) in background literature.  Within each domain, order them from most frequent to least.  Do your best--it's not for publication, and it's not your final answer.



4. Use the immediate context of the word to identify the most likely meaning for the word/phrase in that context, as well as what you think the "runners up" are.

Now bring the range of possible meanings to bear on the text in question.  Using what you have learned from your surveys and detailed observations, "fall off the log" and make some choices! 


I encourage you to explain your thoughts at each point in paragraph form.  Let us know what you are thinking at each step of the way.



5. Look at an up-to-date commentary to see if you have missed any possibilities.

One of the greatest values of an up-to-date commentary is that it will record the most likely interpretive options that all the previous generations of scholars for the last 2000 years have suggested.  This is an invaluable tool.  In most cases you will find that your careful and methodical observation has generated the main options.  Sometimes an important one will slip by, however, particularly if you are not aware of some important aspect of the ancient world and its literature.  After you have done your own homework, compare your insights to those of others.