Word-Study Fallacies

A fallacy is an incorrect conclusion drawn from faulty logic, argumentation, or reasoning.  Thus, one can commit a fallacy of logic, deduction in everyday life, or a verbal fallacy.  This post is about the latter.  What are the most common fallacies in biblical interpretation?  This is a critical question if we are to be careful and discerning Christians living according to the Word of God.

In my experience, most Christians have not been taught to read Scripture well or carefully.  Even the most avid biblical readers I know have been taught many ‘tools’ that are actually fallacious methods of drawing conclusions from Scripture.  Many of these interpretive ‘keys’ revolve around the ever so popular Greek and Hebrew word studies.

Before I explain in detail, I want to be clear from the outset that word studies in any language are not invalid across the board.  There are valid and appropriate ways to study the meaning of individual words and to trace their use through different literature and different passages in order to gain a sense of what it means in a specific passage.  However, doing this properly requires great caution and must be done with knowledge about the way a specific language works as well as a general understanding of semantics.

That said, let me briefly explain some of the most common word-study fallacies seen in preaching, bible studies, and Christian material.  I will be summarizing material from two great books that deal with this issue: Dr. D.A. Carson’s 2nd edition of Exegetical Fallacies, and Dr. Grant Osborn’s book The Hermeneutical Spiral.

The Root Fallacy:

The root fallacy presupposes that every word actually has a meaning bound up with its shape or its components.  That is, the meaning of a word is determined by its etymology.  While it is sometimes the case that the etymology of the word determines its meaning, it is not always the case.  For instance, in English, we get our word ‘ignorant’ from a Latin word that means ‘nice’.  Obviously, if I use the word ‘ignorant’ in a sentence, it does not help us at all if I attempt to explain my sentence by telling you the etymology of that word.  This is actually quite common.  Etymology and the way a word is used now often do not line up.

This fallacy also relates to finding the meaning of a word by dissecting the meaning of each of its parts and then defining it as the sum of the parts.  A classic example of this is in I Corinthians 4.1.  Paul says, “So then, men ought to regard us as servants (hypēretas) of Christ and as those entrusted with the secret things of God.”  Many years ago, a commentator by the name of R.C. Trench popularized the interpretation that hypēretas, which is made up of two words ‘under’ and ‘to row’, means ‘under rower.’  Many preachers have waxed eloquent about the ships at that time being propelled by slaves under the deck who row to the beat of the slave master’s drum.  Thus, Paul, and consequently all Christians, are said to be ‘lowly servants’ sharing the gospel to the beat of God’s drum.

While that may preach, it isn’t a valid conclusion since the interpretive principle is invalid.  Everyone who speaks English knows that words do not simply mean the sum of its parts.  A butterfly is not a fly made of butter or even a fly that likes butter.  Nor is a pineapple a special sort of fruit that grows on pine trees.  Greek and Hebrew are no different.  Sometimes a word does mean the sum of its parts (like the word ekballō which means to cast out from ek and ballō), but not always and not even often.  Thus, we must be careful in drawing these sorts of conclusions, and frankly, one should not even attempt to do so if you do not have a working knowledge of Greek and Hebrew.

Semantic Anachronism:

This fallacy occurs when a meaning of a word that developed after the text was written is read back into the original text.  This is the opposite error of the root fallacy.

A great example of this when people import the modern day meaning of the word bishop (episkopos) into the biblical texts.  Today when we think of bishops, we think of top leaders in the Anglican or Roman Catholic Churches that rule over many different churches in his diocese.  However, there is no indication in Scripture that the word was ever used to describe a person who ruled over more than his own church as one man among other elders.

Another common example of this fallacy is found when people note that Paul says in 2 Corinthians 9.7, “God loves a cheerful (hilaron) giver,” and then conclude that since our modern day word ‘hilarious’ comes from this Greek word we are to be hilarious givers.  The implication is that we should give in such a way that we have to laugh at how incredibly stupid it seems to us at first to give so much.  This is a completely invalid interpretation that reads a later meaning of the word into the original context.

Semantic Obsolescence:

This fallacy occurs when a meaning of a word becomes obsolete or is out of use but the interpreter assigns a word in his text that meaning anyway.  Simply put, we must remember that words change their meaning over time, especially over hundreds of years.  Certainly one can think of some words that at one time meant something common and plain but have now come to take on entirely different meanings.

The best example of this is in biblical studies is the Greek word martyr.  This word can be demonstrated to have developed in its meaning over time.  Its meaning developed something like this:

  1. one who gives evidence, in or out of court
  2. one who gives solemn witness or affirmation
  3. one who witnesses to personal faith, even in the threat of death
  4. one who witnesses to personal faith by the acceptance of death
  5. one who dies for a cause

Depending on the context, several of these meanings still remain a possibility in common usage.  But, when we read the book of Revelation for instance, we must decide which of the meanings given above are most probable.  In all likelihood, the earlier meanings are more probable.

The main point of all of this is that when we compare the usage of a word in one text from one time period to its usage in another time period, we must be open to the fact that words sometimes change their meaning over time.  Some older meanings become obsolete and should not be read into more recent works.

The One Meaning Fallacy:

This fallacy occurs when one concludes that a word means only one thing everywhere and anywhere.  Often, it is argued that one specific Greek or Hebrew word should always be translated by the same English word.

To give an example as to why this is a bad idea, one must simply look at the Greek word sarx.  This word often is translated ‘flesh’, but this is not always helpful for the English reader.  Look at the number of ways this word is used in context:

  1. Matthew 24.12 – ‘no flesh will be saved’ = no person
  2. John 1.14 – ‘the Word became flesh’ = became a human being
  3. Romans 9.8 – ‘children of the flesh’ = children of natural birth
  4. Hebrews 5.7 – ‘days of his flesh’ = his earthly life
  5. Romans 8.13 – ‘live according to the flesh’ = the sinful nature
  6. Jude 7 – ‘go after strange flesh’ = sexual immorality

The point is simply that words often have multiple meanings which may require multiple English words to be used to translate them.

Problems Surrounding Synonyms and the Range of Meaning:

This fallacy fails to understand the differences between synonyms, equivalence, and the fact that words have a range of meaning.

The best example of this is the well known Greek words phileō and agapaō.  It is often said that agapaō means ‘unconditional love’ while phileō means ‘brotherly love’.  This conviction is problematic because, as we saw above, words do not simply have one meaning.  But, it also fails to recognize that different words can have the same meaning in certain contexts even if they differ on their full range of meaning.  Let me explain.

It is not accurate to argue that agapaō always has a positive connotation.  In 2 Samuel 13, the word is used in the Septuagint to describe Amnon’s love for his half sister Tamar whom he raped.  In 2 Timothy 4.10, Paul uses agapaō to describe the love that Demas had for the present evil world.

Sometimes, phileō and agapaō are used interchangeably in the same passage.  In the Gospel of John, the words are used throughout the work without any shift in meaning (John 3.35, 5.20, 21.15-17).  This is especially significant in John 21 when Jesus restores Peter after Peter’s three denials before the crucifixion.  Many people have attempted to read in all sorts of significance to the different uses of each word when in fact, the use of different words for ‘lambs’ and ‘sheep’ and for ‘feed’ and ‘shepherd’ suggest that no such nuances should be inferred.  Jesus is simply speaking like all of use do when we repeat ourselves.  He uses different words to say the same thing to help get across his point.

A thorough study of the Gospel of John reveals that although phileō and agapaō can mean different things, they are often used to the same way to speak of love.  Phileō can be used to mean ‘kiss’ (Lk. 22.47) as is the case when Judas betrayed Jesus.  As far as we can tell, agapaō is never used that way in all of Greek literature.  So, the words have a different range of meaning (and thus they can mean different things), but their ranges of meaning overlap (and thus they sometimes are used interchangeably).


I have summarized a few of the insights from Carson and Osborne in order to help those who want to read the bible well and carefully.  There are many other fallacies that they discuss, so if you are interested in learning more, then I suggest you check those out.

Many of us have been taught that ‘deep’ bible study is marked by intense word studies that mine the depth of single Greek and Hebrew words.  Part of my intention in this post was to show how careful we have to be when engaging in this sort of study.  Most people are not equipped to study words in this way even when they hold in their hands a Greek Lexicon or a Strong’s Concordance.  Word studies require an understanding of how these languages work.  Without a working knowledge of the language, one will tend to commit several of the fallacies mentioned above.

But the main intention for this post is not the technical argumentation meant to expose the common word-study fallacies.  My hope is to encourage you to see that you don’t need to have studied Greek or Hebrew at all to read the bible well.  Certainly, knowing those languages is an important tool for those who teach Scripture publicly, but the general message of Scripture is clear to those reading translations.

One reason for this is that no language that I know of works in such a way that one cannot understand what is being said without deep technical word studies for the simple fact that words do not have static meaning and language says more than the sum of its definitions.  Context is the largest determiner of the meaning of a word.  Furthermore, the meaning of sentences and paragraphs are found in the relationship between the sentences and the syntax of each sentence more than in single words.  Meaning in human language is not best understood by focusing narrowly on single words, but on looking at the interplay of words in a sentence.  Human language is not an equation or formula that can be dissected into unrelated variables that are then added together.

This means that if you talk and read everyday, you probably have 95% of the tools you need to understand Scripture adequately enough to walk with God and to grow in wisdom as you read Scripture.  Whenever preachers wax eloquent about the meaning of this or that Greek or Hebrew word, I often wonder how that benefits the congregation’s understanding of the passage.  Certainly there are times when a preacher will need to explain why this or that translation does not, in their opinion, best capture what is said in Greek, but more often than not, when someone is talking about the Hebrew or Greek, they are committing one of the fallacies mentioned above.  I know it can be a temptation to try and bolster our credibility by pronouncing a Greek word that no one will remember rather than seeking to show from what everyone has access to why the passage means this or that.  But this must be avoided.

So, first of all, be encouraged.  God’s Word is not beyond you.  It is near you.  Read it.  Study it.  Use the tools you use every day in reading other things to help you discern what Scripture says.

Secondly, if you do study Greek and Hebrew, be careful not to do damage with the little you know.  Just because you have a lexicon or a concordance doesn’t mean you actually know how the languages work.  We can be easily tempted to try and impress people with what we ‘know’ rather than helping them to see how to read the bible for themselves.  So think carefully about how language works in the first place.  Sentences and paragraphs rarely have their meaning tied up in an obscure meaning of a single word.

Rebuke Your Neighbor

The bible teaches that a rebuke is a good thing.  To rebuke another is to bring truth where change is needed.

Yesterday, I was walking through a chapter in one of my favorite books called Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands: People in Need of Change Helping People in Need of Change by Paul David Tripp (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2002), and I was both encouraged and convicted.  Tripp proposes a model for helping one another that is organized around four words: Love, Know, Speak, and Do.  Chapter 11 is one of the chapters on the ‘Speak’ portion of that model.  Tripp proposes that before we speak into another person’s life, we must love them by empathizing with others, listening to their story, and entering into their suffering.  I want to summarize for you much of chapter 11 because I think it is incredibly biblical and gets right to our hearts when it comes to confrontation and rebuke.

Tripp begins by pointing out that we do not normally react positively when we think about rebuke and confrontation (pg.200).  Those are negative terms to most people.  We usually think of harsh words, anger, and threats.  However, Tripp explains that the bible describes a rebuke as an act of patient and committed love in which a person speaks the truth in love (pg.200).

Surprisingly, Tripp points the reader to Leviticus 19.15-18 in order to make his point.  That isn’t the first place I would have turned, but he makes some incredibly insightful observations that I wish to highlight in this post.

Leviticus 19:15-18  15 “You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor.  16 You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not stand up against the life of your neighbor: I am the LORD.  17 “You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor, lest you incur sin because of him.  18 You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.

The first two points together say that rebuking must be rooted in submission to the two greatest commandment to love God with your whole being and to love your neighbor as yourself.  He points out that God twice says, “I am the Lord,” which is a command to submit to him, and he notes that all the commands in the passage deal with loving a neighbor.

Verse 17 is where he draws some important applications.  Now, the ESV translation that I have quoted above doesn’t quite translate it how I would after looking at the Hebrew, and Tripp’s applications depend on it reading a little differently.  Rather than saying, ‘You shall reason frankly,’ the phrase ‘reason frankly’ should probably be replaced with something like rebuke/convince/chide/argue/reprove.  While I agree with the ESV that the word entails some sort of reasoning to occur in this encounter, the word also suggests that it is a confrontation that includes a challenge.  Tripp also notes that the last part of verse 17 teaches that failing to confront sin brings guilt upon the one who sees and does not confront.  The ESV provides an adequate translation, but the translation also doesn’t quite capture everything the Hebrew suggests.  That said, Tripp then concludes:

Being nice and acting out of love are not the same thing.  Our culture puts a high premium on being tolerant and polite.  We seek to avoid uncomfortable moments, so we see, but do not speak.  We go so far as to convince ourselves that we are not speaking because we love the other person, when in reality we fail to speak because we lack love…True love is not offensively intrusive or rude.  But the bible repudiates covering sin with a facade of silence.  It teaches that those who love will speak, even if it creates tense, upsetting moments…we fail to confront, not because we love others too much, but because we love ourselves too much.  We fear others misunderstanding us or being angry with us.  We are afraid of what others will think (pg.202).

The third and fourth points Tripp makes are that we have a moral responsibility to make confrontation and rebuke a part of everyday relationships (pg.202-203).  He explains that confrontation doesn’t have to be a big ordeal because little rebukes should be an ongoing part of healthy Christian relationships.  He says:

Often when people hear the words rebuke and confrontation, they think of a radical moment of truth telling, a long list of stern indictments against a person who is significantly rebellious or who has tragically wandered away.  Yet the model hear is ongoing honesty in an ongoing relationship…In each small moment of truth speaking, the progress of sin is retarded and spiritual growth is encouraged…Notice that the passage says, “…so that you will not share in his guilt.”  There could be no clearer statement of our moral responsibility.  Each of our relationships must be pursued in absolute submission to the will and way of the Lord (pg.203)…a good relationship always grows in its ability to recognize, confront, and deal with the truth…This passage envisions a “constant conversation” model where the daily intervention of honest rebuke is a regular part of all relationships (pg.205).

Tripp also explains that rebuking and correcting others does not mean that our love is conditional.

The self-sacrificing love of this passage exists at the intersection of patient grace and intolerance for sin.  This means that I love you and I will not walk away from you at the first sign of weakness or sin.  I will extend to you the same grace I have received.  At the same time, however, my love for you does not close its eyes to wrongdoing.  It does not stay silent while sin is allowed to grow.  The love I am called to extend is the love of the cross of Christ, which stands at the intersection of God’s grace and his complete intolerance with sin.  His intolerance does not cause God to move away.  He moves toward me in redemptive love, so that someday I will stand before him without sin (pg. 203).

The fifth and sixth points that Tripp makes may be the most challenging.  Tripp explains that our failure to confront often stems from hatred.  There are two forms of this hatred: active hatred and passive hatred.

Passive hatred:

One subtle form of hatred is favoritism, granting favor to some but refusing it to others because of a standard we have set up in our own minds.  It may be based on economic status, physical appearance, race or ethnicity, doctrinal differences, self-righteousness, revulsion over particular sins, or something else (pg.205)…A second form of passive hatred is bearing a grudge.  We keep a record of what someone has done against us.  We go over it again and again, each time growing more angry and giving ourselves more reason to despise the offender.  Our anger grows when no further sin has been committed; it becomes the interpretive grid through which we assess everything the person does (pg. 206).

Active hatred:

Here we not only act as the judge, but as the jailer and executioner as well.  This passage says that there are three ways our hatred actively reveals itself: injustice, gossip, and revenge…

Injustice perverts God’s system of restraint.  It doesn’t protect, correct, or restrain the sinner.  It hurts and mistreats him.

Gossip doesn’t lead a person to make a humble confession before God or others.  When I gossip, I confess the sin of another person to someone who is not involved.  Gossip doesn’t restrain sin; it encourages it.  It doesn’t build someone’s character; it destroys his reputation.  Gossip doesn’t lead a person to humble insight; it produces anger and defensiveness.

Revenge is the opposite of ministry.  Ministry is motivated by a desire for someone’s good; revenge is motivated by a desire to harm him (pg. 206).

These insights into this passage were the most convicting for me personally.  Tripp essentially argues that many people don’t confront because they love themselves more than God and others by living for peace and approval instead of engaging in the difficult act of loving confrontation.  However, others don’t confront because they have come to hate their neighbor.  Fearfully, I have to admit that reading Tripp’s explanation of Leviticus 19.15-18, I had my eyes opened to hatred in my heart.  Those of you who know me know that I don’t shy away from confrontation, but I have come to see that my failures to confront well or my frustrations in my attempts to confront sin have often turned to hatred toward those who did not receive the rebuke.  Rather than remaining committed to patient, humble, and loving rebuke, I have often turned to hateful ways.

Hate is such a strong word, that it is difficult for me to own that, but I can’t escape what Leviticus 19.17 says, “You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall rebuke your neighbor.”  I am called to love my neighbor, but instead of love, I have hated many people in my heart that has resulted in hateful passive behavior.  This is nothing short of sin that deserves death.

Praise God that he loved me, a sinner, and did not hate me despite my consistent rejection of his reproof!  Thank God that he has shown me mercy by sending his Son to lovingly confront me with my sin, persistently moving toward me in correcting love, a love that led him to the cross to die to take the penalty of my sinful, hateful heart.  God made me his child by adopting me on the basis of Christ’s blood, and now my identity is in Christ.  Because I have everything I need in Christ, I can persist in loving confrontation and not resort to hatred behavior even when my rebukes are ignored (pg.207).  If I remember my status as a child of God who has been shown mercy and grace, I can be motivated out of love and not impatience, frustration, or hurt when I confront (pg.208).  I can approach others humbly since I see that I have been shown mercy and have no righteousness of my own.  Living in light of the gospel, the good news that Jesus died for my sin and rose again, empowers me to place others before the Lord rather than forcing them to deal with me (pg. 208).

Biblical confrontation means starting with our own hearts.  If we do not start with our own hearts, we will tend to:

  1. Turn moments of ministry into moments of anger (pg. 209).
  2. Personalize what is not personal (pg.210).
  3. Be adversarial in our approach (pg.210).
  4. Confuse our opinion with God’s will (pg.210).
  5. Settle for quick solutions that do not address the heart (pg.210).

Biblical confrontation starts with the right goals.  We all need the ministry of loving, honest rebuke because of:

  1. The deceitfulness of sin.  Sin blinds our hearts (pg.212).
  2. Wrong and unbiblical thinking.  None of us thinks in a purely biblical way (pg.212)
  3. Emotional thinking (pg.212).
  4. My view of life (God, self, others, the solution) tends to be shaped by my experiences.  Because I am the one who interprets my experiences, my conclusions will be reinforced by each new situation (pg.212).

Thus, the right goals for confrontation are:

  1. To be used as one of God’s instruments of seeing in the lives of others (pg.212).
  2. To be used by God as an agent of repentance (pg.212).

I think Tripp has some incredible insights in this book and especially in chapter 11.  I want to add a few thoughts to conclude this post on confrontation and rebuke.

This chapter focuses on our hearts as we seek to rebuke and confront others, but it has profound implications about how we receive confrontation as well.  Implicit in the verses in Leviticus, and many other places in Scripture, is the teaching that we must be open to hear from others.  We must not only be open to the correction of others, but we must humbly seek insights from other people.  We cannot confront others unless we are inviting others to look into our lives as instruments of seeing our own hearts.  In one sense, this is how Tripp has been used in my life!  How much better would it be if this was an ongoing part of all my personal relationships?

The bible teaches that humility means that we recognize that it is by grace alone that there is anything good in us.  We are righteous because Christ’s righteousness has been imputed to us through faith.  The result of this recognition of God’s grace is that we are open to correction and suspicious of ourselves since we know that nothing good dwells in us.  Humility does not mean that we are never confident in what we believe, but it does mean that we don’t think ourselves better than others when we know we are right and that we are always open to being shown that we are wrong.

In my experience, much frustration occurs in relationships when one person is not humble and therefore not open to reasoned evaluation of their heart, thoughts, and actions.  As Tripp points out, confrontation should not be a dramatic one time event, but an ongoing part of our lives.  In this sense, the conversation should never end during this life as we continue to speak into one another’s lives as we ourselves seek to be open to correction.

So, don’t shy away from rebuking or receiving rebuke, but be humble in light of God’s grace to you in Christ!