Sunday, October 12, 2008

Common errors in word study

When we study the Bible, it is necessary for us to do word studies. The aim of word study according to New Testament scholar, Gordon Fee is “to try to understand as precisely as possible what the author was trying to convey by his use of this word in this context.” We as readers should not be the one who determine the meaning of biblical words; instead, we discover what the biblical writer meant when he used a particular word. Duvall and Hays insist that we should always keep in mind the distinction between determining the meaning and discovering the meaning.

Even though we do not know the original biblical languages, Hebrew and Greek, we can still do word studies. The use of exhaustive concordance like the Zondervan NIV Exhaustive Concordance is very helpful. The idea here is to use a concordance that matches the version of the Bible you are using.

Duvall and Hays mention the most common word study fallacies that we tend to make when we do our Bible study.

English-Only Fallacy. We all know that the Bible was not written in English and even though we might think that a particular version is closer to the original, it is not the original. Here are some of the problems that may occur. First, a word in Hebrew or Greek is often translated into English by a number of different English words. The other is that we may not be aware that different words in Hebrew or Greek can be translated into English using the same English word. This error happens when we base our word study on the English word rather than the underlying Greek or Hebrew word, as a result gives us a unreliable or misleading conclusions. Looking up the word in an English dictionary would help us in understanding the word in a passage, but it will not in anyway gives us the right understanding and might lead us to a wrong interpretation. Any Bible teacher should have a working knowledge of the original language or learn to use the Hebrew and Greek tools.

Root Fallacy. We have this idea that the original root of the word determines the meaning of the word. I heard preacher who discussed the root of a word and used that meaning every time that word occurs in his sermon. Think about how silly it is in English to use the root of the word to understand the meaning of a “butterfly.” This is also true in biblical language. Just because we can recognize the root words of a Greek word does not mean we have discovered the “real meaning” of the word. It is true that the individual parts may accurately portray its meaning, but only if the context supports such a meaning. The context should give priority over etymology.

Time-Frame Fallacy. This error occurs when we try to tie a late meaning to the word and read it back to the Bible, or when we insist that an early word meaning still holds when in fact it has since become obsolete. I guess this also happens when we try to assign a very late idea to a related word that the first century Christians would not even had the faintest idea. D.A. Carson gives as an example when translators use the word “dynamite” for the Greek word dynamis to illustrate this kind of fallacy. He says, “I do not know how many times I have heard preachers offer some such rendering of Romans 1:16 as this ‘I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the dynamite”… did Paul think of dynamite when he penned the word?”

Overload Fallacy. We commit this error when we include all the possible meanings a word could have. Any preacher should not take the same words from another book and apply its meaning to the word he is studying. The word may be the same but the context determines the meaning of the word.

Word-count Fallacy. We make this mistake when we insist that a word must have the same meaning every time it occurs. For example, if we are confident that a word carries a certain meaning in seven of its eight occurrences in Scripture, we might assume that it must have the same meaning in its eighth occurrence. Again word meanings are determined by context, not word counts.

Word-Concept Fallacy. We fall in this error when we assume that once we have studied the word, we have studied the entire concept. It would be a mistake to assume that we can know everything about the church just in studying the word “church” (ekklesia). This word study will certainly give us important information but the concept of the church or any concept for that matter is bigger than any one word.

Selective-Evidence Fallacy. When we teach we usually cite verses that supports our favored interpretation and we tend to ignore if not dismissed the passages that seems to argue against our view. This is selective-evidence fallacy. This error is dangerous because we do this mistake intentionally whereas we might commit other fallacies unintentionally. Although we want the Bible to support our convictions in every case, there will be times when its message confronts us for our own good. When that happens, we should be willing to change our view rather than twist or ignore the evidence found in the Scripture.

Duvall & Hays, Grasping the God’s Word: A Hands-On Approach to Reading and Interpreting, and Applying the Bible, pp. 133-135

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