Exegesis # 5 - Fallacies

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

I'm reading through two books right now, Carson's Exegetical Fallacies, and Silva's Biblical Words and their Meaning. I'm not a big fan of Carson, but I have to say the list of fallacies he has mentioned so far is pretty good. I thought I'd share some of them here:

This is where one assumes that etymological root of a word determines its meaning. It can sometimes, but it also can be irrelevant. For example the word breakfast clearly comes from breaking a fast, but no one really thinks about that when they think of breakfast. So there could be a connotation with a word based on its literal meaning... or not at all.

This is a really big point actually, because the way to determine the meaning of a word is not to look at its original meaning, but to look at how it is used. That's how dictionaries are written today, and that is how one determines what a biblical word means - by looking at how it was used at the time. In cases where there is not a lot of stuff to compare it to (the Old Testament for example) one does have to use etymology, but this is always just a hypothesis.

Language Limits Thought
An example of this is the book Hebrew thought Compared with Greek. The idea here is that a language shapes how people think. I suppose it does somewhat, just as it does to be a certain race, or sex, or economic status. But people have an amazing ability to go beyond these limits, and the idea that one's thoughts would be so limited by their language is highly doubtful. Take for example Biblical Hebrew which has no future tense. Does that mean they had no concept of the future? Tell that to the prophets.

Terminus Technicus
This is where one assumes that a word used by Paul is used the same way by John, like a technical term. Another term for this fallacy might be "concordancing" where we look up all occurrences of a word and try to come up with what "the Bible says" that word means. People use words in different ways. Context, context, context.

Word Study Obsession
This is one cited by James Barr, and has to do with the penchant of scholars and pastors to go on and on with a word study, drawing out all the nuances of a word and all its implications for 20 pages. When Paul wrote those letters from prison, do you think he thought that much about every little word? Does anyone? What matters is the big picture of what their point is, the letter as a whole, the paragraph, the thought, and not spiraling off on the choice of one word.

As much as I think it is important to know Greek, it is way way more important to read the text as a whole in a readable translation in order to get inside the head of an author. The more I read in the original Greek, the more I find that my NIV is just fine. I know this is a point that ticks a lot of folks off, maybe because Greek is so hard to learn that it is upsetting to find out that it doesn't matter that much, but it just doesn't. Not compared to getting the larger thought of an author.

Don't get me wrong here. I'm all for Greek word studies. Sometimes they can turn up really important finds. But 9 times out of 10 they don't. It's all a matter of priorities, and a focus on words is not as important as a focus on thoughts.

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At 2:01 PM, Blogger kc bob said...

I liked these thoughts:

"the way to determine the meaning of a word is not to look at its original meaning, but to look at how it is used"

"People use words in different ways."

"What matters is the big picture of what their point is, the letter as a whole, the paragraph, the thought, and not spiraling off on the choice of one word."

At 3:30 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Thanks, glad you liked it :)

My favorite example of using words in different way is the phrase "like a child". Jesus says "unless you become like a little child you cannot enter the kingdom" but Paul says "when I was a child I thought like a child, but I have put childish ways behind me". Same term, so Paul must contradict Jesus! Nope. Jesus and Paul are making completely different points here, and using the same phrase to do it. But if the focus is on a word "child" and not on the thought or idea that rather obvious point is missed.

At 9:52 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great article!

Just wanted to send you this link. You may already know about it, but this is what "the other side" is saying. Perhaps it may help you strengthen your upcoming book, which I anxiously await!


At 11:06 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Yes I'm familiar with that article. I actually dialoged with Nathan Pitchford (the author) about it. You can read his original blog post that the article is taken from, as well our conversation together here:


At 11:20 AM, Anonymous Ryan said...

Please do not ever discourage people from learning Greek. I know this seems like a drive-by comment, but I was looking for reviews of Carson's book, and ended up reading your blog. I enjoyed it, until the end when you said that your NIV was just fine. I enjoy reading the NIV as well as any other version, but without the Greek, we would miss the nuances of the text, and missing the nuances leads to missing the big picture.

Again, I only say this because I want people only to be encouraged to learn Greek. I do agree with the main point that you said, that of understanding the whole of the text. But without the individual parts of the text, we would never understand the text as a whole. Thanks for taking the time to read this.

At 12:00 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Hi Ryan,

Yes, I am all for learning Greek, and I do my own NT exegetical work in Greek. It's just a matter of focus, and for that the overall thought of an author is more important than any single word or grammatical phrase is. So I do not mean to say it is unimportant, but it does get over hyped. It's really all about perspective.

Speaking of learning Greek, what I think is pretty exciting is the recent advances of Greek Bible software in the last decade like Logos, Bibleworks, or Accordance that allows folks to get automatic parsing for Greek words. If used properly this opens up the Greek text for folks in incredible ways so that with a bit of time invested in study one can with the help of these programs get to a level of competency that used to take years and years to reach. It's not a magic button (nothing ever is!) but it is an incredible tool.

At 8:32 PM, Blogger Ρωμανός ~ Romanós said...

I promote the original languages of scripture, and have a blog where a few of the NT books are read in Greek:



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