Preaching From the Dictionary
This post was inspired by a PDF article entitled Language by Robert Bradshaw in 1997. I’d like to try and summarize it along with commentary of my own, including a few minor disagreements. I’ll list each fallacy with examples.
Root fallacy– a word is interpreted to equal the sum of its parts
English example: “butterfly” could mean a fly that is made of butter; “doughnut” makes no sense at all if taken literally.
Greek example: hupoeretes has parts that mean “under rower”, but in koine Greek it simply meant a servant or slave, and was interchangeable with diaconos, whose literal parts mean “one through whom something is dispensed”.
Illegitimate totality transfer fallacy– using any possible meaning of a word regardless of context
English example: “Check the trunk” could mean to stop the elephant’s nose, since “check” can mean either to look, to stop, or to mark something as completed, while “trunk” could mean any of the following: elephant’s nose, back compartment of a car, a large container with a lid, a person’s torso, or male swimwear.
Greek example: the word for “gospel” can mean not only the means of salvation, but any sort of “good news”. Thus the immediate context is required in order to choose the meaning applicable for that instance.
Mr. Bradshaw gives another example but I disagree with the conclusion. He cites the Greek word for “head”, kephale, as an example of this fallacy:
A good example of this is the tremendous amount of effort has been wasted on arguing whether “kephale” (kefalh) means “head” or “source” according to its usage in extra-biblical writings rather than its use 1 Cor 11:2b and Eph 5:23-24.
What I disagree with is the “rather than”. The dispute is not between the literal meaning “head” and figurative meaning “source”, but between the figurative meanings “boss” and “source”, and whether “source” is even a possibility. Male supremacy wants to commit the “one-meaning” fallacy (see below) to prevent allowing another figurative possibility. And theirs requires the “semantic anachronism” fallacy by reading a much later meaning of “boss” onto the word. But we know from other passages that Paul used the understanding of the time (that the body grew out of the head) as an illustration of understanding relationships; see Eph. 4:16 and Col. 2:19.
So from Paul’s own usage we know that “source” is a legitimate possibility, and the context in each case would have to clearly indicate that authority is in view for the meaning of “boss” to be possible. So “source” has significant support, while “boss” has practically none, especially when we consider that this would be a new invention for the word. Paul could certainly do that, but we can only know if he has done it by the context. So the burden of proof for “boss” is on male supremacy, and none of the contexts supports the claim.
One-meaning fallacy (opposite of illegitimate totality transfer)– ignoring all but one meaning of a word
English example: see “check the trunk” above, where we only ever use one of the meanings regardless of context. It would be like taking the sentence “Put it in the trunk” to mean “put it in the elephant’s nose”.
Greek example: the word for “flesh” can be literal or figurative; it can refer to the physical body as a whole, for only the muscles, for “carnality” or indulgence of cravings, etc. Whether it can mean “sinful nature” or not is a huge controversy, because such a meaning has no more support from context than the “boss” meaning for “head”. One can certainly tell literal from metaphorical usage in most cases, but the controversy is over the range of metaphorical possibilities: must it only ever mean a hypothetical “sin nature”? Can it ever refer to that? Or can it mean our cravings as physical beings?
This very issue illustrates another fallacy, circular reasoning. One must first assume that there is such a thing as a “sin nature” in order to add it to the possible meanings for “flesh”, then insert that meaning wherever the interpreter decides that this is what Paul meant. But was the concept of a “sin nature” something Paul either accepted or invented?
The concept of “original sin” as a Christian teaching was, as I understand it, introduced by Irenaeus in the second century, and later develped by Augustine. But Augustine hinged his view on the belief that we were all literally “in Adam” when he sinned, and thus share in his guilt, simply by being human. Another view is that while we were not “in Adam” when he sinned, we all inherit a condition that forces us to sin, which is only slightly different from the standard Calvinist view that not only are we forced to sin, but we also are unable to accept the Gospel without God selecting individuals for salvation by forcing upon them a new “nature” which can— and in fact, must— make them turn to God in faith. But regardless of the particulars, these views all have in common the belief that God blames us for doing what we cannot resist doing, and this force is called a “sin nature”. And in order to say whether Paul teaches this, we have to look carefully at each context and the timing of the concept.
Semantic anachronism fallacy– reading modern or later meanings into an older word
English example: “let” originally meant to prevent or restrain, but now it means the opposte. It can also mean “to rent a room”.
Greek example: the word dunamis meant “power”, and it is the basis of our word “dynamite”. But the fallacy comes in reversing the order: that dynamite is the real meaning of dunamis. Another example is the word hilaron which simply means “cheerful”. Many preachers say it means excessive, overflowing happiness, simply because they see our English word “hilarious” in it.
Precision from ambiguity or vagueness– insisting that a greater degree of accuracy is possible when the text does not give enough information
English example: “Oh, I understand you all right” could either mean I do literally understand you, or I’m being sarcastic and saying just the opposite, or I’m referring to something beyond the immediate question. But if I insist upon more accuracy than I can get from a written statement, I might completely misunderstand the writer’s intent.
Greek example: the word for “eternal” means “an unknown period of time”, and examples can be given that indicate it is not our concept of “forever”. Yet as it is used in various contexts in the Bible, the meaning of “forever” is certainly in the range of possibilities for this word. I went over an example of this in my earlier post Temporary Eternity. Another example is John 1:5, which could be rendered either “comprehended/understood” or “apprehended/overcome”; we simply cannot tell from the context. Yet another is the one Greek word that can mean breath, spirit, or wind; we don’t always know which is meant.
Synonyms, poetry, and overlapping meanings
Some insist that because the Bible uses phrases like “body, soul, and spirit” and “dividing even between soul and spirit” that there is some hard and clear line between the soul and the spirit. But these terms frequently overlap and are largely interchangeable, and the only real value in translationg the various Greek words into distinct English words is to tell the English reader that a different word was used in the Greek, not necessarily to convey different meanings. English has many synonyms such as between “cool” and “nifty”, “awesome” and “fantastic” (both of which, ironically, originally had negative connotations), or “lucky” and “fortuitous”. Likewise for ancient languages, and the people often used them for nothing more than poetic expression. The various words for “love” in 1st century Greek, especially agape and phileo, are frequently interchangeable as well.
But we must address the most famous passage using those two words, John 21:15-17. Peter always uses phileo while Jesus uses agape the first two times and phileo the third. It is noted in the PDF that synonyms are also used there for tending sheep and feeding lambs. But while the article argues that these differences are merely stylistic, we should consider the fact that Peter was distressed the third time, and the reason given by John is not merely that Jesus asked three times, but that Jesus said “do you phileo me” the third time. We must ask whether John could have used any more specific language had he intended to tell us that the reason for Peter’s distress was not three repetitions of the same question (to allegedly correlate to his earlier three denials), but that there was something different in Jesus’ choice of words.
Regarding poetry, even today we might say (apologies to Weird Al Yankovic) “I’m a worthless hunk of slime” but we don’t mean this literally. Likewise, especially in ancient Hebrew, the phrase “surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me” (Ps. 51:5) does not mean this literally, but that David was utterly consumed with the depth and awfulness of his sin after the prophet Nathan confronted him regarding Bathsheba. Poetry is not doctrine, and ancient Israel is not the Body of Christ, such that even if doctrine is found in the OT, we cannot arbitrarily port it onto NT theology.
The article concludes by reminding us that the usefulness of grammatical technicalities is not to see who can come up with the most elaborate systematic theology or novel solution to a controversy, but to serve as tool we use in addition to all we know about communication in order to find out what an ancient writer could have meant. The reason we get into this as Christians is because the writings in question, the Bible, are of the utmost importance, as our interpretations can have far-reaching consequences due to the writings’ authority as the Word of God.
But I hope also that we will learn that having a Greek or Hebrew dictionary does not magically turn us into linguists, archaeologists, theologians, or good teachers. Like Jesus’ rebuke to the Pharisees for nitpicking about fine details of the law while ignoring the greater issues of the heart, we students of scripture must remember that our worthwhile study of the technical details should never come at the expense of the greater and indisputable issues of our faith: love, truth, humility, and compassion. Conversely, neither should we neglect the study of scripture for those overarching qualities. Just as Paul told the vegetarians to not look down on the meat eaters and vice versa in Rom. 14, so also the “thinker” and the “doer” must not despise each other.
We’re all needed, but we have to remember our personal limitations. It’s great that we all have access to interlinears and lexicons now, but simply reading them does not make us scholars, and even scholars can make logical errors or simply miss something. It would be far better for all of us to first of all remember that Jesus rose from the dead and that as a result we must live in gratitude and humility, than for us all to try and throw our dictionaries or diplomas at each other. And those whose word people take as “what God says” need to stop playing the part.