As I mentioned in my last post, I want to discuss some areas we need to be cautious about when we do word studies in the original languages of the Bible.
- Humility: We need to start by approaching the process with great humility. It can be very exciting to see the word meanings in the original languages. But being able to look up the word definition or the tense, voice, mood of a Greek verb is very different from knowing the original language. We should be grateful for the scholars and linguists who have made these tools available for our use. The tools we are going to talk about are a great resource for us so approach word studies with gratitude and humility.
- Context: As with all aspects of Bible study, context rules in interpretation because words have a range of meanings. The key is to ask what this word meant in that place and at that time, and in the text where it is found.
- Root Word or Etymological Fallacy
One mistake that we can make is to put too much emphasis on the root words rather than the actual usage at the time and in the context where it was used. We clearly see this in English when we use the word butterfly. We immediately know that we are not talking about a dairy product with wings. But 500 years from now, it might be difficult to understand that a butterfly is a beautiful insect if all they have to go on is root words. How a word and its meaning develops is interesting but it may not be significant to the meaning in the context.
So be careful about “discovering” all kinds of new truth based on root words.
- Time frame fallacy: As word meanings change with time, we need to not force an older or newer word usage onto the text we are studying. A great example of this is one that I have heard taught. It is found in Romans 1:16. The way the ESV translation reads is “For I am not ashamed of the gospel for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.”
This fallacy occurs when an earlier meaning, maybe something that this word meant hundreds of years before the New Testament era, or a meaning that came hundreds of years after the New Testament era is then imposed on the passage we are studying.
Have you ever heard someone teaching on the passage in Romans and say something like,” the word for power here is the word ‘dunamis’ and that’s where we get our word ‘dynamite’ from. And so the gospel is the dynamite of God”? The problem with that, from a time-frame standpoint, is that Paul had no thought of dynamite here. Dynamite was not invented for centuries, so the fallacy is that we try to force a meaning on the word that simply did not exist at the time the Bible was written. As Bill Mounce says, “God’s power is never pictured in Scripture as something that blows rocks apart.”
- Choosing the wrong definition:
When you look up any word in a dictionary, whether it is an English version or a Greek or Hebrew dictionary, you will generally find a range of meanings. As we begin looking at some of the Greek and Hebrew reference dictionaries, we will discuss how to identify the meaning that fits the context. The main thing is to realize that you can’t just pick any, or all the meanings; rather you have to use the one that is tied to the text you are studying.
For example, if I say “run” what do I mean?
But if I say-
“he hit a home run in the game today”
“she runs her department well”
“I am going to run a half marathon in Feb”
“This is where the rivers run together”
-you can see that we really only understand the meaning of the word run by the words that surround it.
Context rules in interpretation.
Just for fun, copy and paste this link to see the possible uses of the word run.
- Putting too much importance on a single word:
Communication occurs as words flow together into phrases, sentences, paragraphs, chapters and entire books. Words bleed their meaning from the context so keep your focus on the bigger picture as you study a passage.
- The ability to do word studies well and hold to the integrity of the text is an invaluable skill. Word studies can enlighten your understanding of the text and help you dig in deep. They can also lead you way off the path of handling God’s Word accurately if you are not careful. It is easy to get lost in the details and forget that the real reason we do this is because we long to better hear and understand God’s message to us. We are not doing this just so we can impress our Sunday School class, but because we love our Father and want to grow closer to Him. So, diligent students of the Word, our next post will introduce various word study resources that will help you. We will also begin doing some word studies together so you can see examples of both well done word studies and places where you might go off track. By looking at both, we will try to find the right place where our word studies help us grow closer to the Lord, deeper in our understanding of His word, and more able to walk in the light of obedience.
- If you have a particular word study tool that you would like to learn to use or better understand, please comment and let me know what it is.