Many preachers, speakers, and Bible teachers know at least a little Greek. Knowing a little Greek isn’t a bad thing, but trying to use the little Greek one knows often turns out badly. One example is when it comes to Greek word studies. Word study errors are legion. From defining the word by its root, to always defining the word in the exact same way, to missing metaphors, word studies that are not careful and nuanced can be a train wreck! Don Carson helpfully lists sixteen (!) word study fallacies in his book, Exegetical Fallacies. Here are a few:
The root fallacy. “The root fallacy presupposes that every word actual has a meaning bound up with its shape or its components. In this view, meaning is determined by etymology; that is, by the root or roots of a word.” For example, some say that “apostle” is “one sent” because the Greek words are similar (apostolos and apostello).
Semantic anachronism. “This fallacy occurs when a late use of a word is read back into earlier literature.” For example, some wrongly say that the Greek word power (dynamis) has to do with what we think of as “dynamite.” This is incorrect; Paul was not thinking of blowing things up when he used the term power (dynamis).
Linkage of language and mentality. “The heart of this fallacy is the assumption that any language so constrains the thinking processes of the people who used it that they are forced into certain patterns of thought and shielded from others.”
Carson notes more; this is a short and edited summary. The chapter closes with these wise words – words which those of us who do word studies need to read carefully!
“Perhaps the principal reason why word studies constitute a particularly rich source for exegetical fallacies is that man y preachers and Bible teachers know Greek only well enough to use concordances, or perhaps a little more. There is little feel for Greek as a language; and so there is the temptation to display what has been learned in study, which as often as not is a great deal of lexical information without the restraining influence of context. The solution, of course, is to learn more Greek, not less, and to gain at least a rudimentary knowledge of linguistics. …The heart of the issue is that semantics, meaning, is more than the meaning of words. It involves phrases, sentences, discourse, genre, style; it demands a feel not only for syntagmatic word studies (those that relate to other words) but also paradigmatic word studies (those that ponder why this word is used instead of that word).