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7 Ways to Do a BAD Word Study

My guess is, you’ve encountered some sort of word study in the last couple of months: a Bible study, a sermon, a commentary, a quip about agape love or a defense of a biblical viewpoint you’re not sure of. But sometimes it’s hard to wade through the muck and know when you’re being short changed.

How can a lay person (or pastor) know whether a word study is legitimate? Here are some bad ways to do a word study, courtesy of Dr. Jennings of Gordon Conwell and Dr. Grant Osborne of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School:

1. The Root Word Fallacy.

You’ve heard this: “The word ekklesia is a Greek word for the church that literally means, ‘called out ones.’” Technically, this isn’t true. While combining the two root words (“called out from”) does indeed create something like “called out ones,” the truth is, the word ekklesia is never used that way in the New Testament or its contemporaries.

In fact, ekklesia was used to refer to a group of philosophers, mathematicians or any other kind of assembly in the Greco-Roman world. So unless we’re supposing that actors and gladiators were called to a holy lifestyle by assembling together, we can’t create a relationship between holiness and ekklesia necessarily.

While it’s true that the church is composed of “called out” ones — that’s not the particular point of this word. It just means “assembly” or “gathering.”

2. The Origin Fallacy.

If a commentary ever drives you back 50-100 or more years to find the origin of a particular word, steer clear. 

Fifty years ago, “gay” meant something totally different in America than it does today. I would hope someone living 300 years from now wouldn’t pick up a newspaper and say, “Aha! The debate about gay marriage in the early 2000’s is, in fact, a debate about whether marriage ought to be ‘happy.’ Just look at the word’s origin!”

The meaning of a word can change very quickly over time, so any legitimate word study won’t find much help by going back to the “origin” of a word, or even looking too far to the future.

3. The “Everything” Fallacy.

John writes, “God so loved the world that he gave his only son.” The word “world” or “kosmos” is one of John’s favorites. But the word kosmos has a flexible meaning — it can mean man, mankind, humankind, world, universe or dirt.

So which meaning did John intend?

We can be sure of this: John did not intend all the meanings. In other words, John didn’t mean to say, “God so loved not just sinful mankind, but the entire creation, even the dirt we walk on!” No — John uses the word “kosmos” in a very particular way in all of his writing, and by knowing John’s writing, we know that he meant “the sinful world,” not “all of the above.”

While certain Bible translations might lead you to believe that we can pick and choose any one among a number of alternate meanings (ehem … maybe just one translation) this is a recipe for a Bible that means whatever we want it to mean.

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Nicholas McDonald is husband to lovely Brenna, father to Owen and Caleb, M.Div student at Gordon Conwell Theological seminary and youth/assistant teaching pastor at Carlisle Congregational Church. He graduated with his Bachelors in Communication from Olivet Nazarene University, studied literature and creative writing at Oxford University, and has spoken internationally at camps, youth retreats, graduations, etc. He blogs about writing, preaching and the arts at www.Scribblepreach.com, which has been featured on The Gospel Coalition, Knowlovelive.org and Challies.com. He currently resides in South Hamilton, MA.