Exegetical Fallacies: The Word Study Fallacy

William Barrick | September 1, 2015

When it comes to studying Scripture, word studies are popular, easily obtained from available resources and an easy way to procure sermon content. However, word studies are also subject to radical extrapolations and erroneous applications. It is not always possible to strike exegetical gold by extracting a word from the text for close examination. Word studies alone will not suffice.

Indeed, over-occupation with word studies can be a sign of laziness and ignorance involved in much of what passes for biblical exposition in our times. Nigel Turner, an eminent NT Greek scholar, correctly summarized the issue as follows:

Just as a sentence is more revealing than a single word, so the examination of a writer’s syntax and style is that much more important to a biblical commentator. It is not surprising that fewer books have been written on this subject than on vocabulary, because whereas students of vocabulary can quickly look up lists of words in concordances and indices, in the field of syntax the study is more circuitous. There is no help except in a few selective grammars and monographs, so that the worker really must work his way through all the texts in Greek. (Grammatical Insights into the New Testament, 2–3.)

On the one hand, it is vital to recognize that every word of Scripture is inspired by the Holy Spirit (2 Tim. 3:16). Thus, it is legitimate for the exegete to ask, “Why did the writer choose this term as opposed to one of its synonyms?”

On the other hand, however, the student of Scripture must remember that each word was divinely placed in its specific context. Consequently, the study of an individual term without any consideration of its context represents an inadequate (and potentially dangerous) exegetical method.

Study of the words alone will not present us with a consistent interpretation or theology. This is one of the misleading aspects of theological dictionaries/wordbooks. One learns far more about obedience/disobedience or sacrifice and sin from the full statement of a passage like 1 Sam 15:22–23 than he will from word studies of key terms like “sacrifice,” “obey,” or “sin” in the text.

As a matter of fact, as Moisés Silva observes,

We learn much more about the doctrine of sin by John’s statement, ‘Sin is the transgression of the law,’ than by a word-study of hamartia; similarly, tracing the history of the word hagioi is relatively unimportant for the doctrine of sanctification once we have examined Romans 6–8 and related passages. (Biblical Words and Their Meaning, 28)

To pursue proper word studies, the student must emphasize current usage in a given context. Linguistic aids are virtually useless apart from the author’s context.

Today’s post is adapted from Dr. Barrick’s longer article for The Master’s Seminary Journal. The full article can be read here.

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