This week has been a fascinating walk through the world of “Word-Studies”. My guess is, you’ve encountered some sort of word story 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. 50 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 to the future.