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Illegitimate Totality Transfer

#exegeticalfallacies #rightlydividingthewordoftruth #truth

This past week I was reading a blog article on Logos by Mark Ward which can be found here that really grabbed my attention because it dealt with an issue in biblical exegesis that I have been preaching about for awhile. Growing up and in many churches I visited during deputation if Greek was used the Strongs Concordance was always the go to source for those who didn't know their Greek very well. Now, I am in favor of using whatever resources you have at hand, but most preachers who jump to Strongs are guilty of an exegetical fallacy called Illegitimate Totality Transfer.

What is Illegitimate Totality Transfer?

Basically, Illegitimate Totality Transfer takes every meaning of a word in Greek or Hebrew and applies it to a single use of that word. In technical circles, this is also called Expanded Semantic Field. In Linguistics studies, the researcher will discover that words have a variety of meanings which we call the Semantic Range. An English example of this could be found in the word "love". Love in English is very vague and can mean: preference for a thing, fondness, friendship, sexual desire or sacrificial giving of oneself for another. Illegitimate Totality Transfer would assume that the word love means all of these things at once when we see it in one passage. We don't do this so much in English because it is our native language, but when expositors approach Greek and Hebrew, it happens a lot.

A Case Study

Let's take the word love in the bible since it is an easy one for us to understand even from an English perspective. The word "love" in our English New Testaments is often translated from some form of two different Greek word: αγαπη (agape) or φιλοσ (philos). Agape is generally defined by my Pastor as sacrificially giving of yourself to meet the needs of the cherished object expecting nothing in return. This is a good working theological definition that in most cases holds true; however, agape is often used interchangeably with philos. Philos is often defined as a friendship kind of love. Again this definition can be a good working definition; however especially with philos, this meaning is the result of illegitimate totality transfer. Let's look at some data below:

When I do a basic word study in logos on the word philos in Greek, it shows me all the different words that are created from this root phil-. These are some of the highlights from the list of potential meanings listed below:

Within this list the phil- root can conveigh the idea of love, friendship, kissing, hospitality, ambition, kindness, pleasingness, a wish to be first, devotion, being contentious. Now just scanning through that list, not very many of those derivatives have anything to do with friendship. Now let's take a look at some passages where this word is used and ask if the idea of friendship fits into that specific usage and context.

Matthew 6:5 And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.

Is it logical here to conclude that the meaning of love means being a friend? These Pharisees have a delight in being seen and standing to pray in the synagogues. Could you drop the word's they are friends to pray standing in the synagogues? The meaning doesn't make sense.

John 12:25 He that loveth his life shall lose it.

The idea behind love here is cherishing or clinging onto not necessarily one of friendship.

Matthew 26:48 Now he that betrayed him gave them a sign, saying, Whomsoever I shall kiss, that same is he: hold him fast.

This one is an interesting usage of the root phil- in that Judas was not showing any love of friendship to the one that he was kissing. The word kiss is actually our derivative of the word philos in this passage. In the context, it refers to an action and not the state of being friends and while kissing in ancient biblical times might have been a sign of friendship, Judas was showing no such friendship to Jesus.

Now there are passages where the meaning of friendship is clear such as:

Matthew 11:19 The Son of man came eating and drinking, and they say, Behold a man gluttonous, and a winebibber, a friend of publicans and sinners.

Friend of publicans and sinners is the translation of our root word here.

From this data, we can see that philos is more of a general word for love with a wide semantic range of meaning. It is a disservice to the text to assume that every meaning of the word philos has friendship at its root. Let's look at one more example to see where this faulty conclusion can take you.

Titus 2:4 That they may teach the young women to be sober, to love their husbands, to love their children,

This command given by Paul to the older women of the church through Titus was a ministry of mentorship. The older women ought to take an invested interest in teaching the younger women from their experience walking with the Lord and living life. Specifically, he challenges them to teach the to be sober, to love their husbands and to love their children. The last two phrase of this verse are derivatives of our word philos: φιλάνδρους (philandrous) and φιλοτέκνους (philoteknous). It has been argued that this phrase is speaking about being a friend to your husband from the first phrase which is a legitimate encouragement to give younger women, but it is derived from this exegetical error that we have been studying. This concept breaks down in the very same verse. If you take philos to mean friendship, then the younger women are also being told to be friends to their children in the second phrase. While it is nice to be able to be friends with your kids when they get older; it is virtually impossible to properly parent and be friends with them when they are younger.

Think about how friends interact with each other. Do friends tell their friends to go potty in the toilet? Do they remind them to brush their teeth? Do they give out bed times to their friends? Do they make their friends eat all the food on their plate and set rules for their friends? Parents cannot take on the role of a friend in all cases. Lord willing their relationship with their grown children can grow into that friendship, but that isn't the primary role they take as parents.


I don't say these things as a condemnation to those who make these errors. To be honest most of us are in over our head sometimes trying to explain God's word properly. This is why we have been given the Holy Ghost to help us, but God has also given us teachers and preachers to help as well. These words are intended as a caution in how we handle the word of God. Peter condemned false teacher in 2 Peter 3:16 for wresting (forcing it out of joint or context) the scriptures and Paul challenged Timothy in 2 Timothy 2:15 to right divide the word of truth (correctly interpret). We who take up God's word ought to desire to know exactly what God means by what he says and must not be satisfied with sloppy exegesis.

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