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Problems of an Inaccurate Understanding of Synonymy

Or not understanding how synonyms work in languages

As we continue our series on exegetical fallacies, I want to delve into another issue that we often fall pray to in our study of scripture: an inaccurate understanding of how synonyms work in languages. We have all heard a sermon at some point from John 21 after Jesus' resurrection where Peter and Jesus are walking along having a discussion. Jesus asks Peter a question which in English seems to be the same question, "Simon, son of Jonas, loveth thou me more than these?" Thats a very penetrating question that most of us would probably really struggle to answer. Peter's response: "Yea, Lord thou knowest that I love thee." Many of these sermons have keyed in on the fact that Jesus used one word for love while Peter used another. Later on in the final question, Jesus himself changes the word for love to the same one that Peter is using. The message usually is preached that Jesus was asking Peter do you love me with a godly, self-sacrificial love and Peter responds "yes, Lord I am fond of you". The question we have to ask ourselves as we study passages like this is: "Are these two different words intended to convey a difference in meaning or are they being used as synonyms?

Word Study

As we saw in our previous article of Illegitimate Totality Transfer which can be read here if you have not read it, the word Peter used for love φιλεω (phileo) has a wide range of meanings that must be determined by context. I will not repeat that information here. One thing we did not look at though was the ways in which the other word for love αγαπαω (agapao) is used. Remember our theological definition for agape love is giving of oneself sacrificially for the benefit of the cherished object expecting nothing in return (Thanks Pastor Karsies for this definition). This type of love often carries the connotation of being a godly type of love. But when we do a word study is this always the case. Below I have listed a screen shot of a very small list of passages that use this word.

I want to key in on a couple of these passages in the screenshot because they don't fit our mold. Notice 2 Tim 4:10 "For Demas hath forsaken me, having loved this present world..." The word for love in this passage is that same agape love and yet it doesn't seem to indicate a godly, self-sacrificial type of love. Demas' love was not where it should have been and it drew his heart away. The world was his cherished object.

Another passage that doesn't fit the mold is 2 Peter 2:15 which speaks about Balaam who loved the wages of unrighteousness. Again this is a self-serving type of love portrayed here not a godly type of love. Balaam sought to curse Israel on behalf of the Moabites.

Let's look at one other passage. In 1 John 3:18 John encourages his audience to not love in word only but in truth and actions. The word for love in this passage is still a form of agape and yet John challenges them not to agape in word only. The meaning that is hinted at here is that it is possible to agape in word only or hypocritically, superficially love someone. All three passages seem to paint agape as something other than a godly, self-sacrificial love expecting nothing in return. Is this a contradiction? I don't think so. At this point it goes back to the idea the illegitimate totality transfer. Agape love has a semantic range of possible meanings and context determines which usage is being intended. In these three usages, the meaning is not the aforementioned definition of agape love.

Dealing with Synonyms

In our main text, two different words are used for love and it would be easy to try and preach a message about Peter refusing to tell Christ he loved Him with agape love, but is that really the intended meaning. As we saw above agape does not always mean what our theological definition of the word says it means and we have to look at the context to see which of its range of meanings is intended. Sometimes words that are normally distinct are used in ways that make them synonyms. Basically, they have an overlap of their possible range of meanings. If we were to show a diagram of this it would be a Venn Diagram like the one below.

What leads me to believe that agape and phileo in this passage are intended to be understood as synonyms is the fact that Jesus never confronts Peter for the change. Jesus asks the same question twice and even when he changes it, Peter's answer does not change. Words that are used as synonyms rarely ever mean exactly the same thing as each other especially in all contexts. If you google synonyms for walk, you will get a list that includes word such as hike, stroll, trudge, and patrol. All of these words have overlap and allow them to be used as synonyms but they also carry distinct meanings depending on how they are used. There is some distinction between agape and phileo, but there is also that overlap that allows them to be used synonymously.

Notice also that in the exact same passage, Jesus says another phrase three times with different words: Feed my lambs. This phrase could be accurately translated feed my lambs in the first instance, shepherd my sheep in the second and feed my sheep in the third. Even though Jesus changes the words He uses, the meaning does not change. They are all used synonymously. This might be why the greek word for shepherding in the second phrase was still translated as feed by the King James translators when the word has its own distinct meaning.

Synonyms with the same referent

The opposite situation with synonyms occurs in Psalm 19:7-9.

The law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul:

The testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple.

8 The statutes of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart:

The commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes.

9 The fear of the Lord is clean, enduring for ever:

The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.

In this verse, the first phrase of each line is used in synonymous Hebrew parallelism. The law of the Lord, the testimony of the Lord, the statutes of the Lord, the commandment of the Lord, the fear of the Lord, the judgement of the Lord all refer back to the same thing: God's law. However, a detailed study could be done on the distinction between each of the phrases. The most obvious is the phrase the fear of the Lord which has its own distinct theological significance throughout the scriptures. This phrase is used synonymously but still distinct on its own.


We must take care when making too strong of a case for the distinction between words in a passage when those words may have been used synonymously because of an overlap in their meaning.

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