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Root Fallacies

#exegeticalfallacies #rightlydividingthewordoftruth #truth

The young bible college student coming out of bible college often is equipped with just enough Greek to become dangerous. The average pastor tends to fall into this category as well. Both know that there is so much more that understanding the bible in the original languages can add to our understanding of the word, but often do not have the skills to properly understand what they are doing. One of the things that has driven me crazy over the years is people depending on Strong's for their Greek/Hebrew definitions because strong's is not giving complete or contextual lexical information. Just because a word can mean one thing in one passage doesn't mean that is the meaning it takes in another passage. But I digress. Over the next few weeks, I would like to delve into principles of proper exegesis and what fallacies we need to avoid as we use the original languages. One of the most tempting mistakes we often make when studying Greek and Hebrew words in the bible is what we call a root fallacy.

I. Definition

Daniel Wallace on his blog over at defines root fallacy as "assigning the (supposed) original meaning of a word to its usages throughout history." This often shows up when we study the etymology of a word to look at the meaning of its parts. An often used example of this in English is the word "butterfly." If we take the two parts of the word butterfly: butter and fly, we should get an accurate understanding of the meaning of the word right? Wrong. While the meaning of a word can have something to do with its individual parts, the word often means something more than the sum of its parts. There probably is some rationality behind calling a butterfly a butterfly, but the two parts of the word do not sum up for us the totality of its meaning.

Using an example in Greek, it is easy to see this error play out as well. I don't know how many times I have heard it preached that an Apostle is a "sent out one" derived from the two parts of the word ἀπόστολος (apostlos). The prefix ἀπό (apo) basically means "away from" and the root στέλλω (stello) means to send. The concept of being sent out is an important part of being an apostle. We see that Jesus clearly sent the apostles out as witnesses in the great commission (Mark 16:15). However, it is too simplistic to define apostle as only someone who has been sent out. Other than the Twelve, there were others who had been sent out and yet they were not called Apostles. There is more to the meaning of this word than just the sum of its parts. If it were that simple, every missionary and evangelists would legitimately be Apostles. We will come back to this question in the next section of the article.

II. A correction

What is often forgotten in linguistics is that words vary in meaning and can have a broad semantic range (range of meanings). The easiest example with which to show the first part of this principle is the usage of the word "gay." I had this discussion with a choir member recently where she was deploring how the world has changed the meaning of the word "gay" from happy to homosexual. The truth of the matter is that there is nothing she can do to fix this change. She can insist on using the word in its old usage, but people will not understand it that way for the most part and as time continues it will continue to loose that semantic meaning.

The other part of this principle is that word's have what we call a semantic range or a range of possible meanings. Love is one of those words that has a broad semantic range. In English, Love can mean like; it can mean romance; it can mean fondness; it can mean friendship; it can mean preference; and it can mean lust. There is a great difference between all of these variations for the word love in English. Greek is a little more specific since it uses multiple words for what we translate as love. Here lies the problem of using Strong's as our main source of Greek information. Strongs doesn't give you the information you need to know when a different sense might be used and so you end up picking the one that you like the most.

So, if words don't always mean what their parts mean, or they were originally used as and have a broad semantic range, how do we know what the meaning of a word is. Typically, context is going to be the answer here. Looking at the context doesn't just mean making a subjective decision about which meaning seems to fit although that does take place and we are often pretty good at picking up those queues. In the biblical languages, there are often grammatical hints that show which semantic meaning is intended. One example of this would be the use of the word ανγελλοσ (angelos) which can be translated as angel or messenger. Translators and exegetes face this issue when we approach Revelations 2:1-2 Unto the angel of the church of Ephesus write; These things saith he that holdeth the seven stars in his right hand, who walketh in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks; 2 I know thy works, and thy labour, and thy patience, and how thou canst not bear them which are evil: and thou hast tried them which say they are apostles, and are not, and hast found them liars: Should the word angel be understood as an actual angel or as the pastor of the church of Ephesus? With the prophetic picture used in the passage, it could be argued that this is an actual angel; however, the context seems to show us that it is referencing a man. First, this angel belongs to the church of Ephesus. We have no reason to believe angels are members or even assigned to specific churches. Second, Jesus addresses this angels words, labour and patience. He talks about dealing with false prophets in the church. Did an actual angel take such a role in the church of Ephesus. These queues should give us a hint that this is talking about a man and so the meaning of ανγελλοσ (angelos) would be a messanger referring to the Pastor of the church of Ephesus.

III. An overcorrection

It would be an overcorrection to assume that because of this etymology doesn't matter and the historical meaning of a word doesn't matter. Looking at the parts of a word can help us expand our understanding of how meaning progressed over time. There are also words that were newer by the time they were used in the bible. One such word θεόπνευστος for inspiration is used in 2 Tim 3:16. The word historically seems to have arisen about the same time that Paul was using it and so it's meaning could have been directly tied to the etymology which literally means "God breathed." This article is not intended to say you should never study etymology or roots when looking at the Greek and Hebrew, but we must keep in mind that words mean more than their parts and can take on different meanings over time.

Another overcorrection would be to assume that a word can mean anything you want it to mean and thus make it subjective. Such is really the view of Foucault whose view was that meaning is defined by cultural power structures and change over time. I believe there is an anchor to meaning such that the semantic range keeps it from straying too far. Even in the example of the word "gay" someone could say that homosexuals are gay because they live a carefree lifestyle wihout any moral constraints. The word had some kind of a semantic tie to limit is meaning. Words that stray from these constraints often do not last in a society.

I will give two final examples of the dangers of root fallacy before circling back around to our discussion on the word apostle. It is supposed that because the word for witchcraft in the Greek bible is pharmakaeia that medicines and chemical treatments for vegetables and plants is a form of witchcraft. While witchcraft did include chemical mixtures that we call potions, it is wrong to imply that all chemical concoctions are witchcraft. Potions is sorcery have a very specific purpose and are not focused on their actual abilities but on a magical ability. The second example is the word for church in the bible. Some have waxed eloquent on how church can only be a local assembly of believers and that there is no such thing as a Universal invisible church. This idea is derived from the most common usage of the word in secular Greek. While church definitely takes on this meaning, it can be shown from Paul's writtings in Ephesians that the word as used by Paul has a broader meaning than a local assembly. Context and usage must be taken into account when trying to understand the meaning of church in the bible.


Now to complete our understanding of the word apostle in the bible, we need to look at what the bible says about those who were apostles. First, apostles must be appointed Ephesians 4:11 And he gave some, apostles. Second, He must have been someone who had seen Jesus to be a witness to his resurrection Acts 1:21-22 Wherefore of these men which have companied with us all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, 22 Beginning from the baptism of John, unto that same day that he was taken up from us, must one be ordained to be a witness with us of his resurrection. An apostle had to have had these two qualifications to be an Apostle according to the bible. Some might argue that Paul wasn't saved until much later, but Paul did see the risen Christ on the road to Damascus. Really, there are two semantic usages here for this word and context must give us clues as to which one is intended. A formal apostle as the foundation of the church and those who held an official position as an apostle where defined by these two qualifications while others often translated as apostles where merely those sent out from the church as missionaries and evangelists. Again context determines meaning.

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