As I said last week, on Friday’s I’ll be posting a variety of fallacies related to exegesis and hermeneutics. This Friday’s fallacy is found in Grant R. Osborne’s The Hermeneutical Spiral – the lexical fallacy. Remember, a fallacy is a misleading or unsound argument. So when we’re talking about theology or biblical interpretation, we’re stating that fallacies should not be used to establish our understanding of both the text and of doctrine. Exegetical and hermeneutical fallacies lead to bad interpretations of Scripture, which lead to bad theology and praxis.
The lexical fallacy is quite popular amongst those who do “word studies.” Since there are an assortment of lexicons and bible dictionaries available to most Christians, it’s easy to understand why this fallacy happens consistently in many of our small group bible studies. Allow me to explain:
If you pick up a lexicon and look up a word, you’ll find that most words have a number of possible definitions, which means that the way those words are translated might be different from verse to verse. For example, if we looked up the Greek word sarx, we’d find that there are a variety of definitions and a variety of possible translating words. It’s translated as “flesh,” “sinful nature,” “body,” and even “people,” depending upon the translator’s choices. Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of the Old and New Testament Words lists five possible definitions and The Theological Dictionary of the New Tesatment (Kittle, Bromiley, & Friedrich) has eight sections referencing it’s meaning and use in the NT.
So what if a person picked up Mounce’s and looked up the word “flesh” and saw that one of the definitions was that sarx “can refer simply to the physical material that covers the bones of a human or animal body.” What if they then read Galatians 5:13 and stated that Paul said that we shouldn’t use our spiritual freedom as an opportunity for our skin and arm hair. It would make no sense of the text, right?!?!
You see, when we use lexicons or bible dictionaries, we need to remember that even though having those definitions can certainly help our understanding of scripture, we must consider the context in which words appear in controlling the definition of biblical words. Just because a word can have several different meanings doesn’t mean that it does; the context determines its meaning.
The reason why this fallacy is important to recognize is because often times people will read the definitions for a given biblical word and than pick the one that best fits their preconcieved opinion. If where you begin determines where you’ll end up, then it’s imperative to remember that we can’t begin with a definition that we want to find support of. Nine times out of ten, we’ll end up finding that same meaning out of the options and choose to select it as our definition. So this is to be avoided.
In fact, the lexical fallacy leads to what James Barr called, “illegitimate totality transfer” (Barr, The Semantics of Biblical Language, 218). What people will do (and sometimes scholars!) is see that a word has several different meanings, and rather than selecting one, they’ll select all of them! This happens all of the time in small group bible studies. After everyone goes around the circle and shares what they think the verse means, someone will say, “Well it must mean all of those things,” and the small group will move on.
No! The text has but one meaning, the original author’s!
Osborne calls this the “overemphasis on words to the detriment of context” (84) and writes,
“After going to so much trouble to find multitudinous meanings and uses for a word, it is hard for the scholar to select just one for the passage. The tendency is to read all or most of them (that is, to transfer the “totality” of the meanings) into the single passage. Such is “illegitimate,” for no one ever has in mind all or even several of the possible meanings for a term when using it in a particular context. Consider the term grill. We hardly think of the connotation “grill a hamburger” when speaking of a fence “grill,” let alone the idea of “grilling,” or questioning, a person. These are rather obvious examples, but at times similar errors can be made when interpreting a language with which we are not so familiar, like biblical Hebrew or Greek.” (ibid.)
Let’s avoid this fallacy, okay?
Got any examples you can think of?
Luke is a pastor-theologian living in northern California, serving as a co-lead pastor with his life, Dawn, at the Red Bluff Vineyard. Father of five amazing kids, when Luke isn’t hanging with his family, reading or writing theology, he moonlights as a fly fishing guide for Confluence Outfitters. He blogs regularly at LukeGeraty.com and regularly contributes to his YouTube channel.