One of my favorite tools for digging into the Word is the simple word study. It was the first Bible study method my dad taught me. I can still remember hours spent at the kitchen table with Strong’s Concordance and a couple of commentaries. It was the first book my parents got me after I was called to preach.

It is important to realize, however, word studies can only take you so far, especially if they are the only tool in the toolbox. A likely scenario looks like this:  A preacher will look up a word in the Greek and see all the different meanings the word can have. The preacher than picks the one that fits his outline and “preaches” the best on that day for that sermon. He feels he can speak with utmost authority now that he has established the true meaning.

D.A. Carson (insert obligatory disclaimer here) in his discouraging/encouraging book Exegetical Fallacies lists this type of error as the “root error.” He writes:

  • Definition: The presupposition that the meaning of a given word is bound up in its shape, components, or etymology.
  • Example: 1 Cor. 4:1 — “So then, men ought to regard us as servants (ὑπηρετης) of Christ…” The word for servants used in this passage has been mistakenly translated as “under-rower” because of the apparent use of the prepositional prefix ὑπο( meaning “under” and the root “ἐρετης” which may appear to be related to ἐρεσσω, a word for “rower” used in Homer. However, it is fallacious to derive the meaning of ὑπηρετης directly from these two components; the word does not mean “under-rower” but simply servant. (An English parallel would be deriving the meaning of pineapple from pine and apple.) Deriving word meanings in this fashion is not necessarily fallacious (as in the case of ἐκβάλλω, to throw out), but care must be taken.

I still love word studies. I still do word studies. But they are much more useful when combined with a common-sense reading of what is happening in the context. If there are a few possibilities of a word definition, but all the participants in the story seem to be reacting in a particular way, you can use that to help determine what is going on.