Biblical Word vs. Theological Concept: Avoiding a Common Word-Study Fallacy
Christopher W. Cowan
For the student of the Bible—whether scholar, pastor, seminary student, or layperson—word studies are often a principal means of investigating the biblical text. To understand what a passage means, one must understand what specific words mean in context. Unfortunately, though, there are erroneous ways to study biblical words that can lead Bible interpreters astray. One particular word-study fallacy is the confusion of a word with a concept.
It is not uncommon for one to read a study of a theological doctrine that begins with a discussion of the terminology that the biblical authors use to talk about that doctrine. This is all well and good. The danger lies in thinking that we have exhausted Scripture’s discussion of a theological topic by merely discussing how a specific word or two is used. Moisés Silva offers an example:
“If the word we are interested in is ἁμαρτία [“sin”], it must be clear in our minds whether we want to know all that the Bible teaches concerning the doctrine of sin (the “concept”), or the range of meaning covered by the specific word ἁμαρτία. But these two things are constantly confused” (Moisés Silva, Biblical Words and Their Meaning [Zondervan, 1994], 26-27).
Silva’s point is that the Bible has more to say about sin than a mere study of the Greek word ἁμαρτία will reveal. We must not think we have learned all we need to know about a theological concept by simply studying a biblical word. Texts in which the biblical authors use the word ἁμαρτία will certainly contribute to a biblical understanding of sin. But if we cease our investigation with a word study, there is a real danger of reaching incomplete or erroneous conclusions.
Consider again the example of ἁμαρτία above. Who would deny that Paul’s discussion in Romans 1:18-32 offers an important description of universal human sinfulness? Yet the word ἁμαρτία does not appear there. It is not until Romans 2:12 that Paul uses the cognate verb ἁμαρτάνω and not until 3:9 that he uses ἁμαρτία. If we only look to verses in which certain words occur, we may miss relevant information and arrive at an incomplete understanding of a biblical doctrine.
Even worse, confusing word for concept can lead to completely wrong conclusions. Let’s look at another example. Some interpreters have argued it is inappropriate to speak of Jesus “obeying” God in the Gospel of John. For the verb “obey” (ὑπακούω), the noun “obedience” (ὑπακοή), and the adjective “obedient” (ὑπήκοος) are absent. The argument at first sounds cogent, but a careful reading of the Gospel demonstrates how mistaken this assumption is. Granted, these specific words are not present in John. But it is hard to see the relevance of this observation in light of the clear evidence for the concept of Jesus’ obedience to the Father.
John speaks of Jesus “doing the will” (ποιεῖν τὸ θέλημα) of the one who sent him (John 4:34; 6:38). Yet John uses this same phrase to speak of other people “doing God’s will” (7:17; 9:31; cf. 1 John 2:17), and he clearly intends to describe their obedience to God. Jesus also “keeps” (τηρέω) his Father’s word and commandments (8:55; 15:10). This verb is used often in the New Testament with the meaning “obey” and is commonly used in John’s writings in this manner (e.g., John 8:51, 52; 14:15, 21, 23, 24; 15:10, 20; 17:6; 1 John 2:3–4; 3:24; 5:3; Rev 3:8; 12:17; 14:12). According to John, believers are to “keep” (τηρέω) God’s word and commandments (John 14:23–24; 15:10; 1 John 2:3ff.; 3:22, 24; 5:3). Especially illuminating is John 15:10 in which Jesus compares his disciples’ actions to his own: “If you keep my commandments you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and remain in his love.” Here, the obedience of the disciples is to be patterned after the obedience of Jesus.
In actuality, one does not find the cognate terms ὑπακούω, ὑπακοή, or ὑπήκοος in any of John’s writings, even with respect to believers. So arguments that highlight the absence of these words in John to describe Jesus’ actions are not persuasive when one realizes they are not even part of John’s vocabulary. To “do God’s will” and “keep God’s Word/commandments” are John’s idioms for expressing obedience to God. Thus, the idea of Jesus’ obedience is clearly present in the Gospel of John. But one will not find this idea by merely searching for a specific Greek word that means “obedience” (see Christopher W. Cowan, “The Father and Son in the Fourth Gospel: Johannine Subordination Revisited,” JETS 49.1 : 115-35).
None of this means we should not investigate the meaning of biblical words as we study the Scriptures. Of course we should! But it means we must not do so in a naïve or superficial fashion. Just as we are able to talk about a topic by using a variety of words and expressions, we should expect the same from the biblical authors. A helpful resource is the Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains by Johannes P. Louw & Eugene A. Nida (often referred to as simply “Louw & Nida”). Rather than listed alphabetically, biblical words in this lexicon are classified according to “semantic domains”—that is, words that can convey the same concept are grouped together. For example, under the subdomain “Obey, Disobey,” ὑπακούω and its cognates are grouped with τηρέω (as well as many other words).
Let us be careful not to focus on specific words alone but seek to understand the meaning of individual words by understanding the broader context(s) in which they appear. In this way, we will be better equipped to correctly teach the word of truth.
Chris Cowan (Ph.D., The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is senior project manager and academic editor at B&H Academic.
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