Lexical Fallacies by Linguists

Ever since James Barr’s Semantics of Biblical Language, originally published in 1961, introduced students of the Bible to the fascinating field of linguistics, the world of biblical studies has not been the same. Barr took his cues from linguists such as Ferdinand de Saussure, whose 1916 work Cours de linguistique générale (translated as Course in General Linguistics), marked a milestone in lexical studies.

Some of the lexical fallacies pointed out by these scholars, and numerous others after them, include the following:

  • Root fallacy: assigning the (supposed) original meaning of a word to its usages throughout history;
  • Diachronic priority: like the etymological or root fallacy, this looks at usage throughout the history of a word as though all such uses are still in vogue at any given slice of history (synchronic view);
  • Illegitimate totality transfer: assumes that all the uses that occur at a given time apply in any given instance;
  • Lexical-conceptual equation: the belief that a concept is captured in a single word or word group or the subconscious transference of a word to the concept and vice versa (like ἁμαρτάνω and sin).

All of these fallacies are well documented in the literature prior to 1961 (and even after!), and they are indeed linguistic fallacies that must be avoided. I have essentially applied this linguistic approach to syntax in my Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Zondervan, 1996).

There are other ‘fallacies’ which themselves are fallacious, however. Below are enumerated three of these:

  • a word has no meaning apart from context;
  • diachronics are not helpful; instead one must focus entirely on synchronics;
  • etymology is always worthless.

I will briefly examine these three fallacies of linguists in this blog post.

A Word Has No Meaning Apart from Context

Often linguist say that the word being examined should have the meaning of ‘X’ with ‘X’ being only what one can determine from the context. But this is an unreasonable demand on any word. If every word in a given utterance had the meaning ‘X’ then we simply could not figure out what any utterance ever meant. Consider the following sentence:

Mary had a little lamb whose fleece was white as snow.

If the only word we did not understand was ‘lamb’ then with a little help from the broader context we might be able to determine that it meant a four-legged domesticated ruminant mammal whose woolly coat is used for clothing. But what if we did not know the meaning of all the words in this utterance? Unfortunately, when lexical studies are done, armed with modern linguistics, they often assume the meaning of all but the target term. But where did the meanings of the other words come from? If we were to carry the linguistic notion that a word has no meaning apart from its context to its logical conclusion, then the above sentence would initially be rendered:

X X X X X X X X X X X.

Like Egyptian hieroglyphics that were not decipherable until the discovery of the Rosetta Stone, we would never be able to figure out the meaning of the sentence. It is not only the immediate context that tells us what a word means, and this leads us to the discussion of the second fallacy.

Diachronics Are Not Helpful

Frequently, linguists assume that diachronics are not helpful in determining a word’s meaning. The analogy that Saussure used was a chess game: Someone who observes a chess match, coming in sometime after the beginning of the match, can simply by observation determine who is winning the game. He or she does not need to know any of what has occurred prior to this point. This is synchronic (current time) priority to the exclusion of diachronics (over time).

There are inherent fallacies with this analogy, however. In this case, each one of the chess pieces always has its own defined functions and abilities. This never changes, yet it presupposes diachronics. Further, the chess game is not really the best analogy. A better one would be an American football game (or some other contact sport that involves teams). Suppose you came to the stadium at the beginning of the third quarter of the 1974 USC-Notre Dame football game. The score at the time was 24–7, with Notre Dame in the lead. You might say that Notre Dame was well on its way to winning the game, and you might even put money on it. I saw the game, but didn’t bet on it—though I should have since I have always been a USC fan! The second half USC team seemed to be different guys wearing the same numbers: USC went on to win 55–24, with Notre Dame being completely shut out in the second half. One would have to know about momentum (USC scored their first touchdown just before the half), and even what the coaches said to the players at halftime. In the least, just knowing the score would not be a helpful predictor of the outcome.

Expanding on this analogy, suppose you saw a game in which the teams were tied with 5 minutes to go. Knowing who had the momentum (which could only be known by diachronics); what injuries may have sidelined some key players—and when they happened; which team had the ball—and just as important, how they acquired it; which plays have worked; and which men are playmakers are all important factors in determining the outcome. Just as professional gamblers do not simply look at the W–L column but also examine injuries, home field advantage, weather, one-on-one matchups, and numerous other factors, diachronics is a key element in determining outcome. Although the current situation (synchronics) is the most important factor, the past also helps one to get a clearer picture.

It has often been said by linguists that since the speaker or writer whose words they are trying to understand may be blissfully unaware of the diachronic usage of his words, so linguists need to focus on this author’s/speaker’s usage rather than the past. I agree that we must employ the principle of synchronic priority; but we should not embrace the notion of synchronic exclusivity. Why? Because said author/speaker is presumably comfortable with his own language, having been exposed hundreds and thousands of times to most of the various words he will use in any given utterance. Diachronics are needed by the modern investigator, not the ancient speaker. Precisely because the modern researcher does not have the same linguistic background as the person whose usage is being examined he or she must ‘get up to speed’ on what a word can mean by employing diachronics. Consider for example the word-group κοινός/κοινωνία/κοινόω/κοινωνέω, etc. In the New Testament, when this word-group is used of human beings’ relationship to God, it is often put in a positive light because of the cross. We have fellowship (κοινωνία) with God because Jesus has made this possible. But in the Septuagint, this word-group frequently, if not usually, has a decidedly negative tinge. Has the word changed its meaning? No, it still has the idea of (sharing something in) common. What has changed is mankind’s relationship to God through the blood of his Son. But someone just looking at the synchronic meaning of the word-group in the New Testament may miss this background and thus an important clue to the richness of its usage in the New Testament.

Etymology Is Always Worthless

Certainly for words that have a long history, etymology is hardly needed to determine meaning. The fact is, words change in their meaning over time. Root fallacy ignores this fact. But what about words that are of recent vintage, perhaps even coined by the author one is studying? Consider, for example, θεόπνευστος, a word appearing only in 2 Timothy 3.16 in the Greek Bible. Although Paul did not invent the term, it was recently coined (apparently occurring for the first time in the Hellenistic period). As such, its history is short by the time we get to Paul. Breaking it down into its constituent elements (one form of etymologizing), we see that the word may mean “God breathed” or “inspired by God.” Did it have this force in 2 Timothy 3.16? Almost surely it did. In instances where a word is of recent coinage, and especially when it is used for the first time by the author in question, etymology is a must. No author would coin a word whose meaning had no resemblance to its parts. Words that have been in circulation for a long time, especially common words, however, require primarily a synchronic analysis with supplement from diachronics.

Although modern linguistics has made significant and abiding contributions to biblical studies, not all linguistic principles are of equal value. And some may even be fallacies themselves.

Pastor Osteen and Christian Narcissism: Symptom of a Larger Problem

Posted on August 27, 2014 on Youtube was an upbeat little clip from Pastor Osteen in Houston. But not the pastor you are probably thinking of. No, this is not Joel Osteen but his wife and co-pastor, Victoria.

She said with a big smile on her face and with husband Joel standing next to her in nodding approval:

“When we obey God, we’re not doing it for God. I mean, that’s one way to look at it. We’re doing it for ourselves, because God takes pleasure when we’re happy. That’s the thing that gives him the greatest joy this morning. So I want you to know this morning, just do good—for your own self. Do good ’cause God wants you to be happy.

When you come to church, when you worship him, you’re not doing it for God really! You’re doing it for yourself, because that’s what makes God happy—Amen? [calling to the crowd for a positive response]”

Lakewood Church has a congregation of 45,000, making it the largest church in America. It is broadly evangelical in doctrine. Largely preaching a prosperity gospel—a favorite of some charismatic groups—they have grown the church fivefold since Joel took over from his father as pastor. The Osteens have been criticized for a number of things, not the least of which is being soft on sin and twisting the gospel.

Now, some of the most blatant narcissistic blather ever to come from a pulpit can also be laid at their feet. Not only narcissistic, but also blasphemous. One has to wonder how a megachurch in the buckle of the Bible belt can go on and on without the congregants waking up and smelling what’s being shoveled in their direction. If Lakewood Church is any indication of the biblical literacy, genuine devotion to Christ, and fellowship of the saints of the American evangelical church, we are in serious trouble. I know good people—rock-solid believers—in Houston. In fact, I would say that the biblical literacy in Texas is perhaps higher than any other state in the Union. But perhaps I am running in circles that are under the radar. I pray that that is not the case.

At the same time, I would have to say that in my travels throughout North America, speaking in churches everywhere, biblical illiteracy seems to be virtually at an all-time high. And a desire to please God at all costs is a pipe dream—so few Christians even think in such categories! The evangelical church in America needs corporate self-reflection and corporate repentance. How we treat one another, how we honor God, what our understanding of and commitment to the gospel is, and how we measure true success all need a serious overhaul. The root problem seems to be twofold: the marginalization of the word of God and the ‘buddyization’ of Jesus Christ. The scriptures have become irrelevant and the Lord of glory is now immanent but not transcendent in our hearts.

What can we do to fix the problem? A number of things: get into the Word, especially Romans and the Psalms; exalt Jesus Christ in our own hearts and lives and in the midst of others; get outside our comfort zones of common ethnicity, political correctness, and extreme narcissism; get outside our comfort zone of hiding our sins and learn to confess to one another and the Lord; learn about the magnificence of our God; and live to please him.

Some suggested reading:

  1. J. I. Packer, Knowing God
  2. Samuel Storms, The Grandeur of God
  3. D. A. Carson, The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God
  4. J. I. Packer, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God
  5. Jared C. Wilson, Romans: A 12-Week Study
  6. Bruce Waltke and James M. Houston, The Psalms as Christian Worship



Review of Defining Inerrancy

Defining Inerrancy: Affirming a Defensible Faith for a New Generation, by J. P. Holding and Nick Peters, published by Tekton E-Bricks on 22 May 2014, is intended to be a response to Norm Geisler and Bill Roach’s Defending Inerrancy—and so much more. Both have a similar cover and similar title. Defining Inerrancy, however, is a gloves-off defense and affirmation of a version of inerrancy that many are not acquainted with. That is, many except those who are Old and New Testament scholars.

Defining inerrancyDefending Inerrancy

Defining Inerrancy also interacts heavily with Norm Geisler and David Farnell’s The Jesus Quest, a book published just last March. The info on Amazon says that the eBook is the equivalent of 98 pages long, based on the number of “page turns” on a Kindle. A preliminary Word draft of Defining Inerrancy, sent to me by the authors, weighs in at just 74 pages. It’s a one-evening read, but it will be an evening very well spent.


Even though only an eBook so far, this little volume addresses some of the most pressing issues within American evangelical circles that have been brewing for more than four decades. And it comes with a Foreword by world-renown Gospels scholar, Craig Blomberg, giving the book instant credibility.

The booklet has fifteen short chapters and no footnotes or endnotes (but some, though not entirely adequate, in-text notes).

Blomberg’s Foreword, in the opening paragraph, lets the readers know that Norm Geisler has recently been attacking his evangelical orthodoxy. As one reads through this book, they will discover that it is in many ways a response to Geisler’s campaign to rid the church of what he perceives to be bibliological heretics. Inter alia, Blomberg gives a laundry list of evangelical scholars who have been the victims of Geisler’s acidic pen: Robert Gundry, Murray Harris, Clark Pinnock, John Sanders, Darrell Bock, Michael Licona, Craig Blomberg—and even the entire Evangelical Theological Society (a group which, according to Blomberg, Geisler referred to as ‘liberal’ and the “Former Evangelical Theological Society”)! And Blomberg does not mince words. Penultimately, Blomberg commends this book as follows: “…if Geisler has already misled you on any of these topics, read these chapters carefully so that the record may be set straight.”

Indeed, that is an apt summary of the book. The authors set the record straight on Geisler’s increasingly marginalized approach to inerrancy. Many would regard Geisler as the spiritual heir of Harold Lindsell, a man whose books The Battle for the Bible and The Bible in the Balance bitterly divided evangelicals nearly four decades ago. But I digress.

The major issue that Holding and Peters put forth is that within the inerrantist camp are ‘traditionalists’ and ‘contextualizers.’ Traditionalists claim that the Bible should be read essentially literally and that unless there are clear in-text clues that something is to be taken otherwise, the reader is to regard the text as literally true. Contextualizers see things differently. They would argue that genre, comparative literature, and other extra-textual features are often important keys to understanding the meaning of the text. The book focuses on the Gospels and narrative. Here, it is claimed, traditionalists view the narrative in the Gospels as historical, while contextualizers view it as imbibing, at times, in more than one genre. And even then, this does not necessarily mean that such is not historical. Even though many traditionalists would claim that, for example, dominical sayings are always exact quotations of the Lord (known as ipsissima verba), contextualizers claim that this is not only not in keeping with ancient historiographical reporting but also involves exegetical gymnastics that defy logic.

The authors put forth their thesis rather boldly:

“inerrancy requires a contextualization of the Bible as both the superlative literature that it is and as a document; and that the ‘as it stands’ readings frequently (not always) decontextualize the Bible, reading it as a text out of time, and therefore without respect to critical defining contexts during the time of its writing.”


“… the perception of ‘inerrancy’ offered by the old guard is dangerous, misleading, and obscurantist in that it will result in a view of the Bible that is not defensible or respectable, leading us down a path of endless epicycles of explanation, artificialities, and illogic. The end result will be to bring down scorn on the Christian faith and contributing [sic] to its demise in the Western world.”

This should be enough to pique the interest of any reader! As astounding as their statements are, I think they are spot on. But one will have to read the book to see whether they make out their case.

I will simply note two refrains that the authors make. First, though the Bible may be inerrant, our interpretation of it is not. This would seem to be obvious, yet repeatedly they show that Geisler sets himself up as the arbiter of truth—including true, inerrant interpretations. And this is one of the great divides among evangelicals today. Ironically, though there are many near-consensus interpretations of a number of passages among evangelicals, to hold up a particular interpretation as the true interpretation is to place tradition above the text. And this cuts directly into sola scriptura—the sufficiency of scripture as our final authority. Geisler and other traditionalists tend to claim that any view that does not see the Gospel narratives as utterly historical is not compatible with inerrancy. Yet—again ironically—many traditionalists claim that the Church has from its beginning embraced inerrancy. But if so, it is certainly not the same inerrancy that is embraced by traditionalists.

A case in point (not mentioned in the book): several church fathers, whose bibliological credentials on the New Testament at least were unimpeachable, claim that Jesus’ healing of the blind man in Mark 8.22–26 was not historical. This is one of two miracles of Jesus recorded in Mark that are not found in either Matthew or Luke. Both of them involved Jesus using spittle (the other is the healing of the deaf-mute in Mark 7). Jerome says that the story is “not historical, but symbolic.” And Ambrose, the bishop of Milan in the fourth century, saw the spittle as a symbol for the washing away of sins in baptism.

Nevertheless, these hoary authorities of old were probably wrong. It is instructive that through the route of historical criticism these two pericopes have become seen as among the most likely historical events in the Gospels—and for the same reasons that Matthew and Luke probably excluded them and the church fathers spiritualized them. Why was that? Embarrassment. Most Gospels scholars today, both evangelical and liberal and everything in between, regard a saying or act preserved in the Gospels that would be potentially embarrassing to the church, as having the marks of authenticity for this very reason, for no evangelist would create such out of whole cloth.

Second, the authors make the case that elevating inerrancy to the level of, say, the resurrection of Jesus, puts one’s whole belief system in jeopardy. Toward the end of the book, they make this case as follows:

“Blomberg also offers us, Geisler says, the hideous (!) statement that if there were a few genuine contradictions in the Bible, the rest of the text would not be jeopardized and the entire case for belief would not be called into question. Yes, this is one of those dangerous views of Scripture that says that if the Bible is not inerrant, then Jesus did not rise. How far would it go? Would we say Jesus did not even exist if we find there are mistakes in the Bible? Actually, there are some professed former Christians who hold to this position, and their questioning of the Bible started with them having been in a position like Geisler’s as confessing Christians.”

This view—making inerrancy as important as the resurrection of Christ—is part of a mindset that does not differentiate among doctrines. I call it the domino view of doctrine. When one falls down, they all fall down. I have taught for years that it is one of the main reasons why some conservatives become “liberal.” I put “liberal” in quotes because often such people are not really liberal; they are still fundamentalists, just on the left side of the theological aisle. They still see things in black and white, but now are skeptical about the supernatural and anything that smacks of biblical authority. Darrell Bock speaks of such a mentality as “brittle fundamentalism.” And he sees it as shattering when it comes in contact with the sophisticated polemics of the left.

In Defining Inerrancy, the authors note that they have known many evangelicals who have abandoned the faith precisely because they started out with such a hardening of the categories. This rings true: I get countless emails from people who have either jettisoned their beliefs (or have friends or family members who have) because their starting presupposition was that it’s inerrancy or nothing. Such people would throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater! And it is this very problem that one of the architects of modern evangelicalism, Carl Henry (who could hardly be condemned as being soft on inerrancy!), addressed in his book, Evangelicals in Search of Identity. It seems that many evangelicals are still not listening. And yet Henry saw, forty years ago, that the evangelical church was making inerrancy the litmus test of orthodoxy to its discredit. Yet again, I digress. Holding and Peters are not in the least denying inerrancy; they are simply rejecting a rigid form of it that they see as dangerous to the health of the evangelical church.

In sum, Defining Inerrancy is a book far more important than its size would indicate. It defines not only inerrancy but a yawning divide within evangelicalism. My hope is that traditionalists will not dismiss it out of hand (as they have so many treatments coming from contextualizing inerrantists), but will indeed wrestle seriously with its contents. Sadly, I’m not holding my breath.

A New Twist on the Quadrilemma: Lord, Liar, Lunatic, or Legend?

The May/June 2014 issue of Touchstone has come out. In it is a provocative and, I might say, Lewis-esque piece of writing by Tom Gilson, the National Field Director of Ratio Christi. Called “The Gospel Truth of Jesus: What Happens to Apologetics if We Add ‘Legend’ to the Trilemma ‘Liar, Lunatic, or Lord’?” this article wrestles with the literary improbability of some author creating ex nihilo a person who is both absolutely powerful and absolutely good. Gilson wrestles with a number of objections, but marches through them and lays out an eminently reasonable case that no author could have created the likes of Jesus of Nazareth out of whole cloth. He may well be on to something. In turn, this argues for historicity. Take a look: