Wisdom Concerning Word Studies

Recently, my Hebrew professor made some important observations and comments concerning “word studies” in exegesis that are well worth mentioning (especially for those who are acquainted with Kittle’s popular Theological Dictionary of the New Testament [TDNT]). These comments not only apply to those in seminary who are writing papers, or to those in ministry who are shepherding a flock. They also apply to everyone who listens to lectures and sermons, or who reads various sorts of Christian literature. I pray that these brief comments will grow Christians in their discernment of the interpretation of the word of God.

If you are still not on board, maybe an example will help. A good example comes from a sermon I heard on Romans 1:16, which says, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation, to everyone who believes.” The preacher proceeded to explain that the word “power” comes from the Greek word dunamis, and that dunamis is where we get our English word for dynamite, and so Paul is speaking of the explosive power of God! This is not a profound statement about the power of the gospel; this is simply a fallacy of linguistics. Dynamite did not even exist in Paul’s day. Paul did not have in mind some sort of explosive force when he wrote this, but the power of God revealed in the resurrected Christ. With that being said, I will now mention the comments my professor made.

1) One danger in theological word studies has been the over-emphasis on etymology (a word’s history) in the previous century. This happened due to a misunderstanding that said a Hebrew concept was purer than the Greek, and therefore Greek vocabulary was given new content by a new theology. Thus, roots were sought for the words in protosemitic and related languages, and then those meanings were given priority over the actual use in the text (some of the articles in TDNT fall into this error). This is simply not the case. The etymology of a word does not equal “the most basic meaning,” and therefore should not be imposed on a word.

2) Another danger in word studies is making entire concepts reside in individual words and that no other meanings are allowed. As James Barr points out in his The Semantics of Biblical Language, this is part of the downfall of many articles in TDNT. Instead, we must keep in mind that words, in themselves, are not equal to concepts. The context of the word must inform the concept it is being used to explain.

3) At least two things should be considered when doing word studies: denotation and connotation. Denotation refers to the basic definition found in the lexicon. Connotation refers to the usage of a word in a particular context. Most of one’s time should be spent making observations concerning connotation. Several steps are involved with this. First, use a descent lexicon in order to find how a particular word is used (for Greek use BDAG; for Hebrew use HALOT). Second, begin to survey the usage of a particular word. This can be done with a concordance, or with a good bible software like Accordance (MAC) or BibleWorks (PC). Third, sift out any texts using the word whose context is not similar to that of your passage. In other words, only similar contexts can inform the usage of your word. Fourth, in doing this process, work in so-called concentric circles: from the immediate passage, to the book, to the author, to the type of literature (e.g. letter/narrative/poetry/etc.), to the New/Old Testament, and lastly to the entire canon. The goal in all of this is to find how the word is being used in your passage’s context.

Well, I hope this post is of some help to those of you who read it. If not, I would encourage you to read a book written by D. A. Carson, titled Exegetical Fallacies. It is a short read and very helpful. I would especially recommend this book to all those enrolled in or planning to attend seminary, and to those who are teaching in any position in the local church setting. May we all continue to grow towards proper hermenuetics, so that the word of God may be explained accurately to his bride, so that Jesus, in all of his saving excellence, is portrayed well.


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