Thursday, August 1, 2013

Amplified Error: The Danger of Biblical Word Studies

It is a common joke among philosophy majors that the most dangerous thing in the world is a first year philosophy student.  Why?  Because he knows just enough to be really dangerous.  He has just enough knowledge to solidify his uniformed opinions in his own mind and just enough rhetorical tools to convince the people who know less than him that he is some kind of expert.

The same is true of original languages when doing Bible study.  Probably the most dangerous study in the world is carried out by someone who knows "a little" Greek... or "a little" Hebrew.

Or worse... he doesn't know either of those languages at all but has a Greek to English dictionary or thinks his Amplified Bible coupled with his Strong's Concordance makes him a Biblical scholar because it has two lexicons in the back.  The truth is that a solid English translation (like the ESV or NASB or even the old NIV) studied and read in context is far more advantageous than listening to pseudo-scholars writing Greek words one at a time on a white board.  After all, context is important because scripture interprets scripture.  Insight into the original languages is good BECAUSE it sheds more light on the original context... not because it gives you trivial knowledge of all the possible meanings and uses for Agape.  If you can't understand the context of the phrase in its original language, what does one word really profit you?  There might be an advantage there, but the danger should not be underestimated. 

I'm no linguist and I don't have a Master of Divinity so I am not an elitist here.  I am someone who was suckered in by the people described above for most of my life.  The sad fact is that most of them fall under the New Testament rebuke that warns to avoid people who are "always learnimg and [are] never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth."

Here's an example in English so everyone can know the danger that I am talking about. I am going to remove the dead language from the equation to simplify the point. Let's take a simple English sentence and play the Amplified word game.  I will show you how easily something can go wrong if you take one sentence out of context and amplify one word out of that sentence.  Let the twisting begin:

"At that time, Billy climbed over the fence."

Now I'm going to play the pseudo-scholar word games with this one sentence as if this was a passage of Scripture.  I don't have time to read a whole paragraph where I found this thing so I will do the "scholarly" thing and look at word meanings.  Let's see... Fence... that's an interesting word.  More often than not, the ugly truth is that I only found this sentence because I did a word search for "fence" and this thing popped up so I decided to use it.  (If you don't think that that happens then you are truly naïve... and you trust too easily.)

Let's look in my English to English lexicon (called a dictionary) and figure out what all the possible meanings are of this word.

Fence (noun) 

1. a barrier enclosing or bordering a field, yard, etc., usually made of posts and wire or wood, used to prevent entrance, to confine, or to mark a boundary.
2. Informal. a person who receives and disposes of stolen goods.
3. the place of business of such a person.
4. the act, practice, art, or sport of fencing.
5. skill in argument, repartee, etc.
Now, the first one is the most common, but there are all these other meanings!  Let's play around with it and get all scholarly.  Using 2, we can conclude that it is possible that Billy is working with some kind of criminal who specializes in stolen goods... and he is trying to climb over that person.  He must be trying to get over on that activity.  Since number 4 has to do with a sport involving swords and 5 means that Billy is a skilled talker, clearly we are dealing with some kind of shady individual.  Even when you look at number 1, what are most fences for?  They are for keeping out unwanted people... so at the very least, Billy is trespassing somewhere.  This lexicon has unlocked great truths here... Billy is clearly some kind of criminal.
Entire sermon series these days are built on the system I just described in the above paragraph.  I've read whole books and sat through bible studies with only that method as the source of truth.  Now let's look at the whole paragraph with no definitions and see what is there. 
"Billy is in the Under 10 baseball league at the local community center.  He plays center field.  In the second inning, one of the best players on the other team hit a home run and scored.  Billy's coach told him to retrieve the ball.  At that time, Billy climbed over the fence.  Billy got the ball and threw it back to his team mates.  After he got back on the field, they resumed the game.  Billy's team lost, but he congratulated the other team and had a good time.  After that, his parents took him out for ice cream."
With no definition explorations, reading the paragraph in context unlocks everything one could need to know about what is going on here.  This is how a true student of a text that really wants to know what is going on and uses context clues can realize that this text is an account of a little league baseball game.  The trick is to be humble and let the text tell you what it means instead of inserting every possible meaning or impression that you have into it.

But then this arrogant fool who wants to impress himself with his own knowledge and make sure that everyone else is equally impressed gets in the way of the paragraphs plain meaning... a plain meaning that someone who reads on a 4th grade level could understand with little difficulty.  That "scholar", "teaching pastor", or "small group leader" will take a story about little league and go on and on about the word "fence".  He will speak for a half our about the bad example Billy set by committing various crimes.  At the end, he will thank God for speaking to him and unlocking this hidden meaning.

Is Billy a criminal that you wouldn't let into your house or a little kid with ice cream on his face.  You be the judge. don't even need to know what Baseball is to get the sense of what is going on!
The clue is in the sentence itself.  "At that time..." already tells you that this one sentence is already out of context.  There is something more going on that you don't know.  All someone has to do is read the paragraph and it becomes painfully clear what it means.  Try it and you will be amazed how often people get this wrong when reading the Bible.
Don't get caught doing this yourself!


Daniel Casey said...


Anonymous said...

Good stuff Mike. See also which does a good job teaching about this also.