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Word studies are not exegesis

Or, don’t bother learning the original languages if you don’t yet know how communication works in even your native tongue.

I am deeply troubled when people interpret the Bible by starting with technical analysis of specific words in the original languages. When asked to exegete a difficult pericope, they don’t try to trace the flow of thought. They immediately pick out the words they find hard to understand, break out their lexicons and concordances, and start dissecting.

A perennial example is the labored “exegesis” of the word “love” in the New Testament, and the faulty theology of love that flows from it. Rather than looking for patterns of thought that reveal what love is, word studies advocates will dissect the specific terms philia and agape, and come to all kinds of confident, mistaken conclusions. For instance, how many times have you heard that philia is brotherly love, while agape is a self-sacrificial, godward love? Yet John, the undeniable expert on love, uses them interchangeably (John 21:15-17).

The basic problem with the word studies approach is that the Bible is not a technical document. It is written largely by lay people, for lay people, in common language. That means that rightly handling it, accurately interpreting it, is a matter of understanding how people communicate their thoughts—not of how linguistics scholars classify words. It’s not that the words aren’t important—but they are merely tools for putting together the concepts which the author wants to convey. It is the concepts behind the words, and how they fit together, that is important. So focusing on one or two key terms—especially in a way that places overweening importance on the author’s choice of words rather than his choice of concepts—is like focusing on one or two puzzle pieces when someone asks you what a jigsaw puzzle is displaying. The individual pieces can be important, but it is the overall way they go together that actually tells you what the puzzle is about.

In other words, exegesis starts with looking at the flow of thought in and around the pericope you’re investigating. What ideas come before it? What ideas come after it? How does it connect them or relate to them?

Once you know the key ideas, you can ask how the author, and his original readers, would have understood them. For instance, is he drawing on previous biblical usage—even if he isn’t using exactly the same words? (For a good example, see my article on what the “world” is in John 3:16.) Or, did people in that time have certain assumptions about the topic—memes that we don’t share today? (For a good example, see my article about what is going on with Legion and the pigs.)

In a nutshell, biblical theology and sociolinguistic contextualization are far more important to understanding any part of the Bible than technical word studies.

A concrete example

I’m involved in a Facebook group where a lot of young people ask good, searching questions about the text of Scripture. Here’s one such question that was posted recently:

What are the sins “leading to death” and the sins not leading to death mentioned in 1 John 5:16 & 17 and how would we discern between them so as to know whether to pray about it or not?

For reference, here is the pericope:

If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask, and God will give him life—to those who commit sins that do not lead to death. There is sin that leads to death; I do not say that one should pray for that. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that does not lead to death.

The word studies answer

Here’s how a word studies response can go, based on an actual response in the thread:

This could very well be physical death due to the lack of a definite article before the word death.

In the Greek the word “death | θάνατος” is used in 1 John 5:16-17. However, in Romans 5:14, for example, the word “death | θάνατος” is preceded by the definite article, thereby reading “ὁ θάνατος” or “the death.”

Also, it says in 1 John 5:16 that “if any man sees his brother (ἀδελφὸν)”—if this refers to a spiritual brother, which it most likely does, then if “death” here refers to a spiritual death, this would mean that they can lose their salvation through a particular sin. However, we know this is not true. We also see that we have eternal life here in verse 13: “These things have I written unto you that believe on the name of the Son of God; that ye may know that ye have eternal life, and that ye may believe on the name of the Son of God.”

Once we have acknowledged that death is physical, we can see that the text could be referring to any sin that leads to physical death. Smoking, drugs, etc—it can be anything that can kill us.

No, no, no

So what’s wrong with this? Well, it is largely predicated on an assumed technical correlation between John’s use of thanatos (“death”) and Paul’s use in Romans 5. But the fact that Paul puts a definite article on it is simply irrelevant to John unless there is a unifying principle of usage where spiritual death should always have a definite article! Such a unifying principle simply doesn’t exist.

Additionally, the rejection of spiritual death here is based on a very wooden reading, where the person in question is assumed to be definitely saved because he is an adelphon (“brother”). This kind of wooden reading is very common from word studies advocates because they focus on the definitions of words in isolation, rather than asking what concepts they stand in for, and how those fit into the flow of thought. When you think in terms of thought sequence, in terms of how we talk and communicate with each other, and stop treating the Bible like a technical document, it is obvious that you can use the word “brother” to refer to someone in the congregation who eventually turns out not to be saved. Indeed, that is a very ordinary way of speaking.

The exegetical answer

1 John 5:16-17 is part of an extended discourse that doesn’t have clear topical boundaries. John isn’t starting a completely new train of thought in this pericope; nor is he starting a new train of thought in chapter 5. If anything, the thought sequence of this pericope begins all the way back in 1 John 4:7:

Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God.

Notice how similar this is to 1 John 5:1-3:

Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments.

John is developing the idea he has started in chapter 4 all the way through chapter 5. His entire thought sequence is about one’s spiritual status. You see the same basic concept explained again in 5:10, 12:

Whoever does not believe God has made him a liar, because he has not believed in the testimony that God has borne concerning his Son…Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.

Then, again in v 18, 20:

We know that everyone who has been born of God does not keep on sinning, but he who was born of God protects him, and the evil one does not touch him…And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true; and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life.

You see how John’s entire discourse through chapters 4 and 5 is about the same basic thing; he is coming at the topic from several angles, working in and out to explain it—knowing God = loving God = keeping his commandments = believing God = having eternal life = being in Jesus.

The entire context of our pericope is the relationship between our hearts and God, and thus between what we do and eternal life. How to get it, how to keep it, and how to know we have it. That being so, how can we possibly read this and then think that John suddenly switches tacks in 5:16-17 to talk about sins leading to physical death? That makes absolutely no sense of his entire train of thought. The whole discussion is about spiritual life versus spiritual death—ie, being joined to God, or being separated from God. So to take the sins of 5:16-17 as sins that produce physical death rampantly defies the context and twists what John is saying.

Indeed, throughout the Bible death is not primarily a biological category—and especially not in John’s writings. The most straightforward reading of Genesis 2:16-17 is that God promises immediate death to Adam and Eve when they eat from the tree in the midst of the garden. I believe God neither lied nor changed his mind—Adam and Eve did die on the day they ate. And I believe this largely because of the symmetry we see when we go to Revelation. The Bible is bookended by death. The first death is in Eden; the second death is in the lake of fire (Revelation 21:8). Neither of these deaths are biological in nature. Indeed, the second death is precisely what God saved Adam and Eve from by driving them out of the garden: he prevented them eating of the tree of life and living (biologically) forever in alienation from him. The second death presupposes eternal biological life. So death in the Bible is not primarily a bodily cessation, but a separation from God. This is a theme John commonly takes up (eg John 5:24; 8:51; Revelation 2:11; 20:6). I’m not saying John never uses death to refer to biological cessation; just that he is hardly unfamiliar with death as a spiritual category, so when he speaks of death in the middle of a treatise on spiritual life, we should hardly imagine he is speaking biologically.

Moreover, the word studies interpretation doesn’t even make sense at a fundamental level. Suppose the example of smoking even existed in the first century; and further suppose against all probability that John thought it was always sinful. If I see someone smoking, should I not pray for them? Why not? Just because smoking can lead to death? It doesn’t inevitably lead to death. And even if I know a person has terminal lung cancer, why should I not pray for healing? Is death inevitable for him? Can God not heal terminal conditions?

In the same way, the word studies interpretation makes no sense of John’s instruction to pray for someone whose sin does not lead to death, so that God will give him life. If the context is physical death, then John is saying we should pray for someone who hasn’t done anything that causes physical death, in order for God to give him…physical life that he already has? This is incoherent.

No, we have to understand the sin that leads to death in the context of John’s discussion about eternal life. The sin that leads to death is simply what he has already warned us about throughout his letter: “resolute rejection of the true doctrine about Christ, chronic disobedience to God’s commandments, persistent lack of love for fellow believers—all indications of a lack of saving faith—which will not be forgiven” (ESV Study Bible). Conversely, sins that do not lead to death are those we commit despite our allegiance to God—and when we commit them, and our brothers pray for us, God gives us life in the sense that he restores us and reconfirms that “we have passed from death to life” (John 5:24).

In other words, if you see a brother doing something that indicates he isn’t actually a brother at all, then there’s no point praying for his restoration. You can’t be restored to a place you never were. If you do pray for him, pray for his conversion. But if you see a brother doing something that is obviously out of step with his overall walk with God, pray that God would pick him back up.

This is why John adds the comment in verse 17 that all sin is unrighteous. The word studies interpretation leaves this comment dangling as an irrelevant aside. A comment about unrighteousness has no clear bearing on sins that lead to physical death in comparison to ones that don’t. But surely John did not mean it as an irrelevant aside; rather, he is adding an explanation to ensure his reader doesn’t get the wrong idea—namely, that some sin is not sin at all! If some sin does not lead to death, we might think, therefore some sin is actually fine. No, John says, all sin is unrighteous, but not all sin leads to death, because many sins are just stumbles on the road to salvation. The sin that leads to death is not a stumble; it is turning around and walking the wrong way back down the road.

Now, I’m not trying to give a full exposition of 1 John 5:16-17. Nor am I trying to comprehensively teach exegetical method. For instance, exegesis also needs to take into account other critical factors I haven’t really mentioned at all—like, in this case, John’s very high-context way of writing. He speaks in seeming absolutes that are very strange to us, but to a Jewish audience would be naturally understood as requiring qualification when interpreted. It’s a rhetorical method related to hyperbole, but we don’t really use it so it is awkward or even troubling for us to read.

What I’m trying to do is not teach Exegesis 101. I’m trying to demonstrate in broad strokes how exegesis should start and the kinds of patterns it should follow. If you’re going to interpret God’s word, and especially if you’re going to teach, it takes far more than looking at one or two words and comparing them superficially to how they are used in other parts of the Bible. Exegesis can be aided by word studies, but word studies are not exegesis. If you’re trying to replace exegesis with word studies, you are inevitably going to twist the Scriptures.

6 comments

  1. steve hays

    A friend recently asked me what forgiveness means in Scripture. That’s a good illustration. Looking up the Greek and Hebrew words for forgiveness in lexicons and reference works misses the point: they will simply give you Greek and Hebrew synonyms for their English counterparts. But they don’t unpack the concept of forgiveness. One can’t derive the concept of forgiveness by consulting the dictionary definition of words.

    In Scripture, the concept of forgiveness is fleshed out in actions, metaphors, extended metaphors, comparisons.

  2. Linda

    I agree 100% with your premise here Bnonn. While word study can be helpful in understanding scripture, it is not the only tool that should be used. The writers of the Bible didn’t consider the exact meaning of every word they used, just as we don’t do that when we communicate. We use words that convey the concept or idea we are speaking of.

    As you say, drilling down into the minutia makes the interpretations wooden and lifeless. It is like eating a picture of a steak instead of enjoying the actual steak.

  3. Maximus Derango

    I appreciate your approach.

    Your example of bad word studies-based exegesis seems to be rather tricky though. While I think the reasoning the person gave is indeed faulty, their initial point borders on bringing attention to the significance of a grammatical feature, namely the presence of a definite article in the Greek. The rest of their argument seems to be rooted in assumption.

    Perhaps it is a matter of semantics as far as what I understand you are advising against. Even though the following two statements do not conflict with one another, do you mainly want to say this:

    “If you’re trying to replace exegesis with word studies, you are inevitably going to twist the Scriptures.”

    or this:

    “In a nutshell, biblical theology and sociolinguistic contextualization are far more important to understanding any part of the Bible than technical word studies.”

    Could you replace ‘word studies’ with ‘grammar studies’ and still affirm both statements?

    You also say:

    “I’m trying to demonstrate in broad strokes how exegesis should start and the kinds of patterns it should follow”

    Should a word (or grammar) study generally only be used when the context is insufficient to provide enough clarity? Thanks.

  4. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Hey Maximus, I think “grammar studies” implies a lot more than “word studies.” When you study the grammar of a whole phrase, for example, you really are doing a careful analysis of the thought sequence. Sure, you’re narrowing your analysis down to technical parts of it, but it’s not the same thing as I’m talking about. Grammar studies can often be very helpful for careful exegesis because often the right interpretation hinges on a plural construct or the gender of a noun/verb pairing that isn’t obvious in English.

    Moreover, word studies themselves can be very helpful to clarify meaning in cases of ambiguity, and also for better understanding the concepts an author is drawing into his discourse. For instance, seeing how a particular term is used elsewhere, or what other words are used in its place, can clarify otherwise ambiguous passages. A good example would be Hebrew tehowm and Greek abussou. Or how beney elim and its variations is used generally, to clarify passages like Ps 82 and Gen 6. But actually, this is kind of the opposite of the word studies approach, because it is always about trying to trace conceptual patterns and parallels rather than just build a lexical classification. For instance, logos in John 1 is typically mutilated by word studies scholars who want to relate it to the Greek philosophical school instead of the OT dabar yahweh!

  5. Alessandra

    Which words are used is important, but, in fact, the decisive question is: “What is the intention of the author?” The sense of a text is defined by the purpose of the author. For instance, when God says that “I make peace, and create evil” (Isaiah 45:7), some people (for instance, Cheung) think that this is a proof text for defending that God is author of sin (blasphemy). But the whole passage shows that the intention is quite the contrary: God warns that because people sin, they will be punished. His intention is not to say that He causes people to sin; quite on the contrary, His intention is to say that He is the sovereign Judge, who punishes sin. The result He wants to achieve is repentance.

    So, the question is not only what words, but who says what to whom, with which intention, using which words to achieve which result?

  6. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Well, the entire method God claims to use in punishing sin here is Cyrus, whose right hand he has grasped (v 1). Do you think Cyrus did not sin in rampaging through the Near East subjugating entire nations? I think he did—and God claims to be controlling him.

    I am unimpressed by Christians who get the vapors at the suggestion that God might be the “author of sin.” I am not afraid of vague emotive metaphors, and I don’t think God is either. This might help: http://bnonn.com/determinism-and-the-authorship-of-sin-in-calvinism-and-arminianism/

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