Grant Osborne writes,
“The root fallacy, a common error, assumes that the root of a term and its cognates carries a basic meaning that is reflected in every subordinate use of the word(s).” (The Hermeneutical Spiral, 84-85)
I want to flesh out that definition a bit by providing some thoughts on the way that words work. This will probably make sense to anyone who speaks or reads. As you know, words have etymological information attached to them, meaning that words have historical origins in their development and usage as well as unique sources that helped shape the way that they came into usage. And sometimes words are “created” and come into usage because we put words together to form new words. In English grammar, we might think of prefixes and suffixes (e.g., “pre” in “preconceive” or “ary” in “honorary”). And as boring as it might sound, there are scholars who actually spend all of their time deep in the field of linguistics studying etymology (the study of historical linguistic change)! When related to biblical studies, these scholars spend much of their time analyzing Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek words in order to best understand how those words were used and should be understood by the modern reader.
Let me state as a matter of fact that these studies are extremely important to exegesis and hermeneutics. So even though these studies lead some into logical fallacies which in turn equate to bad interpretations and applications of Scripture, we can’t assume that these studies are a waste of time. Osborne helpfully reminds us that,
“At times a study of roots can be highly illuminating. As I already mentioned, some compounds do maintain their root meaning. In 1 John 2:1, parakl?tos does follow its root meaning of “advocate”: “If anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous” (NASB). On these occasions, the root meaning adds richness to the exegesis.” (86, emphasis mine)
The way this fallacy works is that someone will look up a word in the original language and spend time analyzing that specific word looking for etymological clues. So if the word is “apostle” then time is spent looking at apostolos and considering it’s cognates. As that is done, it is noticed that a verbal cognate is apostello, which is defined as “to send.” Thus, it is assumed that the root meaning of the word apostolos is connected to the idea of “being sent” and every definition related to apostolos must have something to do with “being sent.” So in the case of the word “apostle,” D. A. Carson wisely writes that,
” [the] New Testament use of the noun does not center on the meaning the one sent but on “messenger.” Now a messenger is usually sent; but the word messenger also calls to mind the message the person carries, and suggests he represents the one who sent him. In other words, actual usage in the New Testament suggests that [apostolos] commonly bears the meaning a special representative or a special messenger rather than “someone sent out.” (Exegetical Fallacies, 207-209, Kindle Edition)
The point that Carson and Osborne raise, among many other scholars, is that we can’t assume that the roots of a given word have any bearing on the way that the word is used in the context of the passage in question. The meaning of words change over time and we need to carefully consider how to properly use root studies. Osborne states that we “we dare not assume any type of universal meaning for a root” (ibid.). This is why we are to use lexicons when studying words over a theological word book. It’s not that the theological word books are unhelpful, but that they should build upon the work of the lexicon. Not all theological word studies do this. In fact, an awful lot of reading into a word’s definition can occur if care is not taken.
Carson provides three caveats to help us wade through the proper and improper use of studies related to the roots of words. These three ideas will also help us remember to not fall into the fallacy of overusing these fallacy warnings!
(1) A Word Can’t Mean Everything. Simply put, just because there is a caution against taking the definition of roots and imposing them upon words doesn’t mean that words don’t have specific meanings that can be raised in light of studying the roots. Carson writes,
“Normally we observe that any individual word has a certain limited semantic range, and the context may therefore modify or shape the meaning of a word only within certain boundaries. The total semantic range is not permanently fixed, of course; with time and novel usage, it may shift considerably. Even so, I am not suggesting that words are infinitely plastic. I am simply saying that the meaning of a word cannot be reliably determined by etymology, or that a root, once discovered, always projects a certain semantic load onto any word that incorporates that root. Linguistically, meaning is not an intrinsic possession of a word; rather, “it is a set of relations for which a verbal symbol is a sign.” In one sense, of course, it is legitimate to say “this word means such and such,” where we are either providing the lexical range inductively observed or specifying the meaning of a word in a particular context; but we must not freight such talk with too much etymological baggage.” (224-230, Kindle Edition)
This leads us to his second caveat…
(2) The Meaning of a Word May Reflect the Meaning of Its Roots. This is the other side of the caution and why I earlier mentioned that you shouldn’t completely write off taking time to consider how the roots of words may have bearing on the word’s definition!
“The meaning of a word may reflect its etymology; and it must be admitted that this is more common in synthetic languages like Greek or German, with their relatively high percentages of transparent words (words that have some kind of natural relation to their meaning) than in a language like English, where words are opaque (i.e., without any natural relation to their meaning). Even so, my point is that we cannot responsibly assume that etymology is related to meaning. We can only test the point by discovering the meaning of a word inductively.” (231-235, Kindle Edition)
(3) Etymological Studies Can Be Useful. There’s a reason why these warnings are nuanced with cautions to not over apply them. In the case where words only appear one time in the entire canon, etymological studies are the only place to begin!