Continuing our series on exegetical fallacies, it’s good to remind ourselves that a fallacy is an unsound or illogical interpretation of Scripture. These fallacies should serve us as helpful guidelines and can really strengthen our understanding Scripture in the way that it was intended to be understood as opposed to the way that it is made to be understood.
Today we’re talking about the one-meaning fallacy. The one-meaning fallacy can be defined as the view “that every appearance of a Hebrew or Greek term should be translated by the same English word” (The Hermeneutical Spiral, 90).
This fallacy is based primarily on a significant misunderstanding of how languages work and basically ignores all translation theory that scholars have come to see as being essential to translating correctly, be it from ancient languages or from modern languages. Osborne helpfully writes,
“The average person has, say, a vocabulary of twenty thousand words; yet linguists have shown that in that person’s lifetime he or she will express four to five million different ideas. Simple mathematics demands that the words must be used in many different combinations with many different meanings in order to meet the need. Naturally, some highly technical terms (such as those in the sciences) will approximate a single meaning, but not words in everyday language. This is complicated even further when one crosses language barriers to communicate, as is the case when studying the Bible. No two languages express themselves or use words the same way. To say a simple phrase such as “I will get it” in German, for instance, one must ask which of the many possible German words for “get” will express that particular idea.” (ibid.)
Osborne goes on to mention that example of the Greek word sarx, which I have mentioned in the lexical fallacy. It’s impossible to translate sarx as the same English word in every NT occurrences because the word has different meanings depending on it’s use. Again, I refer you to a good lexicon or something similar to Mounce’s.
At any rate, we can’t assume that every Hebrew or Greek word has one meaning. This is to misunderstand how languages work and overlooks the necessity of studying the context of the passage in question. This isn’t to overlook the primary meaning of words, but does justice to the instances where words take on different meanings.