Theology in 3D

The Fallacy Fallacy

Layton Talbert | March 15, 2019
New Testament, Theology

In his recent post about demetaphorizing, Greg raised some great issues. So I thought I’d piggyback off his idea, hitch my wagon to his star, jump on board, and make a little hay while the sun shines–hopefully without falling off the wagon . . . or the turnip truck.

As Greg mentioned, Carson’s Exegetical Fallacies is extremely helpful for identifying, categorizing, and exemplifying all kinds of bad reasoning in logical, historical, and hermeneutical contexts. It’s possible, however, for someone to get hold of the wrong end of the stick and assume that something is a fallacy when, in fact, it’s not. I’ll call it the Fallacy Fallacy.

A fallacy in this linguistic sense is not a falsehood; it is “an often plausible argument” based on an “invalid inference” (Webster). It is coming to a conclusion (sometimes maybe even a correct conclusion) via an illegitimate line of reasoning.

But fallacies are like loaded guns; they have to be handled carefully or they’ll go off when they’re not supposed to.


For example, the etymological fallacy assumes that a word can be defined on the basis of its etymology. An equally fallacious assumption, however, is that etymology is never relevant for defining a word. Etymology is useless or misleading for words like honeymoon or cockpit or peanut or bulldozer. On the other hand, etymology and definition are virtually identical for words like retrospect or lighthouse or teapot or hyperventilate.

The fact that the etymological fallacy has to do with determining meaning doesn’t mean that etymology cannot be legitimately useful for illustrating a word’s meaning. When a husband is “in the doghouse,” etymological origin creates a helpfully picturesque image of the metaphorical meaning of that expression. The same can be true of biblical words, like ekklesia.

The etymology of ekklesia involves a combination of kaleo (to call) and ek (out).* So when a preacher says, “The word ekklesia comes from two Greek words meaning ‘to call [someone] out,’ so the word ‘church’ means a body of believers called out from the world by God”–that’s the etymological fallacy. Usage determines meaning, not etymology.

But when a preacher merely calls attention to a word’s etymology, or suggests that a word’s meaning is consistent with its etymology, or even uses the word’s etymology to help explain or illustrate a word’s meaning–that’s not the etymological fallacy. And the zealous, youthful reader of Exegetical Fallacies who smugly sniffs, “Pshaw, I’m not listening to him; he just committed the etymological fallacy” would, himself, be guilty of a Fallacy Fallacy.

The problem is, even though the first preacher’s definition is linguistically invalid, it’s actually an excellent definition exegetically and theologically. When you combine (1) the NT’s use of ekklesia as the prime designation for a body of believers (why did God choose that particular word?), plus (2) the prominence of kaleo to describe believers in the NT, plus (3) the exegetical expression of 1 Peter 2:9 (God has called [kaleo] believers out of [ek] darkness), plus (4) the conceptual parallel of a passage like Acts 15:14 (God’s purpose for this age is to take [lambano] out of [ek] the Gentiles a people for his name), all of that adds up to the perfectly legitimate conclusion that the NT ekklesia is, in fact, a body of believers called out of the world by God.

That’s not quite the same as saying that the word ekklesia means a called out body of believers. In nearly all its NT usages ekklesia means an assembly of believers, whether local or universal, gathered or scattered. The difference between a lexical definition and a theological definition, and the valid basis for each, may be a fine line to walk; but the distinction is an important one. And even the etymology of ekklesia can be useful, not for defining but for illustrating or even explaining the reality of the NT ekklesia’s character and identity.


Greg’s discussion of demetaphorizing is, in some ways, related to what Exegetical Fallacies calls the semantic obsolescence fallacy–assigning a meaning for a word based on an earlier, obsolete usage that’s not within the live semantic range of the word at the time of writing. Let me (if I may demetaphorize) take a shot at illustrating this.

Greg and I share a keen appreciation for the writings of humorist Pat McManus. In his loosely autobiographical stories about his youth, McManus’s standard sobriquet for his older sister is “The Troll.” He later lamented his use of that nickname–not because he felt bad for his sister, but because he was afraid that his original intent in choosing that title was lost on many of his readers. The image he intended by “The Troll” was not that of a mischievous dwarf, but Beowulf’s rampaging monster, Grendel the troll.

That example illustrates the semantic obsolescence fallacy in reverse. The chronological distance between McManus and Beowulf is so great, few if any readers would ever have suspected that he was actually alluding to a specific, obscure, fictional creature in ancient literature over a thousand years before he lived and wrote. The only reason we know he was referencing Beowulf is because he says so in a later essay. Should that essay ever be lost to posterity (perish the thought!), future interpreters of McManus would likely assume the wrong referent. “Clearly,” I can hear them opining, “McManus couldn’t possibly have such an obscure and ancient reference in mind; Beowulf’s ‘Grendel’ was almost certainly not within the live semantic range of the vast majority of English readers in McManus’s day.” And you know what? They’d be right. And wrong.

The Achilles’ heel of the semantic obsolescence fallacy, it seems to me, is (a) the dubious assumption that we can determine with reasonable certainty the “live” semantic range of a word in another language two thousand years ago, and (b) the erroneous assumption that a writer would never choose a word specifically because of the distinctive nuance of an obsolete sense or referent–like McManus did. Semantic obsolescence may, in some cases, be no more than semantic somnolescence.

(I have a theory about the verb epichoregeo in 2 Peter 1:5 that relates to the semantic obsolescence argument, but that will have to wait for another post.)


All that to say, (1) Greg’s right: “We must ponder whether a word has been ‘demetaphorized’ by the time the biblical authors use the word in the first century, or if it still retains its metaphorical meaning.” And ponder carefully. Beware of seemingly logical but uncertain assumptions about readers halfway around the world two thousand years ago. And (2) Paul may or may not have had specific metaphorical images in mind; but even if he didn’t, that doesn’t mean the metaphors can’t be legitimately useful in illustrating the more prosaic sense. It’s important to differentiate defining a word’s meaning and illustrating a word’s meaning. For some people, some metaphors continue to carry stubbornly vivid images. (“Are you gonna fish or cut bait?”) Just because we don’t (like Greg’s wife) remark on those images when they’re used doesn’t necessarily mean those metaphors have completely kicked the bucket.

*Indeed, in it’s original usage the noun referred to “a regularly convoked assembly” (OED). “Convoke” means “to call together” or “to summon to assemble.” In other words, ekklesia originally meant “a called-out assembly” not merely in terms of etymology but in terms of actual usage, though it eventually came to be used of a gathering of people whether there was any formal summons or not (like in Acts 19).

Photo Credit: Isaac Talbert 

3 responses to “The Fallacy Fallacy”

  1. Ken Casillas says:

    Good counterbalancing perspective, LT. To go back to an original concern of the father of fallacy-fighters…. James Barr critiqued TDNT b/c it was a theology book organized under individual words–as though the many concepts in an article, drawn from multiple biblical texts, were all conveyed by the individual word under discussion. I.e., there is a difference between the theology associated with ekklesia and the meaning of ekklesia. But to your point, I think often the problem is that preachers are not always clear as to whether they are defining vs. illustrating, etc. We just need to indicate what it is we are doing when we comment on words.

  2. Donald Johnson says:

    Very sound points. I think Carson’s book is useful, but only to a point. Probably shouldn’t be assigned to first year Greek students.

    On ekklesia, I recently listened to a history of Athens (The Rise of Athens by Anthony Everett). He constantly referred to the ekklesia, the governing body of the Greek city states, especially Athens. This body included all the citizens, but all the citizens of Athens were not the same as all the people who lived there – no slaves, no women, and others excluded also. This usage is helpful for the NT word, I think.

  3. John Atwood says:

    Concerning the word Church, etymology does matter.
    What is the foundation of the Law of God? Or, what makes something law?

    It is a very dangerous position to take, saying that how a word is used, usage or custom gives the word its meaning for cause in Law, that anyone who has raised up little ones knows that to build their vocabulary effectively is to teach them Greek and Latin prefixes, roots and suffixes. Unity of thought and mind is necessary to the Body of Christ and also to those of the United States of America. The goal of information warfare is to divide and conquer the people through controlling the Peoples understanding of important events happening in their local and national levels. Words are important because they contain meaning and that meaning comes from ideas. When the words and their natures are confounded so that one is unable to discern the truth, one is open to being deceived. Propaganda is the tool of the day. It has been used very effectively on our Country since 2019 to create fear and division. It is in full force today. So, to this Seminary I must tell you as a Veteran of the United States Military, be careful what you teach and why because you may unwittingly aid in the destruction of your country and your freedom. If the CCP wins, the World Economic Forum has said, “You will own nothing and be happy.” Welcome to Communism, it is here now, today in our local school boards.
    In God’s Law the owner’s will rules by authority [exousia,out of being]. One owns what one creates or purchases. We can properly understand the nature and function of the Body by the law of Redemption. Whether the Body of Christ is “the Church,” or Assembly, who is redeemed (Ex. 13:13, 15), and what is expected of them?
    In the book of Revelation “the one overcoming,” is written about quite a bit. Overcoming what? Sin? evil [πονηρος]? And by what? Faith (1 Jn. 5:4). Anything not out of faith is sin (Rom. 14:23b). Shall we sin that grace may abound? God forbid. We are not our own we are bought at a price (1Co 7:23; Act 20:28; Gal 3:13; Heb 9:12; 1Pe 1:18; 2Pe 2:1; Rev 5:9). So, where is the cite, the Lawful authority for where the Owner of this Body told one of His bondslaves in the Body, who His Body was? He said He would build it (Matt 16:23). He purchased it, so He owns it. The record of Scripture shows He said He would build His Ekklēsia. When and where was it heard out of faith that “Church” (origin,13th century) was to be the English [Anglo-Saxon] word for Ekklēsia? Note: Who is but the form following the function of what – name denotes nature. Natural reason is not the primary faculty of the faith.
    (14) so that we may no longer be infants, being blown and carried about by every wind of doctrine, in the sleight of men, in craftiness to the systematizing of error [Justice et. al.], (15) but speaking the truth in love, we may grow up into Him in all things, who is the Head, the Christ, (16) from whom all the body, having been fitted and compacted together through every assisting bond, according to the effectual working of one measure in each part, produces the growth of the body to the building up of itself in love. (17) Therefore, I say this, and testify in the Lord, that you no longer walk even as also the rest of the nations walk, in the vanity of their mind, (18) having been darkened in the intellect, being alienated from the life of God through the ignorance which is in them because of the hardness of their heart,… (Eph. 4:14-18)
    Is it not the natural man, who is not able to receive anything from the Spirit of God (1 Cor. 2:14), whose father is the devil (John 8:43-44), for him custom or usage establishes law [1] with the exception that everyone must agree and consent with the usage[2] which finds foundation in the tree of learning to know good and evil (Gen 2:9 LXX). [1] 55 Am. Jur. 266 Custom. [2] Bouvier’s law Dictionary, custom, pg. 261.
    The spiritual ones having been begotten out of God by His will (John 1:13) hear the voice of God speaking the ῥήματος Χριστοῦ, rhēma of Christ anointing 1 Jn. 2:20, 27; Jn. 8:47, Jn. 10:4 [οιδα],) this is the hearing out of faith (Rom. 10:17) which establishes Law (Rom. 3:31) and obedience of faith (Rom. 1:5). He who has ears to hear let him hear.
    The Body is consists of each part who are firstborn sons and daughters. Here is context and specificity for why ones understanding is essential for obedience of faith, 2 Corinthians 6:17-18 Because of this, “come out from among them” “and be separated,” says the Lord, “and do not touch the unclean thing,” and I will receive you. Isa. 52:11 (18) “And I will be a Father to you, and you will be sons” and daughters to Me, says the Lord Almighty. 2 Sam. 7:8, 14; Isa. 43:6
    It is only the Law of God which defines what is unclean spiritually (Rom. 7:14). If anyone has replaced God’s Law with so called Ecclesiastical Natural law it will be insufficient to properly discern anything for one must have the mind of Christ (1 Cor. 2:16). May His grace and peace be multiplied to those who seek Him in Spirit and Truth.

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