(Continuing my series on word studies.)
From time to time in conversation with my wife I’ll jump topics. My brain does that to me, as one thing suggests another thing, often related only in the most distant way. Suddenly she’ll stop me and say, “I need a context for that.” I’ve said something that she can’t understand clearly because she doesn’t know what it relates to. It might be “What are we going to do about that meeting?” If she doesn’t know what meeting I’m talking about, when it is, or why we need to do something about it, she has no basis on which to react.
Similarly in Bible study, we always have to have a context. I know that I hammer this point repeatedly, but I do so because it is so often neglected. Much too much use of Bible texts in Christian teaching, preaching, and conversation results from looking for a set of words that fits whatever the person wanted to say. There are a lot of phrases in the Bible, a lot of clauses, a lot of sentences. If you ignore context, you can find one that is useful for you.
We’ve already discussed one of the primary dangers of word studies, that a person looks for a series of definitions, and then plugs in the one that suits his theology without regard for the immediate context. Now I’m going to talk about some practical ideas for studies you can do with words that can improve your understanding.
All of these are based on a single principle: A word study should start from a usage in context, and end with a usage in context.
If that is a bit unclear, think of it this way: The word study doesn’t provide you with a meaning that can be dropped into place like a puzzle piece. Rather, it provides you with options. In order to get at those options, you have to understand each usage of a word in its particular context, and then compare carefully. Differences in the context may imply differences in meaning. Someone who knows the source languages is protected to some extent by use of lexicons, knowledge of various forms of the word that provide natural categories of usage, and the fact that he has just the source language word’s semantic range to deal with. When working in English, or any other non-source language for the Bible, you need to be doubly careful to understand each particular context.
I’m going to do a brief application of this idea using the word “propitiation” because it has become a key word in the ESV Bible debates. I’m going to use my Logos Bible Software solely to look up words in the ESV, and display ESV text, but I’m going to use Goodrick and Kohlenberger’s NIV concordance (hereafter GK), keyed to the Greek and Hebrew words to track ideas further. This means I’m working today with two English versions, the NIV and the ESV.
Let’s say my study starts from Hebrews 2:17:
17 Therefore he had nto be made like his brothers in every respect, oso that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest pin the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.  — Hebrews 2:17 (ESV)
What I want to discover in this study is what it might mean to “make propitiation.” One thing I’m not going to do here to save space, but that I would recommend doing normally, is to compare this text in many English translations. This will help give you a better idea of what the semantic range of the Greek word behind this is. Another critical step is to find out just what the book of Hebrews says Jesus did about the sins of the people. I’m going to leave that aside for the moment. Right now we want to get a better idea of this one word. But remember, if you are studying through Hebrews, that before you settle on a definition for “propitiation” in this verse, you need to understand how this verse relates to the rest of the book.
In order to work with GK I need to find the text in the NIV. There I find that my key phrase is “make atonement for.” Now depending on my theological background, I may already be more comfortable than I am with propitiation, but if I look in an English dictionary I will generally find that “propitiation” is a narrower and more precise word than “atonement.” (Your results may differ, depending on your dictionary. For example Merriam-Webster says “reconciliation” is obsolete, but that meaning is still used in theological writing, I believe.) Another approach in GK is to simply look up “propitiation” and find the reference at that point to “atonement.”
Again in order to keep this study limited, I’m going to stick with the New Testament. First, that keeps all my source words in one language. There is value in comparing words as used in the Old Testament with those in the New Testament, especially when studying a book that quotes the OT as much as Hebrews does, but it is more complicated. I find that “atonement” is listed in GK only 3 times in the New Testament, Romans 3:25, Hebrews 2:17, and Hebrews 9:5. Add to this 1 John 2:2 and 4:10 which use “atoning.” So we have a rather manageable list there.
The source language words are numbers 2661, 2662, and 2663. Now here’s where you can get into serious trouble, and if you don’t know Greek well, you should be very tentative with your conclusions and spend even more time on context. (Did I say that before?) In this case, however, the proximity of the three words indicates that they are cognates in Greek, etymologically related. Words that are etymologically related generally developed from similar roots. It’s easy, however, to make what’s called the “etymological fallacy” here, and assume that their meanings must be either the same or very similar. Words can be closely related etymologically, but very differet semantically.
Nonetheless, since the NIV translators have provided us with similar English translations, let’s hope we can find at least some relationship. Word 2661 is hilaskomai, and occurs twice (all according to GK) translated once as “make atonement for” and once as “mercy on.” Word 2662, hilasmos (see the similarity?) occurs twice and is translated as “atoning sacrifice” both times. Word 2663 is hilasterion and occurs twice translated once as “atonement cover” and once as “sacrifice of atonement.”
Where are these? Well, you can find them in GK because the lexicon doesn’t provide definitions, but rather lists of how each word is translated in the NIV. Thus you can look up the words in translation in turn, and find out where and how they are used. Of course, all those definitions using “atonement” or “atoning” should already be on our list. Using this method, let me list the uses of these words:
Hebrews 2:17 (our primary text) and Luke 18:13 (Aha! Fresh meat!). Note that I located the second verse by looking up the word “mercy” and scanning for the number 2661.
1 John 2:2 and 4:10. We know these are all the cases, because it lists two occurences, both with the same translation.
Romans 3:25 and Hebrews 9:5, which we already had located.
Now let’s go back and use our ESV for a moment. Since I’ve already looked at Hebrews 2:17 (that’s my starting point), let’s look at the only use of precisely the same word in the New Testament. Luke 18:13 reads:
But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”  (ESV)
Knowing Greek, I can say that there is a difference of form, but that is beyond the scope of this discussion. We have here two possible meanings: “make an atoning sacrifice for” and “have mercy on.” Use of an English dictionary will expand the list, but I’ll leave that to you, especially as you consider what “atoning” means in connection with “sacrifice. You can try dropping these two defnitions into Hebrews 2:17 and see what the results are in context. When you do that, however, I suggest you look very clearly at what the author of Hebrews believes is involved in atonement. Does he believe God simply “has mercy on” or does he believe there must be a sacrifice?
Similarly try dropping these definitions into 1 John 2:2 and 4:10. Consider both verses before you make your selection, and realize that this is a different Greek word, even though it is related to the word used in Hebrews 2:17.
Finally, word 2663, hilasterion also occurs twice. In Romans 3:25 the ESV uses “propitiation” saying that God put Jesus forward as a “propitiation” (atoning sacrifice?) for our sins. The NIV goes right to my parenthetical suggestion and uses “sacrifice of atonement.” But Hebrews 9:5 is a bit different. Here we read “mercy seat” in the ESV and “atonement cover” in the NIV. The covering of the ark, which is the item in consideration, is often called the mercy seat, and was the place where God manifested his presence in the tabernacle. Interesting that Merriam-Webster (Tenth Edition) suggests that “reconciliation” is an obsolete meaning of “atonement” because it appears that Bible translators may still be using that meaning partially.
Given these various options, it would now be time to go back and study your text in context, and keep your mind open to the possibilities. Is it possible that when the author of Hebrews uses related words in 2:17 and 9:5 he may intend to connect the sacrifice of atonement and the place of atonement and God’s presence? Those are possibilities for further study.
Let me make one more comment on the etymological fallacy. This is terribly pervasive. I even found just such a fallacy in my devotional reading as an author used the Greek “dunamis” to connect to cognate “dynamite” and from there to read “explosive” back into a text. At the same time, I think the quite proper emphasis on fighting that fallacy can result in a sort of “anti-etymological fallacy,” the notion that etymology doesn’t contribute to discovering meaning. Sometimes it does, and sometimes it’s all we have. With the three related Greek words involved in our study today, we have so few instances in the New Testament that we may be required to use etymology as seed for ideas. The key is to start from a word in context and end with a word in context.
An excellent route for those who have access to the appropriate tools is to carry this study beyond the New Testament. How was the word used in the Septuagint, for example, and what Hebrew words/concepts did it translate. Again, particularly in Hebrews, we have an author who quotes extensively from the Old Testament, and many of his quotations are taken from the Septuagint. Thus that provides an interesting background. We can also look into the broader Greek world and literature to get additional ideas. But all of that is beyond the scope of this post.
 The Holy Bible : English standard version. 2001. Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.