Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Equivocation and Christian Scriptures

I happened to be perusing the Internet recently (a very poor idea, I know) and came across the following meant-to-be-ridiculed scenario. "We are to fear God. We are to love God. There is no fear in love." The idea is that the Bible is demanding a contradictory state of affairs, or something impossible to fulfill. This article shall demonstrate this is not a problem.

The Bible does indeed command us to fear God, in many places (Ecc. 12:13 and 1 Peter 2:17). It also tells us we are to love God (Matt. 22:37). Moreover, the biblical record does say "perfect love casts out fear" in 1 John 4:18. However, this supposed contradiction is demonstrably fallacious, on two counts.

First, there is the issue of the semantic range fallacy. This fallacy states that some word takes on each and every meaning of its possible usages each time it is used. A deviant of this fallacy applies here, where nearly the opposite takes place: it assumes a univocal usage for the word. That is, every time the word appears, it is assumed to be infused with the same meaning in every case. This is demonstrably fallacious. So what the objector would need here would be a reason to think "fear"is in the exact same sense in all uses.

Second, there is the issue of equivocation. That fallacy is making an argument whose terms appear to carry the same meaning, but in reality do not (and hence are different terms after all). This can be seen from the context of each verse. Fearing God, in the context of the injunction for believers to do so, very clearly means something like being in awe, admiration, and subjugation. Fear, in the more common and modern context (as well as the context of there being no fear in love) clearly means terror in judgment (v. 17). But Christians do not have to worry about the terror of judgment; because Christ died for our sins, we may go to that judgment with boldness. A simple reading of the chapter would clear that up.

Now it occurs to me the saying was probably not meant as an argument, but rather as a joke of sorts. But people that tend to make these jokes typically do so out of a place of truth. That is, they probably believe the Bible is a silly book, hopelessly mired in contradiction. This article has shown that at least this so-called contradiction is easily resolved.


  1. It seems to me that it's more that having to love someone you fear or fear someone you love is simply a horrible proposition. All the more horrible that the love and fear are supposed to go on for all eternity.
    I'm also curious where you get the 'semantic range fallacy?' It doesn't seem to exist outside of a few references on Christian blogs and websites. There is no mention of it in dictionaries of philosophy or other lists of formal or informal logical fallacies.

  2. Hi Michael, thanks for commenting!

    Again, that just assumes a univocal meaning for the word "fear."

    I, personally, got it from D.A. Carson, New Testament scholar. The idea is peculiar to languages, or debates about languages, and not to debates simpliciter. The ideas behind the two sides of that coin clearly are fallacious thinking. Let's take the more common side: that of infusing one word with several (or sometimes all) of its meanings. (side note: one of the reasons you may not see this much outside of Christian culture is because, frankly, it just doesn't occur much outside of Christian pulpits) In English, we use "love" in a variety of ways. If I say, "I love pizza," hopefully the semantic content of "love" is different than in "I love my wife." Think if someone read my sentence about pizza and said something like, "Well, this word 'love' can mean marital or erotic love. Therefore, this disturbed individual married some food." It's simply bad translation philosophy (or also called an "exegetical fallacy").

    Let's take the other side, where we assume words have a univocal meaning; that is, they have one meaning always and only, and that meaning is infused where ever the word is. That also is quite problematic, from a reasoning standpoint. Why assume that no one can (or does) use words with different nuances? "Your clothes are nice" and "That man is nice" are not nearly univocal uses. In any case, the argument above depends on a univocal use, and I don't see any reason to think they are. :)


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