Today I want to look at a logical fallacy that is employed quite regularly in pop culture on numerous levels. Equivocation refers to confusion based upon a word that has more than one possible meaning. The figure of speech knows as a “double entendre” is a great example of equivocation. Essentially, equivocation occurs when an argument equates two things that are unequal, or to call something by the same name as something else.
Here is an example of a formal argument that commits the equivocation fallacy:
- Premise 1: A plane is a tool used by carpenters.
- Premise 2: A Boeing 747 is a plane.
- Conclusion: Therefore, a Boeing 747 is a carpenters tool.
The equivocation fallacy occurs because the word “plane” is has two completely different meanings. The definition of “plane” used first is completely inappropriate to apply to the second use.
Here’s another example commonly used in the creation/evolution debate:
As you can see, the equivocation fallacy can lead to some very problematic ideas and beliefs.
From Equivocation to Crucifixion
In the Gospel of John there is a pretty important equivocation example.
Jesus answered and said to them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’
Then the Jews said, ‘It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will You raise it up in three days?’
But He was speaking of the temple of His body. Therefore, when He had risen from the dead, His disciples remembered that He had said this to them; and they believed the Scripture and the word which Jesus had said.
Because Jesus used parables and referred to things in a spiritual sense so often, his hearers did not always get it. Because they were listening with literal ears they completely missed the spiritual meaning that Jesus had in mind. This is precisely what Jesus meant the numerous times He said, “He that has ears to hear, let him hear.” He was not talking about physical ears, but spiritual ears that could discern what He meant. A failure to understand the spiritual understanding behind Jesus’ words can lead to crucial errors.
This misunderstanding about the “temple” supplied the pseudo-evidence used against Jesus in His trial that lead to His crucifixion (Matthew 26:59-62). The so-called witnesses are called “false witnesses” by the gospel writers. This tells us that fallacious thinking is equivalent to a lie. Even an equivocation fallacy that might seem trivial can have extreme consequences.
Son of Equivocation
Equivocation fallacies can and often do play a huge roll in theological discourse. One common equivocation misunderstanding is the phrase, “Son of God”. Today, the idea of Jesus being the Son of God has come to mean that Jesus was a completely separate part of the deity of God, but that is positively not what Jesus had in mind when He used the phrase.
In the Old Testament, the writings upon which Christianity is based, we see a radical monotheistic view of God. In fact, THE foundational commandment in the Hebrew Scripture is the Shema, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength” (Deut 6:4-5) This command is immediately followed by another command, “And these words which I command you today (verses 4 and 5) shall be in your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise us. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorpost of y our house and on your gates” (Deut 6:6-9). In other words, God commanded the Hebrews to meditate on His radical monotheistic nature continually.
That was context in which Jesus lived and ministered. It is little wonder why the Jews were so zealous about what they perceived to be blasphemy on the part of Jesus. In John 5, Jesus heals a man on the Sabbath day and is confronted by the Jewish leaders:
For this reason the Jews persecuted Jesus, and sought to kill Him, because He had done these things on the Sabbath. But Jesus answered them, ‘My Father has been working until now, and I have been working.’
Therefore the Jews sought all the more to kill Him, because He not only broke the Sabbath, but also said that God was His Father, making Himself equal with God (John 5:16-19, NKJV, emphasis mine).
When the Jews heard Jesus say, “I am the Son of God”, they correctly understood Him to be equating Himself with God.
We see this again in a more clearly in John 10:
Now it was the Feast of Dedication in Jerusalem, and it was winter. And Jesus walked in the temple, in Solomon’s porch. Then the Jews surrounded Him and said to Him, ‘How long do You keep us in doubt? If You are the Christ, tell us plainly.’
Jesus answered them, ‘I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in My Father’s name, they bear witness of Me. But you do not believe, because you are not of My sheep, as I said to you. My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me. And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand. My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of My Father’s hand. I and My Father are one‘ (emphasis mine).
Then the Jews took up stones again to stone Him. Jesus answered them, ‘Many good works I have shown you from My Father. For which of those works do you stone Me?’
The Jews answered Him, saying, ‘For a good work we do not stone You, but for blasphemy, and because You, being a Man, make Yourself God‘ (John 10:22-33, NKJV, emphasis mine).
Jesus never corrects them for any kind of false understanding because they were not misunderstood. Jesus was very clear with what He meant and they clearly understood what He said. The fallacious equivocation that happens in this example is not committed by the Jews, but by more modern Christians who falsely believe that the phrase “Son of God” implies some kind of separation within the Godhead. The phrase “Son of God” is used by Jesus as a proclamation of His Deity. The title of “Son of God” simply means that Jesus is the One God of the Old Testament. It does not mean that Jesus is Jehovah Jr.
From Equivocation to Condemnation
In John 8, Jesus is having a conversation with the likely some of the same people about His Deity, and states, “Therefore I said to you that you will die in your sins; for if you do not believe that I am He, you will die in your sins.” Pretty harsh words from the guy that just loves everybody and wants us all to be happy and rich, right? Maybe believing the deity of Jesus Christ is more important an issue than we think it is.
In his first epistle, John similarly ties belief in the Deity of Christ to truth and salvation and disbelief with lying and damnation:
He who believes in the Son of God has the witness in himself; he who does not believe God has made Him a liar, because he has not believed the testimony that God has given of His Son. And this is the testimony: that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He who has the Son has life; He who does not have the Son of God does not have life. These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life, and that you may continue to believe in the name of the Son of God (I John 5:10-13, NKJV)
This modern misunderstanding of the meaning of the phrase “Son of God” has led to some very erroneous theological positions within Christianity, and this is exactly what John was warning against. It is important that we read the Bible as the 1st Century Church would have, not as 21st Century westerners.
Good logic is essential to proper Biblical interpretation, and eliminating equivocation by understanding with certainty the meanings of words and expressions is vital to rightly dividing the word of truth. Words have meaning and those meanings are important. We shouldn’t believe something until we seek diligently for its true meaning.