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Hermeneutical Principles: The Error of Illegitimate Totality Transfer

August 18, 2011

Through regular Bible study and sermon listening, come several hermeneutical principles for handling scripture.  These principles can be applied not only in our own study but also in discussions with others.  A few basic principles I’ve learned are called the “checking principle” and the analogy of faith.  The checking principle comes up in cases where one person has a unique interpretation, one that no one else upholds: in humility that person must consider carefully the reasons for his different conclusion.  The “analogy of faith” is more common, and comes from one’s understanding of all scripture:  scripture does not contradict itself.  If one passage has a meaning, that meaning must not disagree with other scriptural teaching.

I learned a third principle recently, the error of “illegitimate totality transfer,” a case of taking the meaning — the sense or concept — from one part of scripture and lifting that idea and wrongly applying it to another scripture that may have some of the same words but totally different usage.  In a recent online discussion, for example, someone brought up the parable of the ten virgins in Matthew 25.  Because all ten virgins had oil, and because oil elsewhere represents the Holy Spirit, this person concluded that all ten virgins had the Holy Spirit and were saved.

In this case, the person certainly had a unique interpretation (the “checking principle”), and also that idea contradicts other doctrinal teaching  (“analogy of faith”):  the perseverance and preservation of the saints.  People don’t lose their salvation.  Since the five virgins are later turned away, when Christ says He never knew them, they represent unbelievers, those who never had saving faith to begin with.

But going beyond these problems, comes the “illegitimate totality transfer” with that person’s improper concept of “oil,” which in some parts of scripture is symbolic of the Holy Spirit, but does not fit the case of this parable in Matthew 25.  Mike Riccardi well spoke to this particular Bible discussion with some great observations:

Jesus is employing an illustration, and in this case the oil just means oil. The point is right there in the text: be ready for Christ’s coming; don’t be spiritually lazy, because He’s coming any minute.

Not to mention, pressing the details in parables is (1) insensitive to the genre, and treating it more like allegory, and (2) often ridiculous, like here. What would we conclude? That some of us can store up “more” of the Holy Spirit, so that when Christ comes, we don’t have to go get more of the Holy Spirit from somewhere, and, as a result, miss His coming?

Better to let a parable be a parable, oil be oil, and the point of the passage be stated by the passage itself (Mt 25:13).

  1. August 23, 2011 at 9:25 pm

    Where was Mike’s quote from?

  2. August 24, 2011 at 7:16 am

    This was in a Facebook discussion group, called “Calvinist Dispensationalists, Unite!”

  3. Chip Hammond
    March 16, 2012 at 7:12 am

    This is not quite what Illegitimate Totality Transfer is. I believe the term was coined by Don Carson in his book “Exegetical Fallacies.” The phrase refers to words that have a broad semantic range which thus have different meanings in different contexts. Illegitimate totality transfer seeks to read all (hence “totality”) of the meanings into the word in any given context. An English example would be the word “spring.” This word can refer to a season of the year, a water source, or a piece of steel alloy that stores potential energy. The context will determine which meaning is in view, even though morphologically the words are all the same. If one were to take all these meanings, however, and read them into the word in a given context, that would be an illegitimate totality transfer. The Amplified Bible sets the stage for illegitimate totality transfer if used illegitimately (pun intended). As it gives a plethora of glosses for every significant word, the reader can benefit from the use of that Bible if he or she picks ONE of those glosses that best fits the context. If he or she reads ALL the possible meanings of that word into the context, he or she has committed an illegitimate totality transfer.

    • March 16, 2012 at 7:59 am

      Thanks for the clarification, Chip. I wrote that article primarily from the reference point of a particular online discussion, and what one person (from The Masters Seminary) observed and instructed (using that term)–and that was the first time I heard that particular term. This explanation helps give more background definition.

    • Michael Weaver
      February 25, 2021 at 11:37 am

      Is the Amplified Bible guilty of illegitimate totality transfer? Leaving no stone unturned, I have compiled dozens of explanations of this exegetical fallacy, comparing translations of well over 50 Bible verses, in a 108-page document called “Context is for Kings”:

      Click to access context-is-for-kings.pdf

  4. May 11, 2012 at 7:21 am

    Well, I hope this has raised both your spirits.

  5. William Kinnaird
    August 3, 2015 at 8:30 am

    The term Illegitimate Totality Transfer was coined by James Barr in his 1961 classic study “The Semantics of Biblical Language”. Despite giving the wrong original source, Chip Hammond has a fair definition and gives a good, clear example of what Barr meant. I don’t have Carson’s “Exegetical Fallacies” to hand, and it’s many years since I read it, but he may well have discussed Barr’s principle there.

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