Doctrinal Error in Thayer's Lexicon

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Reprinted with permission from As I See It. AISI is sent free to all who request it by writing to the editor at


Brother Kutilek,

In your most recent edition of AISI, you recommend Thayer’s “A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament.” I have used this lexicon extensively since the day my former pastor helped me pick out my copy at a local used book store. At that time, my pastor told me to watch out for Thayer’s doctrine with regard to the Trinity or deity of Christ, or perhaps his potential unitarianism. My pastor said he hadn’t found it, but he had been made aware of the warning and was just passing it on to me. I haven’t found it either. For a while, I have been using the Thayer’s edition that is online at Blue Letter Bible. I found the same warning there. They post this disclaimer online:

Caution: According to Baker’s modern copyright edition, Thayer was apparently not doctrinally sound in all areas, particularly in the area of the trinity, and so the user must be on guard. We would be appreciative of any actual examples of doctrinal error, so they can be marked with “caution” tags.

Brother K., you seem to be a person who is typically aware of this kind of information, so I thought I would ask you if you can shed any light on this. Do you know of any specific unsoundness in Thayer’s lexicon? Do you know of any particular entries where the user might be cautioned? Do you have any biographical information on Thayer (or perhaps on Grimm) that would uphold or refute this warning?

Thank you…


Joseph Henry Thayer (1828-1901), was a professor first at Andover Seminary, then at Harvard Divinity school, and was indeed a professed Unitarian, and at the end of his life a denier of Biblical inerrancy (there are brief biographical accounts of his life in The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, and at Wikipedia).

I have indeed found a few places in the lexicon where the theological perspective is tainted; however, since Thayer’s lexicon is a translation, revision and enlargement of C. L. Wilibald Grimm’s edition of C. G. Wilke’s Clavis Novi Testamenti [literally, Key to the New Testament], one would have to compare Grimm’s original to see what is from Thayer himself, and what is just translation of the work as he found it. But at any rate, there is theological error here, especially regarding the Trinity—

p. 287, column b “Whether Christ is called God must be determined from John 1:1; 20:28; I John 5:20; Romans 9:5; Titus 2:13; Hebrews 1:8ff; etc.; the matter is still in dispute among theologians.”

(Being unbracketed, this statement is evidently Grimm’s own, not Thayer’s). To the claim that “the matter is still in dispute among theologians,” I reply—NOT among those who are willing to believe the obvious!

p. 521 On the word pneuma, as it is used of the Holy Spirit, we read, “The Scriptures also ascribe a pneuma to GOD, i.e., God’s power and agency,—distinguishable in thought (or modalistice as they say in technical speech) from God’s essence in itself considered,—manifest in the course of affairs, and by its [note that “it” which recurs regularly under this heading] influence upon souls productive in the theocratic body (the church) of all the higher gifts and blessings ….Among the beneficent and very varied operations and effects ascribed to this Spirit in the NT the following are prominent: by it [n.b.] the man Jesus was begotten….hence to its [n.b.] promptings and aid….it [n.b.] was imparted to the Apostles….” and so on, referring to the Holy Spirit as “it” at least 8 times (which is even more times than the KJV!). And yet, further down in this same column, we find, “He [n.b.] is present to teach, guide, prompt, restrain,…. He is the author of the charisma…. his efficiency in the prophets…his inspiration…. his utterances….” Inconsistent, to say the least.

p. 522b “In some passages the Holy Spirit is rhetorically represented as a Person…: Matthew 28:19; John 14:16ff, 26; 15:26; 16: 13-15 (in which passages from John the personification was suggested by the fact that the Holy Spirit was about to assume with the apostles the place of a person, namely of Christ),…”

Further down the column, this denial of the actual Personhood of the Holy Spirit is repeated, when in regard to the “seven spirits” of Revelation 4:5; 5:6, it is said that these “are not seven angels, but one and the same divine Spirit manifesting itself in seven energies or operations (which are rhetorically personified,…”). To speak of “personification” is to deny the actual Personhood of the Spirit.

p. 555 On prototokos, [literally, firstborn]—“Tropologically [i.e., figuratively] Christ is called prototokos pases ktiseos [literally, firstborn of all creation]…who came into being through God prior to the entire universe of created things….” This plainly is a denial that Christ is either eternal or God, and lowers Him to the place of a mere creature, not the Creator. The note does continue: “this passage does not with certainty prove that Paul reckoned the logos in the number of created beings….”

(p. 521 also speaks of “regeneration wrought through baptism”—a serious doctrinal error.)

So, then, yes, there are some clearly heretical teachings in Thayer—denial of the Trinity by denying the deity of the Son and denying the personhood of the Holy Spirit, as well as the error of baptismal regeneration. Since my knowledge of Thayer is by no means exhaustive, I suspect a careful reading of the whole would likely reveal other serious errors. But these, at least, remind us that we must always have our eyes wide open when we consult Bible-related reference books, since all authors are both fallible, and come to their task with a set of theological presuppositions, some of them plainly aberrant.

May I suggest that you read the preface to your copy of Thayer, to gain some background perspective on the work.

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nbanuchi's picture

I wonder if I may intrude on you with a question.  I have had a discussion with a blogger who, from what I can tell, is misusing Thayer's.

He is in essence claiming that Thayer in his 1889 edition intended to define "kosmos" in Jn 3:16 as "believer's only" and that it is a legitimate translation of said verse.  The discussion also revolved around point #8 of Thayer's definition of "kosmos".

My main point was that certain websites offer a lexicon from that incorrectly defines "kosmos" as "believers only" in disagreement with many scholarly resources.  See the offending lexicon in one of the many websites here:

To make matters worse, it is made as if this definition is taken from Thayer's when it is taken from a study of "kosmos" by AW Pink.  I must have informed about 20 websites of this gross error and, thus far, only two have admitted to researching my objection and, finding it to be correct, have removed the erroneous definition.

To add confusion into them mix, the blogger I had been contending with is claiming, as I understand him, that Thayer's definition #8 justifies the definition of "kosmos" as "believers only" for Jn 3:16.

If you could take the time to read some of our discussion on this person's blog it would be much appreciated:

I am the Nelson Banuchi of whom he refers to on his blog.

If I have misunderstood Hill's, maybe you can explain my error.  If not, maybe you can clarify for me exactly what he means concerning his comments on Thayer's paragraph for definition #8, especially regarding the scholars whom Thayer cites.  I'm not sure if I have correctly understood him.

I realize you may be busy but if you could help me with this, it would be much appreciated.  I am merely seeking to make sure I have understood Hill correctly and that my objection is legitimate and makes sense...and, maybe if someone rehearses for me what we are both contending, maybe I can either concede I am wrong and Hill correct or better explain my position in the hopes that Hill and others will deal more truthfully with not only scholarly Bible resources but with the Bible.

I defer to your wisdom and insight.  Offering my gratitude for your assistance, I remain,

at the Cross,

Nelson Banuch

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