I believe the Word of God was recorded to be read, studied, and understood. However, if we are careless in our exegesis we can reach conclusions that are contrary to His will. Such outcomes should be humbling to those of us who teach the Bible, and avoided as much as possible. It was with these concerns in mind that I decided to read Exegetical Fallacies by D. A. Carson.
Despite it being only 148 pages in length, it is incredibly dense with examples and information. Most of the work explores fallacies related to word studies, grammar, and logic. There’s also a discussion on presuppositional and historical concepts, but the other parts just mentioned are more comprehensive and helpful. The author also shares some concluding remarks at the end.
In his introduction, Mr. Carson does an excellent job of grounding the reader in the nature of Bible interpretation and issues related to exegesis. His keen attention to the purpose of the book and staying on topic immediately impressed me. When he mentions things that are outside the scope of it, he provides names and resources you can reference to learn more about such topics. He also shares his thoughts on the importance of rightly teaching the Word: “We are dealing with God’s thoughts: we are obligated to take the greatest pains to understand them truly and to explain them clearly” (pg. 15). When I read that, it helped develop a sense of trust between myself and the author. If you read the book, hopefully you have a similar experience. This is necessary to point out because the material he shares has the potential to destroy strongly held doctrinal positions and damage the faith of some.
Moreover, Exegetical Fallacies is not designed for everyone. Even though it is not a technical discussion, it has been prepared with seminary students in mind (pg. 24-25). As such, some of the language the author uses is significantly more challenging than most religious books I’ve read. Furthermore, the focus of the book is to expose fallacies related to understanding the Bible. The author does not necessarily tell readers the proper way of interpreting passages after explaining why some form of exegesis is faulty.
Upon completing the introduction, the serious nature of the book is further highlighted. He doesn’t pull any punches, and addresses the standard definitions of various terms such as “apostle,” “only begotten,” and “agape” (pg. 28). What strikes me about this is that these concepts are explored in the very first fallacy. Such a quick salvo of potentially challenging statements may be too much for some readers.
As the section on word-study fallacies continues, he discusses other important statements like “martyr,” “born of water and the spirit,” and “this is my body,” to name a few. These are found under the headings of semantic obsolescence, careless appeal to background material, and unwarranted restriction of the semantic field (pgs. 36, 41-42, and 57-58). Throughout these explanations, Mr. Carson is very adept at presenting brief reasons why certain perspectives are guilty of a specific fallacy. Let me provide a typical example. In regards to false assumptions about technical meanings, he writes:
Despite its superficial plausibility, the argument has several weaknesses, not least the fact that it stumbles on this eighth fallacy. It is doubtful, for instance, that [ethnos], used anarthrously, has this exclusive force in 21:43; and when the entire expression ([panta ta ethne], “all nations” -not just [ta ethne]) occurs in Matthew (24:9, 14; 25:32; 28:19) it is very doubtful that Jews are being excluded. After all, could Jesus really be excluding Israel as one source of the opposition and hate his followers will have to endure (24:9)?Pg. 47
Some of these discussions were more challenging to follow than others, but I tended to benefit from each. In the book, he shares 16 word-study fallacies, most of which take up 2 or 3 pages a piece. For the grammatical section, the author considers around 8 additional fallacies. These are more technical than the first type, and therefore harder to understand. The reason is because he focuses on the Greek grammar first, and how it is translated into English second. He expects his book’s audience to have some knowledge of Greek in order to keep up with what he is saying. If one doesn’t, then it becomes a lot more difficult. Some of the topics he addresses include the aorist tense, the middle voice, and the definite article.
After continuing through to logical fallacies, the book becomes a little easier again. Mr. Carson looks at 18 common examples, some of which I have heard before. These are probably the most accessible, with many being applicable in settings outside of Bible study as well. Some good examples of this include appeal to selective evidence, fallacies of question-framing, and purely emotive appeals. This portion also contains one of my favorite parts. Under the topic of unwarranted associative jumps he refers to people taking Philippians 4:13 out of context (pgs. 115-116). For those interested, I already wrote a reflection on this on my blog.
The next section concerns presuppositional and historical fallacies. At only 11 pages in length it is one of the shortest. In it, Mr. Carson provides some thoughts about the New Hermeneutic and how faulty views of history can shape our perspective of the Bible. After this he shares some concluding remarks. The work also contains indices of subjects, authors, and scriptures which make repeated readings more efficient.
As I think about it, I know that some of the book went over my head. For certain parts, I was only able to glean a surface understanding of what the author was explaining. However, I consider that more of a reflection on my own level of knowledge rather than the quality of the writing. Like I mentioned earlier, this work was prepared with seminary students in mind. Such individuals have likely studied some Greek before reading it. If one has zero understanding of that, or is not planning on teaching the Bible in any capacity, the benefit of Exegetical Fallacies may be less than what one would hope. However, the main concepts Mr. Carson discusses are still valuable. This is especially so for those who preach from the Bible. I was very impressed by his work and hold it in high regard.
My Rating: 5 of 5 stars
Tools Being Used in Illogical Ways by stevepb from Pixabay.