Exegetical Fallacies – Review

A year ago first I read through D.A. Carson's Exegetical Fallacies. I was amazed and frightened at the amount of guilt I was left feeling, knowing that I had been guilty of many of the fallacies that Carson exposes. Upon remembering a comment made about the book (I cannot remember where I read it), that I should read it every year, I decided to pick it up again to read and see if I have become a little more wiser with the text; I am afraid to find out the verdict after I finish.

I plan on blogging through each chapter. But because of lack of time and business, I will most likely break up each of chapter into sections and then when I am finished I will put them together into chapters. I hope that you enjoy reading each of these posts as much as I am the book. More importantly, I hope that you are motivated to go and purchase the book for yourselves and journey through the book, being convicted at every turn of the page.

Part One: Introduction.

Everyone who comes to the text of Scripture brings with them their own personal baggage full of social, cultural, linquistical, and other presuppositions. It is impossible to come to the Bible with a tabula rasa, for each one of us brings something to the text. And it is these presuppositions that sometimes lead us into committing some of the fallacies that Carson highlights in his book.

The first paragraph of the introduction is a good thesis and purpose for Carson's writing of the book:

To focus on fallacies, exegetical or otherwise, sounds a bit like focusing on sin: guilty parties may take grudging notice and briefly pause to examine their faults, but there is nothing intrinsically redemptive in the process. Nevertheless, when the sins are common and (what is more) frequently unrecognized by those who commit them, detailed description may have to salutary effect of not only encouraging thoughtful self-examination but also providing an incentive to follow a better way. I hope that by talking about what should not be done in exegesis, we may all desire more deeply to interpret the Word of God aright. If I focus on the negative, it is in the hope that readers will thereby profit more from the positive instruction they glean from texts and lectures (D.A. Carson. Exegetical Fallacies. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1996: 15).

And as we work our way through the various fallacies listed in this book, it is my prayer that we may all begin to interpret the Word of God in a more precise manner.

But before Carson begins to investigate the various fallacies, he first gives three qualifying purposes for the book. First there is the importance of the study. Second, the dangers inherent in it. And last, the limitations which Carson has adopted.

a. The Purpose of the Study

“This study is important because exegetical fallacies are painfully frequent among us – among us whose God-given grace and responsibility is the faithful proclamation of the Word of God” (Carson, 15). It is because of this frequency that Carson writes this book. Because of the abuses that take place in the pulpit, classroom, books, lecture halls, Sunday school class rooms, etc., a study like this is not only needed, but quite beneficial for all you are teachers of the Word of God.

Carson challenges us to be critical thinkers; one who engages the text with passion and extreme diligence and integrity. But how does thinking critically apply to our understanding and interpretation of the Bible? Carson states, “A critical interpretation of Scripture in one that has adequate justification – lexical, grammatical, cultural, theological, historical, geographical, or other justification. In other words, critical exegesis in this sense is exegesis that provides sound reasons for the choices it makes and the positions that it adopts” (Carson, 16). In other words, if we are to come to an understanding of what the text of Scripture means, we must do the hard work of understanding all that is involved in a correct interpretation. Anything else is not acceptable. Would we go to a doctor who is not trained to perform brain surgery? Why should we expect anything less from one who is performing heart surgery?

Carson also reminds us that even if we are involved in critical exegesis, sometimes we may come to two different interpretation of what the Bible teaches (i.e. eschatology, tongues, prophecy, etc.) (Carson, 16-17. “When two equally godly interpreters emerge with mutually incompatible interpretations of a text, it must be obvious even to the most spiritual, and perhaps as well as to most of those who are not devoted to the worst forms of polysemy…, that they cannot both be right,” Carson, 16. See also his example in n.2).

Another thing we are to be careful of is our traditions and how they play apart in our interpretation of Scripture. This is not an easy thing to do. The more we are taught from others, the more we have to be careful that our traditions do not become our interpretation. We will never be completely free of this. As Carson states later:

But if we sometimes read our own theology [which can be motivated by our theological traditions] into the text, the solution is not to retreat to an attempted neutrality, to try to make one’s mind a tabula rasa so we may listen to the text without bias. It cannot be done, and it is a fallacy to think it can be. We must rather discern what our prejudices are and make allowances for them; and meanwhile we should learn all the historical theology we can (Carson, 129).

It is not that our traditions are necessarily wrong [unless informed otherwise by the text], but rather we must not allow our traditions to be what we use as a grid to interpret the text of Scripture. We must allow the Scripture to reform our doctrine and lives by listening to it honestly and in a fresh way (Carson, 18). Carson shows how tradition has allowed for there to be those who hold to a dispensational approach to Scripture; a covenantal approach; charismatics and cessationalists and others (Carson, 18. See 18-21 for an extended discussion).

The final reason for the importance of Carson study is the attack on conservative interpretation of the Bible. Where the problem use to be defending the trustworthiness of the Bible, now it is against those who say that conservatives are not properly understanding the Bible; the real problem is hermeneutical and exegetical (Carson, 21). What makes this dangerous, in my opinion more dangerous than the attacks on the trust worthiness of the Bible, is that is comes from inside the “conservative camp.” Instead of being an objective attack, it is now subjective, making it harder to confront. Conservatives are accused of “not properly understanding the Bible. They have imposed on the sacred text an artificial notion of authority and a forced exegesis of passage after passage” (Carson, 21). How are we to approach such an accusation? Carson concludes this section with these final words, “We have been outflanked on the hermeneutical and exegetical fronts, and one of the steps we must take to get into the discussion is to examine our own exegetical and hermeneutical tools afresh. This includes the rigorous exposure of bad and weak arguments, whether our own or those of others (Carson, 21-22).

Next Time: The Dangers of this Study

EDIT: I missed a long, but I believe important quote from Carson regarding the importance of a study like this:

Like much of our theology, our exegetical practices in most cases have been passed on to us by teachers who learned them many years earlier. Unless both our teachers and we ourselves have kept up, it is all too likely that our exegetical skills have not been honed by recent developments. Hermeneutics, linguistics, literary studies, greater grammatical sophistication, and advances in computer technology have joined forces to demand that we engage in self-criticism of our exegetical practices…The sum total of all useful exegetical knowledge did not reach its apex during the Reformation, nor even in the past century. As much as we can and must learn from our theological forebears, we face the harsh realities of this century; and neither nostalgia nor the preferred position of an ostrich will remove either the threats or the opportunities that summon our exegetical skills to new rigor (Carson, 20).

As I read this paragraph I was immediately stricken with the amount of responsibility one who teaches the word of God has. To teach the Bible does not mean we open up the Bible on Sunday morning and read the text and put something together on the spot. There is great work that must be done when one prepares to teach the Scriptures. We should have some sort of grasp on the Biblical languages. I believe that this is of great importance to the one who teaches God’s word. We live in a day where we can we greater easy teach ourselves at least the basics of the language from the comfort of our study. There is no more an excuse to not be able to take the time to learn all that one can of these important languages. Now I am not saying that everyone who teaches themselves Greek or Hebrew should be an expert, but they should have no excuse to learn enough of the basics to be able to recognize Greek or Hebrew words in a reference work and then be able to interact with such a work.

We can no longer afford to sit idle while the world around us continues to grow and advance. We must take the time to work hard at understanding the various disciplines that are involved in exegeting the Scriptures. We who are teachers (are in training to be teachers) have been given a high calling from the Lord himself, and we must diligently pursue that calling with all of our might, for the glory of the one who has redeemed us and has called us not only into ministry, but more importantly into salvation through the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ our Lord!

Soli Deo Gloria


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