Exegetical Fallacies

Every Christian engages in exegesis as soon as he opens the Bible and seeks to understand the meaning of a passage. It is also an important aspect of the Bible teacher’s work. Sound exegesis is essential for teaching that is truly in line with Scripture. Unfortunately, errors in exegesis are all too common (15). It is to alleviate this problem that Carson has written this book, which is aimed primarily at pastors/teachers. It is not a catalogue of errors committed by one particular interpreter on one particular text. Nor is its aim to defend one interpretation of a particular text. It is rather to highlight methods that are more than dubious. This book deals with errors of method or reasoning in exegesis. It is essential for the student of Scripture to ensure that his interpretation is justified by the text! Carson groups these errors into four categories, each forming a chapter of the book.

1. Word Study Fallacies

The kind of errors mentioned here are certainly among the most common. Carson lists no fewer than 16! Words are the focus of exegetes’ attention, but can be so easily abused. These errors are often due to a lack of consideration or understanding of semantics and linguistics. The meaning of a word is not fixed in time. Nor is it necessarily defined by its root (e.g. butterfly). Things get more complicated when working with a translated text. For example, the semantic field of an English word used to translate a Greek word will almost certainly be different from the semantic field of the Greek word. Some of these errors can lead us into the twists and turns of linguistics, but Carson does a good job of making it accessible. Most of these errors become obvious when Carson exposes them. Yet they are so easily made if we are not careful. Carson suggests that the proliferation of these errors is largely due to the fact that many preachers have enough knowledge of Greek to use a concordance, but no real understanding of how this language works (64). The solution is to deepen one’s knowledge of Greek and linguistics, not to forsake Greek altogether. Carson concludes on a note of encouragement: no matter how much you know about Greek or linguistics, paying attention to context will help you avoid most of these mistakes! Yes, words in themselves aren’t everything, they work in systems.

2. Grammatical Fallacies

The errors presented here are more technical and relate to Greek grammar. The first section deals with errors relating to different tenses and verbal modes. The other section covers errors relating to various syntactic units, such as conditionals and articles. Familiarity with Greek will be necessary to benefit from this discussion. It’s important to note that our understanding of Greek grammar is constantly evolving. Thus, when a biblical commentary (especially if it’s quite old) rests an entire argument on a particular grammar rule or verbal construction, it’s best to exercise caution and check against other commentaries! As Carson reminds us, although Greek grammar has well-defined rules, it also has a certain flexibility (66). The exegete will do well to bear this in mind!

3. Logical Fallacies

Carson references 18 of such errors. More specifically, these are logical errors often found in arguments for a particular interpretation of a text (whatever that may be). These arguments, while they may be convincingly presented, are dubious at best. This list is instructive. Such unfounded and sometimes manipulative reasoning is unfortunately not uncommon in discussions around debated and contested points (whether in commentaries, other books, or in oral debates).

4. Presuppositional and Historical Fallacies

As Carson acknowledges, it would take an entire book to talk in detail about presuppositions and questions of epistemology. The source of presuppositional errors is the failure to take seriously the presuppositions of the Bible, whether concerning its nature, or more broadly concerning a biblical worldview. To do justice to the biblical text, the exegete must interpret it according to its own rules and presuppositions, not his (the exegete’s). Historical errors, on the other hand, stem either from a lack of understanding of the historical context (total ignorance of the historical context or, at the other extreme, uncontrolled historical reconstruction), or from a lack of understanding of the dynamics of history (e.g., ignorance of the complexity of the causation of events).

5. Concluding Reflections

In the first part of his conclusion, Carson presents a few other errors that he was unable to call out in the body of the book. Aware of the book’s potential to discourage students of the Word, Carson ends his book with an encouragement to be humble in the practice of exegesis, and to be ready to question oneself. Faithful interpretation is not impossible!

The breadth of the various errors Carson addresses in this somewhat small book make it a useful and valuable resource for every serious teacher and student of the Scriptures. Apart from chapter 2, which is quite technical, the rest of the book is fairly accessible. At the same time, it is difficult to read at points, as it sometimes confronts us to our own errors and shortcomings (I recognized myself more than once in the errors cited!). A good book for fostering humility! Its other strong point is that it is full of concrete examples from theologians of all stripes (including himself). This book is the fruit of a sincere desire for truth in the interpretation of the Bible. What’s more, his bibliography is rich and varied, and bears witness to serious work.

In short, this is a high-quality work. Every pastor and Bible teacher should have read at it at least once!

D.A. Carson, Exegetical Fallacies, Baker Books, Second Edition, 1996.

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