Book Review: Exegetical Fallacies

Recommendation: Recommended; Caveat: This book contains a significant amount of Greek

Introduction

One word can be used to describe opening the pages of D.A. Carson’s challenging book Exegetical Fallacies, caution.  From the opening chapter on, Carson sets forth argument after argument against the common fallacies that are seen in so many exegetical works and sermons.  The word caution comes to mind because his style, delivery, and content should actually serve to cause any current or prospective pastor/theologian to proceed with caution in their exegesis.  There is a very real potential that readers of this book will feel crippled by it lest they run their exegesis of any and every passage through the grid that Carson establishes.  Not without warning though, Carson sets forth in his introduction a section entitled “The Dangers of this Study,”[1] wherein he points out the risks of such an impact on the student.  He adds, “If there are so many exegetical traps, so many hermeneutical pitfalls, how can I ever be confident that I am rightly interpreting and preaching the Scriptures?”[2]  Carson however, rightly points out that avoiding a study like this will only cause the exegete greater difficulties and mistakes than if they faced the challenges set forth in the book.

With this perspective, one can begin to see that this study is intended to become less crippling for the exegete and more thought-provoking and instructive.  In the “Introduction”, the primary danger of this study is defined as “distanciation”, which Carson says, “is a necessary component of critical work; but it is difficult and sometimes costly.”[3]  Distanciation is defined as “setting or keeping something at a distance, especially mentally.”[4]    Simply put, what he is implying here is that often a critical study of the Bible can become so cerebral as to create a distance between the student and work being studied, in this case God’s word.  In following his introduction, Carson lays out 4 main categories of fallacies that will each be reviewed: word-study fallacies[5], grammatical fallacies[6], logical fallacies[7], and presuppositional and historical fallacies[8].

 Summary

Chapter One of Exegetical Fallacies addresses the largest group of fallacies categorized by Carson, the word-study fallacy.  He further breaks down this collection into 16 individual errors.  One of particular interest was defined as the root fallacy which the author describes as “one of the most enduring of errors…presupposes that every word actually has a meaning bound up with its shape or its components.”[9]  This fallacy was especially instructive because it included the ever-popular agapeand phileo (forgive my lack of Greek fonts) distinction.  Carson argues that these words, both translated into English as love, have “substantial overlap; and where they overlap, appeal to a ‘root meaning’ in order to discern a difference is fallacious.”[10]  Therein lays the fallacy, when the exegete seeks to draw a distinction between the two words based on root meaning, the root fallacy evidenced.  Concluding, Carson writes, “My only point here is that there is nothing intrinsic to the verb agape or the noun phileo to prove its real meaning or hidden meaning refers to some special kind of love.”[11]  Carson moves on in his examination of word-study fallacies to include several semantical fallacies in which either the modern use of a word is read back into the text or where a historical meaning of a word is assigned to the corresponding word in the text.[12]

Grammatical fallacies are the focus of chapter 2 and admittedly, the driver in this shortened discussion is the limited grammatical focus of theology students.[13]  It would be superfluous to summarize every one of the 7 fallacies listed in this chapter, however, Carson groups these into 2 categories: Fallacies Connected with Various Tenses and Moods[14] and Fallacies Connected with Various Syntactical Units.[15]  The former group is not found to refer to tense in any traditional sense of the grammatical use, such as past tense, present tense, etc., but instead Carson uses it to refer to “morphological form, with no implications whatsoever with respect to time. “[16]  These forms which Carson examines include the aorist tense, first person aorist subjunctive, and the middle voice.  Moving to the second category of grammatical fallacies, the author shifts his focus to fallacies of various syntactical units, or in other words, a fallacy based on incorrect assumptions from how a sentence is structured.  Of note in this group is the Granville Sharp rule[17], which is related to the grouping of words using kai.

The next two chapters of Exegetical Fallacies expose errors of the logical and presuppositional/historical variety, chapters 3 and 4 respectively.  In Chapter 3, Carson sets forth his argument against fallacies that are logical in nature, which very simply refers to those fallacies in which the misapplication of evidence has been used to reach a faulty conclusion.  This, at least it would appear, seems to be one of the more widespread categories of fallacies, but perhaps the least often recognized.  Chapter 4 concludes Carson’s examination of fallacies with a look at presuppositional and historical fallacies.  This chapter, as Carson readily admits[18] could easily be addressed in a book of its own.  Surely, one must agree that an exegete’s presuppositions are critically important to understanding the exegete’s conclusions.  Related are those of the historical variety in which an exegete often misrepresents historical reconstruction.

Concluding his work, Carson reflects on the possibility for at least seven additional fallacies which could have been investigated in another book.  Nevertheless, he addresses well the potential pitfalls and discouragements that might come from reading a book like this by adding, “A little self-doubt will do no harm and may do a great deal of good: we will be more open to learn and correct our mistakes.  But too much will shackle and stifle us with deep insecurities and make us so much aware of methods that we may overlook truth ourselves.”[19]  In other words, the very danger of distanciation that Carson alluded to at the beginning of his book.

Strengths

D.A. Carson’s book has obvious strengths for any study of its kind that seeks to make the theologian, both of the student and pastoral variety, more aware of inherent fallacies that can persist without careful attention to detail and exegesis.  Such strengths include improved accuracy in the handling of Scripture, greater awareness of the types and varieties of fallacies, and providing an exegetical grid to work from in sermon and writing preparation.  Certainly, all interested parties would answer in the affirmative to a desire to more rightly handle the Word and Exegetical Fallacies can serve as a tool to help that become more of a reality in evangelical pulpits.

Weaknesses

It is difficult to highlight particular weaknesses in a book that has such obvious strengths and a central thesis that is necessary for today’s study of Scripture without becoming overly critical or sensitive.  However, there are glaring limitations of a study of this kind that cannot go unmentioned.  Chief among them may be the tone of delivery for a book that seeks to correct the large majority of errors that are taking place among one’s peers.  It is near impossible to determine the intended tone from mere words on a page, so one is limited to perception.  Far from accusing Carson of taking a haughty tone on purpose, it is difficult to ignore how he sometimes comes across to his audience as singularly holding the theological keys to exegesis which many well-respected theologians have not had the privilege, education, or experience to hold.

Similarly, another particular distraction from the fallacies that Carson outlines throughout his book seems to be his particular bent in naming offenders of the various fallacies he outlines.  While it may be necessary to describe fallacies, while likewise ascribing them, it could have the appearance of either a witch-hunt or unnecessarily throwing peers “under the bus” while simultaneously asserting that he alone holds the premium on exegetical faithfulness.  As Carson himself admits to his own less than precise exegesis[20] in the latter part of the book, it would seem then that he could have maintained greater integrity of the book and accomplished its goal of identifying exegetical fallacies while limiting the number of personal references.

Conclusion

There is little questioning the importance of this book for the Church today.  Pastors, teachers, and lay leaders alike will benefit greatly from D.A. Carson’s analysis as they observe the various fallacies and pitfalls in personal exegesis.  The strengths severely outweigh any perceived weaknesses, though one reading this book should do so while keeping the warnings that Carson describes in mind to avoid the potential “paralysis of analysis” that may result from such an intense work.

 


[1] D.A. Carson, Exegetical Fallacies, 2nd edition (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1996). 22

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 23.

[5] Ibid., 27-64.

[6] Ibid., 65-86.

[7] Ibid., 87-123.

[8] Ibid., 125-136.

[9] Ibid., 28.

[10] Ibid., 31.

[11] Ibid., 32.

[12] Ibid., 33-36. The former refers to semantic anachronism and the latter to semantic obsolescence.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid., 67.

[15] Ibid., 77.

[16] Ibid., 67.

[17] Ibid., 81.

[18] Ibid., 125.

[19] Ibid., 142.

[20] Ibid., 113.

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