As readers of this blog know, in addition to being a full-time minister, I am also a theology graduate student. In the course of those studies (and my less formal studies as a minister) I have spent hours and hours learning the original biblical languages of Greek and Hebrew, as well as other skills to help me to better interpret (or exegete—see the book’s title above) the text of the Bible.
In the course of those studies, as I have grown better skilled and more careful about interpreting the Bible. At the same time, I have become dismayed by witnessing so frequently what I would consider to be ill-informed, haphazard, and shoddy biblical work. Sometimes this is done by people who have never studied original languages and yet presume to teach about them, and other times it is done by brilliant people who make careless errors. But either way, it happens all the time (and to be fair, I’m sure I do it too, but hopefully I do it less frequently than I once did).
Written by respected New Testament scholar D.A. Carson, Exegetical Fallacies addresses a lot of these interpretative problems, and I strongly believe that it is a book which should be read by all preachers, teachers, and studious Christians (a heavy recommendation, I know). The book is divided into four main sections.
In my opinion, this section was vitally important because preachers and authors so frequently appeal to Hebrew and Greek words to make their arguments, and they so frequently do it poorly. Here are a couple of good quotations, some of which will refer to some ideas that you may have heard before [with my comments in brackets]:
“There is nothing intrinsic to the verb ἀγαπαω (agapao) or the noun ἀγαπη (agape) to prove its real meaning or hidden meaning refers to some special kind of love.” (p. 32) [How many times have you heard that Christians are supposed to exhibit agape love, which is a higher and purer kind of love than what is described by other Greek words?]
“Our word dynamite is etymologically derive from δυναμις (dynamis, power, or even miracle). I do not know how many times I have heard preachers offer some such rendering of Romans 1:16 as this: “I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the dynamite of God unto salvation for everyone who believes…”—often with a knowing tilt of the head, as if something profound or even esoteric has been uttered. This is not just the old root fallacy revisited. It is worse: it is an appeal to a kind of reverse etymology, the root fallacy compounded by anachronism. Did Paul think of dynamite when he penned this word? And in any case, even to mention dynamite as a kind of analogy is singularly inappropriate. Dynamite blows things up, tears things down, rips out rock, gouges holes, destroys things.” (p. 33-34) [And the implication is that it is not dynamite or a similar force that raises us from the dead and transforms us into the likeness of Christ. It is power of an entirely different sort.]
“It is methodologically irresponsible to read the meaning of a Hebrew word into its Greek equivalent without further ado. The case must be argued.” (p. 62) [You should be a little suspicious when someone refers to a word from the Old Testament and says “The same word in the New Testament is…” or vice-versa.]
“As important as word studies are, it is very doubtful if profound understanding of any text or of any theme is really possible by word studies alone.” (p. 64) [Words ultimately derive their meaning from context; you can’t divorce words from their context without also stripping away much of the meaning.]
Again, this is an important part of the book, for similar reasons to those mentioned above. Often times, the biblical languages are abused in ways that misunderstands the grammar of those languages rather than specific words.
I won’t include any quotations from this part of the book, but as an example of this type of problem, it is common to hear or read the claim that the aorist tense of the verb in Greek refers to a “once for all” or “completed” action, and then some grand theological point is made from this. The problem is that the aorist tense is incredibly flexible and means a great variety of things. Frequently in the New Testament aorist verbs are used to described ongoing or repeated actions.
Carson provides examples of several other types of grammatical fallacies as well.
I found this section to be less helpful, just because I had studied logical fallacies multiple times before in communication classes. I would imagine that this chapter would still be very helpful if this was a subject you hadn’t previously studied before.
Carson covers a variety of fallacies including appeal to selective evidence, purely emotive appeals, the non sequitur, and simplistic appeals to authority.
Presuppositional and Historical Fallacies
This was another very important section for me. Increasingly, I have witnessed preachers and scholars use their historical reconstruction of the supposed setting of a biblical text (i.e. something which might have influenced the text but which we don’t actually know for sure) to trump what the text actually says. This is poor exegesis.
“The fallacy is in thinking that speculative reconstruction of first-century Jewish and Christian history should be given much weight in the exegesis of the New Testament documents…a little speculative reconstruction of the flow of history is surely allowable if we are attempting to fill in some of the lacunae left by insufficient evidence; but it is methodologically indefensible to use those speculations to undermine large parts of the only evidence we have.” (p.131-32)
Again, I think this is a really important book, and so I’ll just repeat what I said above: I strongly believe that it is a book which should be read by all preachers, teachers, and studious Christians.
Having said that, reading about so many potential exegetical problems can have its drawbacks: (1) It will make you more critical of the sermons you hear (and, if you’re not careful, in an unhealthy way), and (2) It will make you more hesitant about your own biblical interpretation and exegesis. But, helpful as always, Carson has good words on this topic as well:
“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 itself. I have no easy answer to this dilemma. But we will not go far astray if we approach the Bible with a humble mind and then resolve to focus on central truths. Gradually we will build up our exegetical skills by even handed study and a reverent, prayerful determination to become like the workman ‘who correctly handles the word of truth.’” (p. 142)