Exegetical Fallacies – D.A. Carson

The first translations of the Bible in English came around 1500 with the reformation movement. Before that period, studying the Bible was reserved to the clergy. The Catholic Church was not inclined to translate the Bible fearing wrong interpretations. Indeed, the existence of many denominations in today’s world is due to different interpretations of the Bible. We actually experience this every week in our small group Bible studies. The question is then: how can we really get to understand the Bible correctly? In this book, D.A. Carson lists common errors we make when interpreting Scripture.

Exegesis: critical explanation or interpretation of a text or portion of a text, especially of the Bible.
Fallacy: a deceptive, misleading, or false notion, belief, etc.: That the world is flat was at one time a popular fallacy.

The first time I wrote a review on this book was after my first seminary class in Jan 2012. I have just finished to read it for the second time after my last class (Mar 2019). This book is worth being read again and again. I am actually thinking about reading this book periodically – every two years. This review is an update to my previous one.

Summary of the book

The book is quite technical (just like its title). The writing style is sophisticated. Knowledge of Greek is necessary to understand the grammatical fallacies. I had to skip this chapter the first time I read the book since I did not know Greek. The book lists errors by category: word study, grammar, logic, presupposition and history, and miscellaneous. In this summary, I am posting what I found the most interesting.

Word study fallacies (16 fallacies)

This category is most common among preachers because it is the most accessible. It can be easy to open a dictionary and find a definition that seems to be more interesting to the topic preached.

Root Fallacy: we sometimes use the different parts (roots) of a word to find its meaning, but it can be misleading. The examples D.A Carson gives are: “butterfly” (butter/fly) or pineapple (pine/apple) which illustrate the principle well.

False assumptions about technical meaning: A technical meaning is when a word is used to refer to a specific concept. For instance, we often use the following technical words in the realm of systematic theology: “justification,” “sanctification,” “glorification,” “communion,” etc. to point to specific concepts. However, a word may not be used to refer to this specific meaning, therefore generating errors when we presuppose it does. One typical example is the word “justification.” In Rom 3:28, the apostle Paul writes “a man is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” However, James writes “a man is justified by works and not by faith alone” (Ja 2:24). If we apply Paul’s technical use of the word for James, we may conclude that the Bible contradicts itself. However, if we realize that the book of James is a motivational guide to be practical in the Christian life, while Paul explains the doctrine of justification, then it becomes more evident that James does not use the word the same way Paul did. Another and personal example is the use of the word “revelation.” A while ago, a friend and I discussed the continuation of God’s revelation. We could not understand each other because we used the word “revelation” differently. He used it to refer to its “technical” meaning within the Reformed tradition (i.e., general/specific revelation = nature/Bible) while I used it for the idea of disclosing something unclear or hidden. He would actually use the term “enlightenment” for what I meant.

Grammatical fallacies (5 fallacies)

This chapter is the most difficult to understand. Indeed, the author indicates it is briefer because it is less common to see this kind of errors since it requires more training to analyze grammar in the original language. In my first review, I wrote: “It was too complex for me at that time and I skipped [to] the end of the chapter (but I will read it again if one day I learn Greek).” After many years of study, I did learn Greek, and I managed to read and understand this chapter!

One particular fallacy that stands out to me is the use of verb tenses to justify an interpretation. D.A. Carson points out the aorist tense that can be used to indicate the completeness of an action. We could also point to other tenses sometimes used to justify continuity of an action, etc. It does not mean verb tenses do not express anything, but they may not be used alone to justify a specific interpretation. The author writes: “Just as the meaning of a word in any context is established in part by the set of relations that word enters into with its context, so also the meaning of a tense in any context is established in part by the set of relations that tense enters into with its context.” (p. 71).

Oh, how beautiful it is to know Greek 🙂

Logical fallacies (18 fallacies)

The realm of logic is easy and difficult. It is easy when there are easy examples, and it is difficult when applied to real life texts. An argumentation can seem to be logic and the flow natural, but when analyzed in details, it turns out to be misleading. D.A. Carson gives this simple but erroneous example of syllogism:

“Whoever confesses with his mouth and believes in his heart will be saved.
Mary Jo is saved.
Therefore Mary Jo has confessed with her mouth and believed in her heart.” (p. 97)

This example seems to be evident, but what is wrong here? We can spot that the logic is wrong because the first statement is not bidirectional. All who are saved have not necessarily confessed with their mouths and believed in their heart… or have they? A few problems are:

  • we rely on assumptions that are sometimes not so evident,
  • some biblical areas sometimes have limited and unclear evidence to make irreproachable statements,
  • we are not as logic as we claim to be.

The one fallacy I want to highlight is inadequate analogies. It happens when we use inadequate imagery to prove an interpretation. The author gives the example of a Calvinist and an Arminian who would use the parable of the 10 virgins to justify their position. However, this parable should not be used simply because its purpose is not to explain predestination.

Presuppositional and historical fallacies (7 fallacies)

Fallacies arising from omission of distanciation in the interpretative process: In this part, the author details mistakes related to our assumptions and our background that we use while interpreting the Bible. It comes back to the concept of distanciation. We always read the Bible through a lens. We interpret it according to our worldview, and it cannot be otherwise. Distanciation is the process that leads us to step back from what we have previously learned to avoid to impose our personal system on the Bible.

It actually caused me to struggle with my knowledge and, more importantly, my faith. I started to realize that I had learned interpretations and elevated them at the same level as the Bible itself. I created my own system of “traditions.” Not all was to be rejected, but I had to reevaluate and rebuild another system.

Uncontrolled historical reconstruction: Since we need to learn more about the biblical background, we may reinterpret some of the text differently. However, we may do it with exaggeration and uncontrollably. We may sometimes reconstruct the historical background from resources that may be unrelated to the biblical context. D.A. Carson points out “that we have almost no access to the history of the early church during its first five or six decades apart from the New Testament documents.” The result may be more speculation than verified information.


Reflections on the book

I find this book pretty negative and even at times a bit condescending towards the works of others. I understand that the purpose of this book is to present errors commonly made in order to avoid or recognize them. However, I believe there is room for less disdain and irony. For example, in p. 115-116, he criticizes people who have interpreted “everything” in Phi 4:13 (“I can do everything through him who gives me strength”) as everything that God calls them to do even if it is “jump over the moon, integrate complex mathematical equations in my head, turn sand into gold.” Though I agree with him that “everything” refers to being content living in abundance or want, I wonder D.A. Carson refers to pastors who seek to apply this bible passage to their congregation. If pastors cannot do this, then there is little room for applying biblical principles to our daily lives apart from what the texts themselves say in their own historical and cultural context. Anyway, my point was that we are all – even scholars – flawed in our analysis, logic, and bias. So there ought to be a bit of grace in the wording used.

With this said, I appreciate how rich this book is. It had opened my eyes to the difficulty of interpreting the Bible. While reading the book, I realized I have experienced many of the fallacies D.A. Carson describes whether from my interpretations of the Bible or other’s comments and sermons. Many questions came to my mind:
Can we really succeed in understanding the Bible correctly?

  • Should we even read the Bible “devotionally” (which implies without much studying)?
  • Can lay people hope to understand the Bible without expertise?
  • Worse, can pastors even hope to preach with a correct understanding of the passage with only one week of preparation (assuming they do not have anything else to do)? D.A. Carson even acknowledges it: “if grammarians and commentators draw such conclusions, who can blame the busy pastor for trading on the aorist to gain theological capital?” (p. 68)
  • Can we even rely on translations since they are the subjective work of scholars (not that we can do much better anyway)?

We may be discouraged after reading such a book. We may wonder how we can interpret the Bible correctly. Some pastors might have even given up on Greek and their own study of the passage to refer to scholarly works. But I believe the solution lies somewhere else… and D.A. Carson actually says it a few times. The solution is to study more and acknowledge our flaws – not to give up!

“The solution, of course, is to learn more Greek, not less, and to gain at least a rudimentary knowledge of linguistics. ” (p. 64)

“This does not mean real knowledge is impossible. Rather, it means that real knowledge is close to impossible if we fail to recognize our own assumptions, questions, interests, and biases; but if we recognize them and, in dialogue with the text, seek to make allowances for them, we will be better able to avoid confusing our own world-views with those of the biblical writers.” (p. 104-105)

“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” (p. 129)

Of course, we could think “what’s the point? we have even less time than scholars who dedicate their lives to this but still struggle to get it right.” But thinking this way would be rebellion against God, His Word and His Holy Spirit who brings enlightenment in the hearts of those who believe He still speaks today through His Word. So let’s study even more having faith that God wants us to understand His Word.

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