Exegetical Fallacies, by D. A. Carson. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1996. 148 pages.
A. Carson is a research professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He has written or edited a variety of publications, including commentaries on both Matthew and John and The King James Version Debate.
Martin Luther wrote, “In proportion then as we value the gospel, let us zealously hold to the languages…And let us be sure of this: we will not long preserve the gospel without the languages. The languages are the sheath in which the sword of the Spirit is contained; they are the casket in which this jewel is enshrined; they are the vessel in which this wine is held; they are the larder in which this food is stored…If through our neglect we let the languages go (which God forbid!), we shall…lose the gospel” (LW, Vol. 45, p. 359-360). As pastors, it is our tremendous privilege to be able to interact with the Scriptures in their original languages, studying the very words recorded by Moses, Isaiah, Paul, John, and others. Even more importantly, the ability to delve into those languages helps us draw the inspired meaning from the text so we can stand before God’s people and confidently proclaim, “Thus says the Lord!”
In this little volume, Carson presents some of the most common traps facing those who work with the biblical languages, traps which very often lead to flawed or incorrect conclusions in areas like word studies, grammatical points, and logic in biblical interpretation. By providing examples of such common mistakes, this book encourages all who work with God’s Word to do so with the utmost seriousness and faithfulness.
While it is beyond the scope of this review to evaluate each specific “fallacy” discussed (there are a total of 50), the book is divided into four sections: Word Study Fallacies, Grammatical Fallacies, Logical Fallacies, and Presuppositional/Historical Fallacies.
The first major section examines word study fallacies. Here Carson illustrates the various ways the meaning of specific words can be distorted. He describes, for example, the root fallacy which “presupposes that every word actually has a meaning bound up with its shape or components,” or that “meaning is determined by etymology; that is, by the root or roots of a word” (28). His example of such a fallacy is the commonly heard argument that the word ἀπόστολος means “one who is sent out.” While that may be its etymological meaning, the “New Testament suggests that ἀπόστολος (apostolos) commonly bears the meaning a special representative or a special messenger rather than ‘someone sent out’” (30).
A second example of a Word Study fallacy is what Carson describes as a “semantic anachronism”. In this fallacy, the interpreter reads the meaning of a word from later periods into a text from an earlier period, “as when the Greek early church fathers use a word in a manner not demonstrably envisaged by the New Testament writers” (33). This fallacy becomes even more pronounced when we add connotations of a derived word in our language back into the meaning of the word in the original language. As an example, Carson discusses the relationship between the Greek word δύναμις and the English word “dynamite”. While it is true that our word “dynamite” is etymologically derived from δύναμις, this 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?” (34).
The next major section of the book deals with grammatical fallacies, that is, examples of a passage’s meaning being distorted because of a misunderstanding of grammatical principles. One example Carson gives of such abuses is found in his discussion of the aorist tense. Many Greek students have learned that the aorist tense denotes “one time action in the past.” Carson, however, gives numerous examples of aorists which clearly do not fit this simplistic definition (cf. Philippians 2:12, 1 John 2:24, Ephesians 2:1-2). Carson, instead, argues that the aorist “simply refers to the action itself without specifying whether the action is unique, repeated, ingressive, instantaneous, past or accomplished” (68). Instead of insisting that every aorist carries with it a predetermined meaning, we should recognize the flexibility of the tense and look for connections “between the Greek tense-form and the author’s choice of how the action will be conceived” (73).
The third important division in the book gives examples of the dangers of logical fallacies in biblical interpretation. One of the key fallacies of this section is improperly handled syllogisms (94). One example Carson advances is R.C.H. Lenski’s argument that John 3:16-17 must be included as a part of Jesus’ speech to Nicodemus (instead of the narrator’s comment) because it begins with γὰρ. Carson summarizes Lenski’s logic this way: “Connectives such as γὰρ (gar) connect their immediate context to the preceding context; John 3:16 opens with a γὰρ (gar); therefore John 3:16 is connected with the preceding context.” While Lenski’s argument is valid, it hardly solves the question of where to end Jesus’ statement. Obviously there is a connection between John 3:11-15 and John 3:16-17. Such a connection, however, does not prove that the familiar words of John 3:16-17 were Christ’s words instead of John’s.
The final major section discusses what Carson calls “Presuppositional and Historical Fallacies” (125). Instead of mishandlings of the text itself, these fallacies are examples of how the meaning of a text can be distorted based on a misunderstanding of the background of the text. For example, Carson says, “A substantial block of New Testament scholars have traced a network of theological trajectories to explain how the church changed its thinking from decade to decade and from place to place” (132). On the contrary, to read such “theological trajectories” into a text—without support from that text—is a fallacy that can seriously distort the meaning of the words. Carson explains, “The problem is 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…it is a fallacy to think that speculative reconstructions have any force in overturning the evidence” (132).
This reviewer certainly got the sense that Carson’s book does take a negative tone. By stringing together dozens of examples of such “exegetical fallacies,” he runs the risk of sounding like a crotchety collector of criticisms. His intention, however, is overwhelmingly positive. In a highly practical and easily accessible format, Carson warns us of the dangers of confusing the clarity of Holy Scripture with our own cleverness or the holy writers’ intent with our own inventiveness. At the same time, this book is a strong encouragement to continue growing in our understanding of the Greek language and a stark reminder of the consequences of being content with an immature knowledge of the language.
This little gem is a “must-read” for all pastors. Following our Lutheran heritage, we are committed to the biblical languages since they are the “sheath for the sword of the Spirit.” Carson helps us see the care and concern that must be taken when interpreting God’s Word. He gives many practical examples of the traps that so easily cause interpreters to fall or stumble. Above all, he encourages us to be honest, faithful, and humble in the way we approach the inspired Scriptures.
Pastor Phil Arnold