Exegetical Fallacies, 2nd edition, D(onald) A(rthur) Carson, Baker Academic, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1996 (142 pp. + indices)
“Exegesis” is the interpretation and explanation of something. It is very often used of scripture, and that is how it is used here: the fallacies in questions are errors in reading and understanding the Bible. Carson is an evangelical Protestant, so much so that despite writing a book on exegetical fallacies wherein he continually critiques writers for unexamined prejudices, and assuming rather than proving their case, he himself unselfconsciously writes of “many centuries of papal claims falsely based upon that passage,” i.e. Matthew 16:13-20, p.129.
Yet, this is an important book, and what is more – an unfinished one. By that I mean that there is an urgent need for its slim 142 pages to be expanded. Many fallacies of biblical interpretation are not dealt with here, and there is a crying need that they be attended to. Furthermore, the enterprise of studying the standard errors in modern biblical criticism, meaning that criticism which follows in the tradition of the German “Higher Criticism” should have the effect of chipping away at the entire modern biblical edifice. Shortly, modern biblical criticism is a self- regulating mistake, reading sacred literature as if it were ordinary writing, and supporting it’s myopia by an appeal to reason and rationality. However, the undertaking stands on foundations of sand, using illogical forms of argument: but because the practitioners have been trained to think that they are all very logical when they argue that way, and they all agree, they see nothing wrong. Carson’s book is, especially at the end, a small but – for modern scholars – ominous voice.
Carson deals with the errors in question in four chapters: word-study, grammatical, logical, and presuppositional and historical fallacies. There is an introduction and a short chapter of concluding reflections. There are thee indices, of subjects, modern authors, and of scripture. The first two types of error (words and grammar) are not the fundamental problems I was averting to in the paragraph above. Now, Carson is aware of these issues (see his notes on pp.21 and 23), but he does not target that question. Let us work through this volume in order.
Chapter Two, “Word-Study Fallacies” deals with “The Root Fallacy,” “Semantic Obsolescence,” “Appeal to Unknown or Unlikely Meanings,” “Carless Appeal to Background Material,” “Verbal Parallelomania,” “Linkage of Language and Mentality,” “False Assumptions about Technical Meaning,” “Problems Relating to the Semitic Background of the Greek New Testament,” and others. I shall select but a few examples. I will say in advance that some of these examples might not be of logical fallacies, i.e. errors of reasoning, but simply of mistakes in fact.
The root fallacy is the error that by examining the root from which a word comes, we can work out what its later derivation must mean. One example he gives is what he correctly calls the “nonsense,” that “a special kind of loving” must be mean in scripture because the verb agapaō is used (28, 31-32). So, too, the notion that in John 21:15-17, St John is trying to convey some special meaning by using different words for “love” is unfounded (51). This mistake has received wide currency. The meaning of words can develop and change. This takes us to the fallacy of semantic obsolescence: overlooking that the meaning of a word is not what it once was. This often happens because people think that words used in New Testament Greek have the same meaning as they had in Classical Greek. Well, sometimes they do, but sometimes they do not. Hence, some writers wrongly argue that in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, the word kephalē means not “head,” but “source” or “origin,” as it might in Classical Greek (37, see also 66 on other divergences between Classical and New Testament Greek).
Another interesting finding is the one that the great majority of “parallels” claimed by Bultmann and Dodd between the text of John 1:1-18 and non-Christian literature was properly only 7% of the total (43). Now, each of these claims would have to be studied and adjudicated upon, but the point is that many people who do not have access to the sources, or the time or desire to check them, would read someone like Bultmann or Dodd, and think that such highly regarded scholars, feted on all sides by their peers, must be correct. What is at stake is, in part at least, the authority of these writers and the biblical industry in which they worked.
Another error rather than a logical fallacy, is the nonetheless interesting information that the distinction between St Matthew’s “Sermon on the Mount” and St Luke’s “Sermon on the Plain” is overdrawn, if not completely mistaken. The phrase eis to oros in Matthew 5:1 probably meant “into the hill country,” while in Luke 6:17 pedinos often refers to a plateau in mountain regions (43).
One of the more appalling types of error is the one which links language to mentality, and Carson takes sharp aim at it. This is the fallacy that “any language so constrains the thinking processes of the people who use it that they are forced into certain patterns of thought and shielded from others” (44). An example is the ridiculous idea that because, unlike English, Greek, and Latin, the Semitic languages do not have a neuter gender, only male and female genders, then “for the Semite everything is alive” (45). If this seems to paint the Semitic language in romantic colours, the converse happens when it comes to tense: the idea that because Greek grammar has more tenses than the Semitic meant that the writers of scripture could get a better sense of what God had revealed, grasp what he was doing in the present, and anticipate the future (45).
I shall work through the book, but I think an important lesson is this: scholars may draw apparently learned arguments, sometimes sophisticated ones, and yet be wrong. Often it takes a real expert to know that things are as simple as they seem, and not as complex as they don’t.