Review of “Exegetical Fallacies,” D.A. Carson, Pt II

We have almost finished chapter 2, on word-fallacies. Carson’s treatment of what I would call the mystical language of St John’s Gospel is worth reading, when one wants to study that (55-60). But to read it and remember it without having a question about that gospel is  difficult, partly because Carson is not coming to conclusions about its meaning so much as he is dealing with common errors in interpretation.

What is easier to commit to memory is his discussion of the ideas of Thomas H. Groome, a Roman Catholic educational theorist, who commits what Carson calls the fallacy of “selective and prejudicial use of evidence.” Groome commits the error of confusing language with thought (which we have already examined), and in particular, he concludes that in the Gospel of St John, the Hebrew background means that in St John’s Gospel, “knowing” God has nothing to do with propositions, but everything to do with experience (54-55). To know God, whether in St John’s or any other Gospel, means both to exercise intellect and heart; even as St Mark says: “thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart, thy whole soul, thy whole mind, and thy whole strength.” (Mark 12:30, and parallels in Matthew 22:37; Luke 10:27, and Deuteronomy 6:5). The lesson from this is that an interpretation which is based on all the relevant text, and I would say, all the New Testament, is sounder than one based on convenient quotations, recognising where one genre or one writer use a word differently from how it will be used in other genre’s and writers, or even on different occasions (62-63). This selection of materials to paint an unbalanced picture of the teaching is often called “cherry picking,” although I don’t know why the innocent cherry has to be dragged into such a disreputable practice (other than to make one’s speech more colourful).

Related to this is Carson’s 14th field of word-fallacies, “Problems relating to the Semitic background of the Greek New Testament.” This is the error of taking something in the Greek text of the New Testament, and then saying that in fact it means something different because the Greek, as it stands, too narrowly or else completely mistranslates the Hebrew or Aramaic word behind it. In Catholic liturgy we encounter this when people argue that at the Last Supper, Our Lord’s saying that His blood would be shed “for many,” in fact meant “for all.” This is patently absurd. On this basis, of course, Semites have no word for “many,” only a complement of words for all. Yet, the argument is made. Similar contentions are often advanced for other words or teachings. They all require us to believe, as an act of faith, that the writer in question knows the ancient languages better than the evangelist did, and can with accuracy determine the Semitic word he had in mind, and then express a concept – at variance from what is written – which more truly reflects the intention of the Lord. It is not only patently absurd, it is also arrogant. Here, Carson attacks a twist on this argument: that the modern author is basing his argument on the use of words in the Septuagint, which influenced the New Testament writer (61-62). The argument nonetheless comes down to the same thing.

Carson then passes to “Grammatical Fallacies.” His first point is that papyri discoveries of the Greek language as used in NT times show that it was more distinctive than previously thought: that is, it is not to be read as Classical Greek with just some changes. This is not a trivial point: I recall a scholar who, in her new translation of the NT, defended her sometimes bizarre choice of words by reference to Athenian drama of the fifth century BC. Then Carson comes to the contested question of the tenses in Greek. Here he discusses a number of readings, based on a rather rigid view of what Greek tenses and moods indicate. Some of these are, he says, patently wrong (65-77). They will not have much meaning unless one is studying the particular text. He is not saying that classical learning is useless: he is saying that one should use it but also be aware that the language had been changing, and so take great care to read the text within its contemporary context. Other grammatical fallacies include the Greek conditionals, and the definite article (77-84).

The most relevant portion of this chapter is his treatment of the definite article and the lack thereof in John 1:1. The definite is “the,” and the indefinite article is “a” or “an.” If I say “I own the boat,” I am asserting something more definite than if I say “I own a boat.” The first means that I don’t own just any boat, I own this one. Many people will know that the Jehovah’s Witnesses assert that when it says “and the Word was God,” it means “and the Word was a God,” because it does not have a definite article. This is silly on the face of it: the logic is that if it is not saying “and the Word was the God” it must be saying “a God.” It is saying neither: St John is teaching that there is only One God, and the Word was Him. As Carson points out, the way it is written is exactly the best way to say this (82-84). That is, a noun can be definitewithout having to have the article in front of it. So, too, as in my example of the boat, St John’s meaning was that the Word was not any god but God, the one divine being.

One comment

  1. 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 ???. Carson summarizes Lenski’s logic this way: “Connectives such as ??? (

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