REVIEW: Exegetical Fallacies

Exegetical Fallacies Book Cover Exegetical Fallacies
D. A. Carson
Baker Academic
March 1, 1996

This book offers updated explanations of the sins of interpretation to teach sound grammatical, lexical, cultural, theological, and historical Bible study practices. "A must for teachers, pastors, and serious Bible students."--Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society

Dr. Carson’s Exegetical Fallacies is his robust treatment of the many errors that exegetes may make when expositing a passage of Scripture. Carson says from the beginning the reason for this study is because of its importance in aiding preachers, teachers, and serious students of the Word to be able to handle the Word rightly. He defends this reasoning by noting that “exegetical fallacies are painfully frequent among us—among us whose God-given grace and responsibility is the faithful proclamation of the Word of God” (Carson, 15). In focusing on these mistakes, Carson hopes that “readers will thereby profit more from the positive instruction they glean from texts and lectures” (Ibid.).

Carson introduces the text by mentioning the importance of this study: that exegetical errors are too frequent among handlers of the word and needs to be reversed; the dangers of the study: that the aspiring exegete may feel overwhelmed and inadequate as a result of this book; and the limits of the study: that the book is not highly technical and is focused on the practitioner of exegesis, not the methodology of hermeneutics. He then begins the study by pointing out all of the various “word-study fallacies” that one can commit if they are not careful—fallacies such as the root fallacy, where the meaning of a word is derived from its root, even though that meaning may be completely foreign to the context that the word was used in. He then moves into a discussion of “grammatical fallacies” where he provides ample examples of the various divergences between English and Greek/Hebrew grammar and how they are most often overlooked. This is followed by a chapter on all of the “logical fallacies” involved in exegesis. Here Carson encourages students of the word to be consistent in the logic that they employ throughout all of their interpretations and also to be welcoming of all the evidence that Scripture provides concerning a certain point, not only that which supports your personal view. The last category of fallacies that Carson addresses is “presuppositional and historical fallacies.” These are the fallacies that are sometimes the most apparent out of the previous fallacies discussed, such as reading modern day institutions that didn’t exist at the time into Scriptural passages. Carson then concludes the work by providing the reader with a concise list of supplemental fallacies that were not treated in the book, but that he thinks the reader should be aware of.

Dr. Carson expressed the purpose of this writing in the introduction where he says that he hopes that “talking about what should not be done in exegesis, we may all desire more deeply to interpret the Word of God aright” (p. 15). This, however, is the only time in the book where the reader may get that impression. This hope and desire of the author, as genuine as it may be, doesn’t seem to be catered to in the writing of this book. The danger of inflicting feelings of inadequacy upon the reader that Carson mentions more accurately depicts the tone of this book. This book doesn’t feel like it was written to inspire, it feels like it was written to rebuke. Now I must say that if that sentence were not written, then perhaps the reader would not get the impression that this book was going to inspire him only to then be let down. Carson immediately follows that sentence by saying that he will be concentrating on the negative, not the positive. Left only to the impression of that claim, the reader would be able to better prepare themselves for what was to come. But by mentioning his desire to inspire the reader, and then only provide an extended rebuke, Carson severely misses his intent.

That is not to say, however, that the book is not useful, because it certainly is. Carson has provided the evangelical world with a small primer on what not to do when interpreting Scripture. He does not provide methodologies of what to do, but instead focuses on the negative. This is useful for at least one reason, and Carson himself uses it as a defense of the work. Focusing solely on the “don’ts” of exegesis may cause readers to develop “deep fears about their own inadequacies for the task of exegesis”, however “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” (p. 142). For the budding exegete, this work could prove useful in this way, and due to the overwhelming amount of negativity in the book, Carson’s main argument is very persuasive: the Word of God demands to be treated rightly.

Another note of praise for this work is in regards to Carson’s writing style. Carson is a scholar, and being such, he is certainly academically equipped to address such dense issues as he does in this book. But the surprising thing is that Carson does so without losing a hint of comprehensibility. Granted, this work is directed towards handlers of the Word, be they teachers, preachers, or serious students; but no matter what the intellectual level of each of these readers, Carson’s writing will be understood. Carson’s thought processes flow very well and translate well to paper and ink. His academic background gives his writing an eloquence that makes reading these “hard” topics enjoyable. When you read anything by Carson, especially this work, you get the feeling that you are actually gaining knowledge and are engaged in a conversation with a scholastic giant and are able to hold your own. This alone can provide the reader with enough motivation to finish this book.

But Carson is also a pastor and is very much concerned with practical application. This is evident by the way that Carson will demonstrate many of the fallacies he discusses by dispelling certain misconceptions and modern-day mishandlings of the Scriptures. It is very evident that Carson regards the Word as supremely authoritative and he has a very high view of Scripture.

So basically, the gist of this review is this: if you are a serious student of the Word and are any bit at all concerned with rightly handling the Word of God, this book is a must-read. It may be hard and it may not be pleasant, but the resulting trade-off—that God’s Word will be handled with the care and concern that it demands—will be more than worth it.

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