A Review of D. A. Carson’s Exegetical Fallacies, 2nd Edition

Book Information

Carson, D. A., Exegetical Fallacies, 2nd Ed.Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 1996. 146 pp. $16.99. Paperback. ISBN 978-0-8010-2086-5

Biographical Sketch of the Author

D. A. Carson is emeritus professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Carson holds the Bachelor of Science degree from McGill University, the Master of Divinity degree from Central Baptist Seminary of Toronto, and the Doctor of Philosophy degree from the University of Cambridge. Carson taught and served as academic dean at Northwest Baptist Theological Seminary in Vancouver, British Columbia and taught at Northwest Baptist Theological College, Richmond College, and Central Baptist Seminary prior to his service at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Carson has previously served in pastoral ministry and as president of The Gospel Coalition.

Carson is a prolific author and has written and edited an array of books in the realm of biblical studies, hermeneutics, and the New Testament. Some of his recent works include New Testament Commentary Survey, 6th Ed. (Baker, 2006), Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church (Zondervan, 2005), and The Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism (Zondervan, 1996). Carson edited It is Written: Scripture Citing Scripture (Cambridge University Press, 1988) and Biblical Greek Language and Linguistics (Sheffield Academic Press, 1993). In addition, Carson serves as editor of three commentary series on the scripture: New Studies in Biblical Theology (IVP), the Pillar New Testament Commentary (Eerdmans), and Studies in Biblical Greek (Peter Lang).

Summary of the Contents

In Exegetical Fallacies, Carson examined interpretative errors and misconceptions related to word-studies, grammar, logic, and history. In the introduction to the book (15-27), Carson provided an overview of the study facilitated by Exegetical Fallacies. The author outlined the importance of the study, noting the contributions he expected the book to make to the hermeneutical understanding of the reader. Carson then proceeded to survey the potential dangers of the study and presented his assessment of the study’s limitations.

Carson then progressed to the major section on word-study fallacies (27-64). In this section, the author outlined common exegetical errors related to semantics. Specific errors analyzed by the author include the root fallacy, semantic anachronism, semantic obsolescence, appeal to unknown or unlikely meanings, careless appeal to background material, verbal parallelomania, linkage of language and mentality, false assumptions about technical meaning, problems surrounding synonyms and componential analysis, selective and prejudicial use of evidence, unwarranted semantic disjunctions and restrictions, unwarranted restriction of the semantic field, unwarranted adoption of an expanded sematic field, problems relating to the Semitic background of the Greek New Testament, unwarranted neglect of distinguishing peculiarities of a corpus, and unwarranted linking of sense and reference. The author concluded the section with a discussion analyzing the importance, role, and challenges of examining the context of biblical words.

In the grammatical fallacies section (65-86), Carson analyzed the flexibility of New Testament Greek, fallacies relating to various tenses and moods, fallacies connected with various syntactical units, and the potential for renewed precision in the handling of grammar. In the section examining fallacies connected with various tenses and moods, the author examined errors related to the aorist tense, the first-person aorist subjunctive, and the middle voice. In the section exploring errors connected with various syntactical units, Carson explored conditionals, preliminary considerations related to the article, the Colwell rule and other related matters connected to the article, and the relationships of tenses.

In the third major section of Exegetical Fallacies examining logical fallacies (87-123), Carson provided an introductory section on the nature and universality of logic. This section is followed by a select list of logical fallacies. The logical errors examined include false disjunctions, failure to recognize distinctions, appeal to selective evidence, improperly handled syllogisms, negative inferences, world-view confusion, fallacies of question-framing, unwarranted confusion of truth and precision, purely emotive appeals, unwarranted generalization and overspecification, unwarranted associative jumps, false statements, the non sequitur, cavalier dismissal, fallacies based on equivocal argumentation, inadequate analogies, abuse of the term “obviously” and similar expressions, and simplistic appeals to authority.

In the final grouping of exegetical errors related to presuppositional and historical fallacies (125-136), Carson explored the influence of the new hermeneutic and historical fallacies. Regarding the influence of the new hermeneutic, the author surveyed fallacies arising from omission of distanciation in the interpretive process, interpretations that ignore the biblical storyline, and fallacies that arise from a bleak insistence on working outside the Bible’s “givens.” In the realm of historical fallacies, Carson explored uncontrolled historical reconstruction, fallacies of causation, fallacies of motivation, and conceptual parallelomania.

Finally, in his concluding reflections (137-143), Carson explored both opportunities for even more fallacies and articulated a paradigm for bringing together the pieces of his examination of exegetical mistakes in a systematic manner. In the way of opportunities for additional fallacies, Carson outlined problems related to literary genre, problems related to the New Testament use of the Old Testament, arguments from silence, problems relating to juxtapositions of texts, problems relating to statistical arguments, the rise of structuralism, and problems in distinguishing the figurative and the literal. In the last two components of the book, Carson provided indices for both subjects (143-144) and authors (145-146) explored in Exegetical Fallacies.

Critical Evaluation

In the preface (13), Carson noted that much of his material for Exegetical Fallacies developed from the 1983 Spring Lectureship sponsored by Western Conservative Baptist Seminary in Portland, Oregon, as well as his years of experience teaching New Testament exegesis in the classroom. Further, the author discussed his efforts at avoiding unfair treatment and undue bias for or against specific interpretative positions and his conviction that, on the whole, the work has largely succeeded in its effort to achieve balance between various views and convictions. Carson’s assessment of the work in the preface is an accurate reflection on the work, as Exegetical Fallacies tackles an array of interpretative errors and misunderstandings with balance and precision.

Carson established an ambitious and supremely important objective for Exegetical Fallacies: the correct interpretation of the Word of God. The author summarized the objective of the work by writing, “I hope that by talking about what should not be done in exegesis, we may all desire more deeply to interpret the Word of God aright” (15). The author articulated an approach which relies on examination of the negative – that is, what not to do – and is forthright concerning both the purpose and limitations of the study. The author’s efforts at sufficiently but concisely articulating the importance, dangers, and limitations of the book reflect a self-awareness and sense of responsibility that is pervasive throughout the work. Where other authors tackle exegetical approaches and potential exegetical problems by focusing exclusively on procedural mechanics with little or no analysis of the consequences of a particular interpretive approach, Carson demonstrated a profound appreciation for the magnitude of not only the exegetical errors in view, but the potential consequences of a detailed examination of those errors.

Carson provided criticism of exegetical and hermeneutical approaches and related fallacies across an array of theological perspectives, including the works of scholars representing both conservative and liberal viewpoints. Notably, the author even criticized the exegetical work of his own former dean, Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., regarding his interpretation of the Greek term νόμος in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35. In discussing the exegetical fallacy of “appeal to unknown or unlikely meanings” in his major section on word-study fallacies, Carson disputes Kaiser’s position that νόμος refers to rabbinic interpretation rather than the Mosaic law (37-41). In addition, Carson demonstrated an impressive humility and awareness of his own capacity for exegetical fallacy by criticizing his own work in his section examining the exegetical fallacy of “careless appeal to background material” in the major section dealing with word-study fallacies (41-43).

Finally, the author arranged the major sections of the book around logical groups of exegetical errors, dividing the work into word-study fallacies (27-64), grammatical fallacies (65-86), logical fallacies (87-123), and presuppositional and historical fallacies (125-136). The author then closed with a section providing concluding reflections (137-143) and provided indices of subjects (143-144) and authors (145-146). The arrangement of the book is both logical and well-constructed for ease of reference and makes the work a useful resource for seasoned scholars and new students of the Bible alike. While Carson acknowledged that relatively little technical material is reflected in the book in his discussion of the study’s limitations (24), there is sufficient substance to make this book a useful and informative read for experienced and well-studied exegetes, as well as seminarians, undergraduate biblical students, pastors, and lay members. For example, in the third major section of Exegetical Fallacies examining logical fallacies, Carson provided what is named a “select” list of logical fallacies. While the listing is not an exhaustive survey of all possible logical fallacies or an exhaustive treatment of each individual logical fallacy identified, the listing and examination is far more comprehensive than the phrase “select” implies. The author successfully packed a considerable volume of analysis into a concise work.

The preceding evaluation reveals that the author largely achieved the objective stated in the preface: to produce a resource that would aid readers in arriving at the correct interpretation of the Word of God. After more than two decades since its initial publication, the end product remains a valuable resource for understanding the many possible interpretative errors and misconceptions related to word-studies, grammar, logic, and history. Consequently, Exegetical Fallacies is a work that, while lacking the technical sophistication provided by other, more focused volumes, is an informative, interesting, and insightful exploration of the various exegetical challenges and hermeneutical problems related to the correct interpretation of the Word of God through word-studies, grammar, logic, and history. While much of the book focuses on issues from a negative perspective, the author concluded the work on a supremely positive note: “we will not go far astray if we approach the Bible with a humble mind and then resolve to focus on central truths” (142). Carson continued, “Gradually we will build up our exegetical skills by evenhanded study and a reverent, prayerful determination to become like the workman ‘who correctly handles the word of truth’ (2 Tim. 2:15, NIV)” (142).

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