Exegetical Fallacies

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Christian Alexander | Forum Activity | Posted: Mon, Feb 7 2022 2:39 PM

What are the Exegetical Fallacies that D. A. Carson talks about in his book? Can anybody tell me if Carson deals with actual Bible verses or just principles relating to Scripture? I am interested in Carson's exegesis of the Gospel of John and I thought he may deal with this in this book. I have his commentary on John's Gospel and am looking for specifically the Prologue of the Gospel and Christological topics.

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MJ. Smith | Forum Activity | Replied: Mon, Feb 7 2022 2:50 PM

It covers:

  • Word–Study Fallacies
  • Grammatical Fallacies
  • Logical Fallacies
  • Presuppositional and Historical Fallacies

It is a methods book with examples not an application book. Not bad, but I wasn't impressed.

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Bruce Dunning | Forum Activity | Replied: Mon, Feb 7 2022 2:50 PM

Christian Alexander:
What are the Exegetical Fallacies that D. A. Carson talks about in his book? Can anybody tell me if Carson deals with actual Bible verses or just principles relating to Scripture?

It is a book about common fallacies that people have when they approach interpreting Scripture so it is a book of principles. And by the way, it is absolutely excellent!!! Here is a screenshot of the contents:

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Christian Alexander | Forum Activity | Replied: Mon, Feb 7 2022 2:58 PM

Can you post the preface and or introduction?

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EastTN | Forum Activity | Replied: Mon, Feb 7 2022 3:39 PM

Here's an excerpt from the introduction that gives a good summary of what Carson discusses in the book. The examples he uses in the book are just that - examples of the exegetical errors he's discussing, and are not themselves the focus of the discussion. Having said that, I heartily recommend this book. It was required reading in one of my seminary classes, and has made me much more careful in how I use Scripture..

The Importance of This Study

This study is important because exegetical fallacies are painfully frequent among us—among us whose God–given grace and responsibility is the faithful proclamation of the Word of God. Make a mistake in the interpretation of one of Shakespeare’s plays, falsely scan a piece of Spenserian verse, and there is unlikely to be an entailment of eternal consequence; but we cannot lightly accept a similar laxity in the interpretation of Scripture. We are dealing with God’s thoughts: we are obligated to take the greatest pains to understand them truly and to explain them clearly. It is all the more shocking, therefore, to find in the   p 16  evangelical pulpit, where the Scriptures are officially revered, frequent and inexcusable sloppiness in handling them. All of us, of course, will make some exegetical mistakes: I am painfully aware of some of my own, brought to my attention by increasing years, wider reading, and alert colleagues who love me enough to correct me. But tragic is the situation when the preacher or teacher is perpetually unaware of the blatant nonsense he utters, and of the consequent damage he inflicts on the church of God. Nor will it do to be satisfied with pointing a finger at other groups whose skills are less than our own: we must begin by cleaning up our own backyard.
The essence of all critical thought, in the best sense of that abused expression, is the justification of opinions. A critical interpretation of Scripture is one that has adequate justification—lexical, grammatical, cultural, theological, historical, geographical, or other justification.1 In other words, critical exegesis in this sense is exegesis that provides sound reasons for the choices it makes and the positions it adopts. Critical exegesis is opposed to merely personal opinions, appeals to blind authority (the interpreter’s or anyone else’s), arbitrary interpretations, and speculative opinions. This is not to deny that spiritual things are spiritually discerned, or to argue that piety is irrelevant; it is to say rather that not even piety and the gift of the Holy Spirit guarantee infallible interpretations. When two equally godly interpreters emerge with mutually incompatible interpretations of a text, it must be obvious even to the most spiritual, and perhaps as well to most of those who are not devoted to the worst forms of polysemy (about which I will say a little more later), that they cannot both be right.2 If the interpreters in ques  p 17  tion are not only spiritual but also mature, perhaps we may hope that they will probe for the reasons why they have arrived at different conclusions. With continued cautious, courteous, and honest examination, they may in time come to a resolution of the conflicting interpretative claims. Perhaps one is right and the other is wrong; perhaps both are in some measure right and wrong, and both need to change their respective positions; or perhaps the two interpreters are unable to zero in on the precise reasons why they disagree, and therefore remain unable to track down the exegetical or hermeneutical problem and resolve it. No matter: from our point of view, what is important is that the two interpreters are involved in critical exegesis, exegesis that provides, or attempts to provide, adequate justification of all conclusions reached and of every opinion held.
But if critical exegesis offers sound reasons, it must learn to reject unsound reasons. That is why this study is important. By exposing our exegetical fallacies, we may become better practitioners of critical exegesis.
Careful handling of the Bible will enable us to “hear” it a little better. It is all too easy to read the traditional interpretations we have received from others into the text of Scripture. Then we may unwittingly transfer the authority of Scripture to our traditional interpretations and invest them with a false, even an idolatrous, degree of certainty. Because traditions are reshaped as they are passed on, after a while we may drift far from God’s Word while still insisting all our theological opinions are “biblical” and therefore true. If when we are in such a state we study the Bible uncritically, more than likely it will simply reinforce our errors. If the Bible is to accomplish its work of continual reformation—reformation of our lives and our doctrine—we must   p 18  do all we can to listen to it afresh and to utilize the best resources at our disposal.
The importance of this sort of study cannot be overestimated if we are to move toward unanimity on those matters of interpretation that still divide us. I speak to those with a high view of Scripture: it is very distressing to contemplate how many differences there are among us as to what Scripture actually says. The great, unifying truths should not of course be minimized; but the fact remains that among those who believe the canonical sixty–six books are nothing less than the Word of God written there is a disturbing array of mutually incompatible theological opinions. Robert K. Johnston has a point when he writes:

  [That] evangelicals, all claiming a Biblical norm, are reaching contradictory theological formulations on many of the major issues they are addressing suggests the problematic nature of their present understanding of theological interpretation. To argue that the Bible is authoritative, but to be unable to come to anything like agreement on what it says (even with those who share an evangelical commitment), is self–defeating.3

This may not be very carefully worded: the self–defeat to which Johnston refers may be hermeneutical and exegetical; it has no necessary bearing on the Bible’s authority. But he does help us face up to some embarrassing disarray.
Why is it that among those with equally high views of Scripture’s authority there are people who think tongues are the definitive sign of the baptism of the Spirit, others who think the gift of tongues is optional, and still others who think it no longer exists as a genuine gift? Why are there some who hold to a dispensational approach to Scripture, and others who call themselves covenant theologians? Why are there several brands of Calvinists and Arminians, Baptists and Paedo–baptists? Why do some stoutly defend a Presbyterian form of church government, others press for some form of congregationalism, and still others defend the three offices and hierarchical structure that dominated the West for almost a millennium and a half from the time of the subapostolic fathers on? Dare I ask what is the sig  p 19  nificance of the Lord’s Supper? Or why there is such a plethora of opinions regarding eschatology?
In one sense, of course, the reasons are not always rational, or amenable to correction by improved exegetical rigor alone. Many local Bible teachers and preachers have never been forced to confront alternative interpretations at full strength; and because they would lose a certain psychological security if they permitted their own questions, aroused by their own reading of Scripture, to come into full play, they are unlikely to throw over received traditions. But I am not talking about such people. I am restricting myself for the sake of this discussion to the wisest, most mature, best trained, and most devout leaders of each position: why cannot they move to greater unanimity on all kinds of doctrinal fronts?
Superficially, of course, there may be several purely practical hurdles to overcome. The leaders may not feel they have the time to spend in the kind of quality discussion that could win breakthroughs. Probably most of them think the other person is so set in his or her ways that there is little to be gained by attempting such a dialogue—all the while feeling quite certain that most if not all the movement should come from the opponents, who ought to admit to the errors of their ways and adopt the true position! Others might feel too insecure in their position to venture into debate. But if we could remove all of those kinds of hindrances, the most crucial causes of doctrinal division among these hypothetical leaders who have now (in our imagination) gathered for humble, searching discussions in an effort to heal their divisions would be differences of opinion as to what this passage or that passage actually says, or as to how this passage and that passage relate to each other.
It is possible, of course, that frank, extended debate might at first do no more than expose the nature of the differences, or how interwoven they are with broader questions. Ultimately, however, once all those tributaries have been carefully and humbly explored, each raising difficult exegetical questions of its own, the remaining debates among those who hold a high view of Scripture will be exegetical and hermeneutical, nothing else. Even if our theoretical opponents succeed only in getting to the place where they decide the exegetical evidence is insufficient to reach a sure decision, they will have gained something;   p 20  for that position, honestly held on both sides, would mean that neither party has the right, on biblical grounds, to exclude the other.
From time to time I have been involved in such talks; indeed, occasionally I have sought them out. Sometimes it is impossible to get very far: the emotional hurdles are too high, or the potential time commitment to win unanimity too great. But where immensely profitable conversations have taken place, there has always been on both sides a growing ability to distinguish a good argument from a bad one, a strong argument from a weak one.
It follows, then, that the study of exegetical fallacies is important. Perhaps we shall find extra incentive in this study if we recall how often Paul exhorts the Philippian believers to be like–minded, to think the same thing—an exhortation that goes beyond mere encouragement to be mutually forbearing, but one that demands that we learn to move toward unanimity in the crucial business of thinking God’s thoughts after him. This, surely, is part of the discipline of loving God with our minds.
Like much of our theology, our exegetical practices in most cases have been passed on to us by teachers who learned them many years earlier. Unless both our teachers and we ourselves have kept up, it is all too likely that our exegetical skills have not been honed by recent developments. Hermeneutics, linguistics, literary studies, greater grammatical sophistication, and advances in computer technology have joined forces to demand that we engage in self–criticism of our exegetical practices. Moreover, some of the developments have so spilled over into broader areas of Christian endeavor (e.g., the impact of the new hermeneutic on our understanding of contextualization in world missions) that mature thought is urgently required. The sum total of all useful exegetical knowledge did not reach its apex during the Reformation, nor even in the past century. As much as we can and must learn from our theological forebears, we face the harsh realities of this century; and neither nostalgia nor the preferred position of an ostrich will remove either the threats or the opportunities that summon our exegetical skills to new rigor.
These last two considerations remind me of the observation of David Hackett Fischer, who addresses himself rather acidly to his fellow historians:

    p 21  Historians must, moreover, develop critical tests not merely for their interpretations, but also for their methods of arriving at them.… Among my colleagues, it is common to believe that any procedure is permissible, as long as its practitioner publishes an essay from time to time, and is not convicted of a felony. The resultant condition of modern historiography is that of the Jews under the Judges: every man does that which is right in his own eyes. The fields are sown with salt, and plowed with the heifer, and there is a famine upon the land.4

I am unprepared to say whether the plight of exegesis is more or less secure than that of historiography; but certainly there are painful similarities.
The final reason why this study has become important is the change in theological climate in the Western world during the past thirty or forty years. At the risk of oversimplification, one could argue that the generation of conservative Christians before the present one faced opponents who argued in effect that the Bible is not trustworthy, and only the ignorant and the blind could claim it is. In the present generation, there are of course many voices that say the same thing; but there are new voices that loudly insist our real problem is hermeneutical and exegetical. Conservatives, we are told, have not properly understood the Bible. They have imposed on the sacred text an artificial notion of authority and a forced exegesis of passage after passage. One of the emphases of the acerbic attack on “fundamentalism” by James Barr is that conservatives do not really understand the Bible, that they use critical tools inconsistently and even dishonestly.5 At another level, one of the explicit claims of the recent commentary on Matthew by Robert H. Gundry is that his approach to the text is more faithful to Scripture than that of traditional conservative commentators.6 Similar phenomena are legion.
What this means is that a traditional apologetic in such cases is irrelevant. We have been outflanked on the hermeneutical and exegetical fronts, and one of the steps we must take to get   p 22  back into the discussion is to examine our own exegetical and hermeneutical tools afresh. This includes the rigorous exposure of bad or weak arguments, whether our own or those of others.

D. A. Carson, Exegetical Fallacies, 2nd ed. (Carlisle, U.K.; Grand Rapids, MI: Paternoster; Baker Books, 1996), 15–22.

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Ronald Quick | Forum Activity | Replied: Mon, Feb 7 2022 4:44 PM

This book was required reading for me in seminary too.  I highly recommend it.

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mab | Forum Activity | Replied: Mon, Feb 7 2022 11:48 PM

Carson writes for those who will hopefully avoid making the mistakes he covers. A person who is not engaged in regular Bible exegesis won't get it. Those who do, will, and appreciate it. 

The mind of man is the mill of God, not to grind chaff, but wheat. Thomas Manton | Study hard, for the well is deep, and our brains are shallow. Richard Baxter

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Roger Pitot | Forum Activity | Replied: Tue, Feb 8 2022 1:14 AM

The index of subjects might help:

Allegorical method, 90
Ambiguous language, 119–20
Anachronism, semantic, 33–35
Analogy, inadequate, 121–22
Aorist tense, 68–75
Aphorism, 127
Apodoses, 78–79
Appeals to authority, simplistic, 122–23
Article, Greek, definite, 79–84
Associative jumps, unwarranted, 115–16
Assumptions, false, 45–47

Background material, 41–43, 57
Baconian fallacy, 104–5

Causation, fallacies of, 133–34
Cavalier dismissal, 118
Classical Greek, 32, 37, 66
Componential analysis, 49–50
Computer technology, 20
Conditionals, 77–79
Context, 32, 57, 64; of Greek words in the aorist tense, 71
Contextualization, 20
Copula usage, 58–60: attributes in, 58, 59–60; cause in, 58; fulfillment in, 60; identity in, 58–60; resemblance in, 58
Cum hoc, propter hoc, 133–34
Crowell rule, 82–84
Cruces interpretum, 120

Deliberate subjunctive, 74–75
Denotation, 63–64
Discernment, spiritual, 16
Disjunction: false, 90–92; semantic, 55–57; subject/object, 126
Distanciation, 23–24, 104, 128–29

Emotive appeals, 106–8
Entropy, in language, 66
Equivalence, 47–48
Equivocal argumentation, 118–21
Etymology, 33. See also Word study and Words
Evidence, selective and prejudicial use of, 54–55, 93–94
Excluded middle, law of, 90–92, 103
Exegesis, conflicting, 17, 18–20; critical, 16–17; and hermeneutics, 25; role of teachers in, 20
Exegetical fallacies: danger of studying, 22–24; importance of, 15–22; frequency of, 15–16
Expanded semantic field, unwarranted use of, 60–61

False statements, 116–17
Figurative language, 141
Form criticism, 132–33

Generalization, unwarranted, 108–15
Genre, literary, 137–38
GRAMCORD, 73, 85
Grammar, 20, 65–68
Grammatical analysis, 65–66
Granville Sharp rule, 81–82
Greek, New Testament: 33, 66–67; and classical Greek, 32, 35, 37, 66; flexibility of, 66; and Hebrew equivalents, 61–62; ostentatious use of, 64; tenses in, 67–73
“Greek mind,” 44

Hebrew language and thought, 33, 48, 54
“Hebrew mind,” 44–45
Hellenistic Greek. See Greek, New Testament
Hendiadys, 42
Hapax legomena, 33
Hermeneutics, 20, 25
Historical reconstruction, 131–133
Holy Spirit, and exegesis, 16, 26
Hyponymic relations, 48

Illegitimate totality transfer, 53. See also Expanded semantic field
Imprecision, and truth, 106

Jumps, associative, unwarranted, 115–16
Juxtaposition of texts, 139–40

Linguistics, 20
Linkage, of language and mentality, 44–45
Literal interpretation, 141
Literary studies, 20
Logic, nature and universality of, 87–90

Metaphors, 57
Middle voice, 75–77
Motivation, fallacies of 134–35

Negative inferences, 101–3
Negativism, 22
New Hermeneutic, 125–28
Non sequitur, 117–18

Obsolescence, semantic, 35–37
Obviously, abuse of the word, 122
Old Testament, use of in the New Testament, 138
Open options, 120–21
Overspecification, 115

Parallelomania: conceptual, 135–36; verbal, 43–44
Peculiarities of a corpus, neglect of, 62
Periphrasis, 62, 126
Philology, 27
Polysemy, 126–27
Pro hoc, propter hoc, 133–34
Protases, 77–79

Question-framing, 105–6

“Radical” hermeneutics, 128
Redaction criticism, 135, 140
Referential meaning, 63–64
Restriction, of semantic field, 57–60
Rhetorical questions, 118–19
Root fallacy, 28–33, 51

Scriptures: authority of, 21; high view of, 19, 130; trustworthiness of, 21
Semitic languages and background, 58, 61, 62
Septuagint, 62
Silence, argument from, 138–39
Social agendas, and exegetical fallacies, 130
Statistics, argument from, 140
Story-line, of the Bible, 130
Structuralism, 141
Syllogism, 94–103
Synonyms 47–53
Synonymy. See Synonyms

Technical meaning, 45–47, 57
Tenses, in the Greek language, 67–75; relationships of, 84–85
Terminus technicus. See Technical meaning

Unknown or unlikely meanings, 37–41

Word study: breadth of, 64; paradigmatic, 64
Words: components of, 32; context of, 32; diachronic study of, 33; lexical range of, 32; related to meaning, 32; semantic range of, 32, 57–58
World-view fallacy, 103–5

Posts 80
Daniel Bender | Forum Activity | Replied: Tue, Feb 8 2022 4:26 AM


Carson writes for those who will hopefully avoid making the mistakes he covers. A person who is not engaged in regular Bible exegesis won't get it. Those who do, will, and appreciate it. 


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DMB | Forum Activity | Replied: Tue, Feb 8 2022 5:50 AM


Carson writes for those who will hopefully avoid making the mistakes he covers. A person who is not engaged in regular Bible exegesis won't get it. Those who do, will, and appreciate it. 

I've nothing against slowing down exegetical fallacies (or Bible scholars' penchant for terrible logic),  but I doubt the Text was ever written for 'exegesis' any more than one's pastor's sermon was written for scrutiny, with the goal of determining what he 'really' meant.  And indeed, at the time, the writing was almost directly opposite modern day thinking.

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JT (alabama24) | Forum Activity | Replied: Tue, Feb 8 2022 6:12 AM

I agree with you, and some of that is covered in the book. 

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