One of the best, but seemingly under-rated books I know of for the pastor or lay-teacher is D. A. Carson‘s Exegetical Fallacies. Carson (who serves as research professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and one of the principle leaders of The Gospel Coalition) began this book as a series of a lectures. He explains that much of what went into the lectures, and so now the book, began as part of his notes given in various classes over the years (13). Carson divides his book into four chapters that deal with various kinds of fallacies and a fifth chapter that offer some concluding thoughts.
The first chapter deals with word-study fallacies. Here, Carson gives a list of the mistakes related to linguistics studies. All of these fallacies occur when interpreters misunderstand the use of certain words by an author. Some involves reading back into the word the meaning of another word which has the original as its root, though the root did not originally mean what its derivative does. For example, while our word ‘dynamite’ may have the root dunamous as its root, Paul certainly was not thinking of blasting powder when he spoke of the dunamous of the gospel (33-34). Others involve finding a root to words which simply isn’t there. For example, we not should interpret the word ‘butterfly’ based on its apparent root words – ‘butter’ and ‘fly’ (30)!
Chapter two examines grammatical fallacies. These sorts of mistakes many times come from basing arguments on the mood or tense of words when the language is more flexible than the one arguing will allow. For example, the aorist tense is often abused by some who insist that it always means an ‘once for all action’ that occurs in the past. Heikki Räisänen makes this mistake when commenting on Romans 3:27 (70).
Logical fallacies are the focus of the third chapter of this book. Here, Carson attacks the erroneous ways in which one justifies the way he or she may interpret Scripture. These can come in one’s inability to recognize distinctions, or perhaps draw distinctions where none exist. Still yet, another fallacy can come when one improperly frames the question he is trying to answer. For example, “When did you stop beating for your wife?” is a mis-framed question (105).
The fourth chapter outlines some presuppositional and historical fallacies that often plague exegetes. Some of these mistakes result when one ignores the Bible’s storyline. For example, some today would see the Song of Songs as pornographic literature (130). Obviously, they have missed the point of the book, in part because they have failed to take the plot-line of the Scripture in mind. Some of the historical fallacies that Carson speaks of involve uncontrolled reconstructions of ancient settings (131), attempted explanations of an author’s motive (135), and the desire to relate the Bible to other disciplines (e.g. sociology or psychology, 136).
Carson has put together an excellent handbook on mistakes to avoid in interpreting Scripture. And while Carson himself sees this book as only being supplemental reading (11), I think that it should be required reading for every pastor or teacher (let alone any college or seminary class on hermeneutics and Scripture interpretation).
The only critique I have to offer is the book’s brevity. I would love to see Carson do yet another revision of the book, elaborating further on the various fallacies he has outlined along with adding a comparable section on positive elements for interpreting Scripture.
The most disturbing thing about reading Carson’s book was the frequency with which I found myself remembering different occasions where I had heard a professor or preacher commit the fallacies he was outlining! This book, I believe, serves as an excellent warning to all those who would attempt teaching the Bible; it is a difficult task that is not to be taken lightly. Granted this is not light reading that one would want to take on vacation with him or her, it is a book that repays serious study and contemplation. What better invest could be made than in better knowing and handling the Word of God?
On a personal note, I was fortunate enough to meet Carson once in seminary at a book-signing. There, I told him how much this book sacred me when I read it. He made the comment that the book was not all that “edifying.” After reflecting on the short conversation – though he meant the comment to be humorous – I think the opposite is true. In fact, the book is very edifying because it teaches the reader that he or she is not interpreting just another book, he is handling the Word of God and great care must be taken. The book is edifying in that it reinforces the value of God’s Word. Tolle lege.