Thursday, September 24, 2015

Exegetical Fallacies by D.A. Carson (Book Review #78 of 2015)

Exegetical Fallacies
I didn't learn to read my Bible until late in life, and I'm convinced most Christians in "Bible-believing" churches do not because they are not taught how to. Everyone tends to believe that their "doctrine" is correct, or the true doctrine. Where another's disagrees, he must be wrong. When we adhere to "doctrine," it gets replicated and multiplied and no one thinks critically about what awe believe and adhere to. This was made depressingly clear to me in a recent book I read about a former pastor who became an atheist in part because he realized no one around him, himself included, actually knew what the Bible was.

As Carson writes (p. 11):

    "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."

Southern Baptist churches in particular err in teaching the Bible through Sunday school lessons that break up the text and tell the reader what it means rather than have the reader ask questions of the text himself. I've lost count of seminary students I know who were amazed that when they learned how to study the text, they suddenly realized they'd misunderstood or wrongly believed a meaning of a particular text all these years. Alas, very few of them teach their congregation other than demonstrating proper exegesis from the pulpit. But Exegetical Fallacies has to be a humbling read for even the most well-trained, because so many of the scholars Carson is critiquing are career professionals in biblical study. He notes fallacies that his own seminary professors made.

This is not the first book I would recommend to one who wants to learn how to read the Bible (See Fee and Stuart's How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, for starters). Carson's work is a seminary-level text for which some knowledge of Greek is expected and biblical interpretation is already a habit. I have neither formal training nor do I know Greek. The value of this book to me is inoculation against against the common forms of poor exegesis or logical fallacies that those writing various books and commentaries make frequently. I can now read more skeptically various commentaries and Sunday school lessons that I look to for insight. I can also hold the Word of God more delicately, humbled at how hard it is to truly understand meaning through the distance of time, language, and culture. But I can also be more confident as Carson critiques the logical fallacies that post-modern "new" interpreters make in saying the meaning of a text cannot be known because of the personal lens I look through to see it.

"The sensitive student may ask, 'If there are so many exegetical traps, so many hermeneutical pitfalls, how can I ever be confident that I am rightly interpreting and preaching the Scriptures? How can I avoid the dreadful burden of teaching untruth, of laying on the consciences of Christ's people things Christ does not himself impose, or removing what he insists should be borne? How much damage might I do by my ignorance and exegetical clumsiness?'

To such students, I can only say that you will make more mistakes if you fail to embark on such a study as this than you will if you face the tough questions and improve your skills" (p. 14).

The book is a hodgepodge, with some topics given lengthy treatment and others only mentioned or glossed over. Some of the gems are where Carson outlines his own arguments against someone else's exegesis, making his argument. It is filled with dry wit. You might open it to the Index first, and be amazed at the wide range of biblical passages, authors, and topics addressed in such a short book. I gleaned bits about specific topics, texts, and just a greater overall appreciation for Biblical translation than I had prior to reading it.

Some of my highlights. First, Carson's motivation (p. 11):

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.'"

The world is skeptical about the Bible because they see mutually exclusive claims to truth on basic tenets of those who supposedly see it as the inerrant word of God.

The difference between exegesis and hermeneutics (p. 15):

(E)xegesis is concerned with actually interpreting the text, whereas hermeneutics is concerned with the nature of the interpretative process. Exegesis concludes by saying, This passage means such and such"; hermeneutics ends by saying, 'This interpretative process is constituted by the following techniques and preunderstandings.' Hermeneutics is an important discipline in its own right, ideally it is never an end in itself: it serves exegesis."

The challenge of distanciation (p. 15):
"Whenever we try to understand the thought of a text (or of another person, for that matter), if we are to understand it critically-that is, not in some arbitrary fashion, but with sound reasons, and as the author meant it in the first place-we must first of all grasp the nature and degree of the differences that separate our understanding from the understanding of the text
Failure to go through the distanciation before the fusion usually means there has been no real fusion: the interpreter thinks he knows what the text means, but all too often he or she has simply imposed his own thoughts onto the text."
Picked up again on p. 60:
"Unless we recognize the 'distance' that separates us from the text being studied, we will overlook differences of outlook, vocabulary, interest; and quite unwittingly we will read our mental baggage into the text without pausing to ask if that is appropriate.
This does not mean real knowledge is impossible. Rather, it means that real knowledge is close to impossible if we fail to recognize our own assumptions, questions, interests, and biases; but if we recognize them and, in dialogue with the text, seek to make allowances for them, we will be better able to avoid confusing our own world-views with those of the biblical writers." 

What, then, of the post-modern "new hermeneutic" who argue it's impossible for any of us to interpret a text due to our "baggage?" (p.72-73, emphasis mine):
"The new hermeneutic breaks down the strong subject/object disjunction characteristic of older hermeneutical theory. The interpreter who approaches a text, it is argued, already brings along a certain amount of cultural, linguistic, and ethical baggage. Even the questions the interpreter tries to ask (or fails to ask) of the text reflect the limitations imposed by that baggage; they will in some measure shape the kind of "responses" that can come back from the text and the interpreter's understanding of them.
But these responses thereby shape the mental baggage the interpreter is carrying, so that in the next round the kinds of questions addressed to the text will be slightly different, and will therefore generate a fresh series of responses-and so on, and so on. Thus, a "hermeneutical circle" is set up.
Such absolute relativism is not only unnecessary, but also self-contradictory; for the authors of such views expect us to understand the meaning of their articles! Whatever the problems raised by the new hermeneutic, we have learned much from these developments. In particular, we have been forced to recognize that distanciation is an important part of coming to grips with any text: the interpreter must "distance" his or her own horizon of understanding from that of the text. When the differences are more clearly perceived, then it becomes possible to approach the text with greater sensitivity than would otherwise be the case."
What is the solution to the apparent paradox? First, have humility about what we actually know or can know. Second is to do the best you can using historical sources (p. 74):

"But if we sometimes read our own theology into the text, the solution is not to retreat to an attempted neutrality, to try to make one's mind a tabula rasa so we may listen to the text without bias. It cannot be done, and it is a fallacy to think it can be. We must rather discern what our prejudices are and make allowances for them; and meanwhile we should learn all the historical theology we can."

I'm not certain which seminary Carson is criticizing here, but I can guess:
"One well-known seminary insists that proper exegetical method will guarantee such a high quality of exegesis that historical theology may be safely ignored."

There are good examples of how Carson deals with difficult passages regarding polity. There is a good section on logical fallacies and a few on common specific errors that people make regarding the Greek. I enjoyed this book, it gave me a greater appreciation of biblical scholarship. I do not know if he dealt with all topics properly or if he should have paid more attention to certain issues. I learned a lot and the more I learn the more I will return to this book. 4.5 stars out of 5.

1 comment:

Dan Eastwood said...

If you can apply some level of critical thought to your beliefs, I think that is a good sign. We might disagree over what it is a sign of, but that's OK. :-)