I recently read through Exegetical Fallacies by D.A. Carson. I think that he did an excellent job introducing a number of common errors regarding exegesis which may be avoided. However, I would have liked there to be more appeals for caution in the application of these fallacies. I worry about the possibility for someone to read through a book like this and then just willy-nilly apply the ‘exegetical fallacy’ hammer to all sorts of solid exegesis.
My concern is based upon two primary issues. First, the concept of “fallacy” within Carson’s usage. Second, the rather obscure nature of some of the specific “fallacies” he outlines.
The first concern is perhaps one that should be heavily qualified on its own. That is, I think that Carson’s choice of the term “fallacy” will imply, for many readers [the book is intended for an introductory level] a hard-and-fast rule for determining when something is blatantly false. Now, of course Carson cannot be faulted for using a technical term and having people misunderstand it. I simply wish that he had done more to clarify his usage of the term, because he clearly means it more broadly than “logical fallacy” but more narrowly than anything which appears to be wrong.
The second concern may help highlight the first. I am a bit worried about the application of these fallacies in practice. One can’t just say “Ha, [x fallacy] was committed, your interpretation fails!” I’m not at all suggesting that this is what Carson did (and I would be mistaken if I were to suggest that), but I am rather expressing a concern that some may attempt to use “exegetical fallacies” in this manner. For example, on page 37, Carson introduced the fallacy he termed “Appeal to unknown or unlikely meanings…” Now this, of course, is not a logical fallacy. And, in practice, it can be useful. But the question is: to what or whom are we referencing when we say “unknown” or “unlikely”? I fear that the application of this terminology could lead to people subjectively calling those things with which they disagree “unknown” or “unlikely” and then dismissing the other side as “fallacious.” Again, I’m not saying Carson does that himself, but I still think one must have a certain sense of caution in the application of this and other “fallacies.”
Another example may be found in the “root fallacy,” wherein one appeals to etymology to determine the meaning of a word. There are certainly fallacious usages of etymology in order to try to sort out the meaning of words, but as Carson himself noted, etymology can be quite useful for determining the meaning, and its usage is sometimes correct. Yet, tied into my first concern, calling this the “root fallacy” seems to denote a definitively fallacious sense to using roots to determine the meaning of words. But although Carson himself urges caution in this, he doesn’t really help to clarify when something would be fallacious as opposed to valid. Of course, that may just be the nature of the beast regarding some of these fallacies: they are highly difficult to pin down. But then I wonder what the usefulness is of making it seem as though there is some “rule” of “fallacy” regarding interpretation in this area.
I’d certainly like to be corrected and perhaps have my cautions dispelled, so feel free to drop a comment on your thoughts regarding this work.
On final analysis, I do think Carson’s book is useful in many ways. I just wish he had given more space to urging some caution and defining terms.
D.A. Carson, Exegetical Fallacies (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1996).
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