Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Biblical Wrecksegesis

Definition: When faulty interpretation and exegetical fallacies make a shipwreck of Scripture.

The above quote is found in Fee and Stuart’s How to Read the Bible for All it’s Worth.1 The slide however is a product of the “Visual Copy” feature of the new Logos 6. Logos is arguably the greatest Bible study software in the world—it’s definitely got to be the priciest—and is highly recommended for all scholars, academics and serious students of the Bible. It is one of the tools that can help you to get at the plain meaning of the text and make good sense of it. Which is the very reason why, in addition to pursuing my Bachelor of Theology degree at Laidlaw College (see the “old blog” here), I pushed the boat out even further and, with the help of a major academic discount, gave it to myself as an early Christmas present two weeks ago.

Although Fee’s book came out way back in 1993, I’d only just finished reading it for the first time right before I bought Logos. It is a phenomenal book that I really wish I’d been made aware of when I first became seriously interested in studying and interpreting the Bible. Here’s the quote above sans ellipsis:
The aim of good interpretation is simple: to get at the “plain meaning of the text.” And the most important ingredient one brings to this task is enlightened common sense. The test of good interpretation is that it makes good sense of the text.
Fee’s book delivers precisely that, “enlightened common sense,” and reading it years ago would’ve saved me from heaps of future embarrassment. The book is full of sage caveats like this (emphasis in the original):
The first reason one needs to learn how to interpret is that, whether one likes it or not, every reader is at the same time an interpreter. That is, most of us assume as we read that we also understand what we read. We also tend to think that our understanding is the same thing as the Holy Spirit’s or human author’s intent. However, we invariably bring to the text all that we are, with all of our experiences, culture, and prior understandings of words and ideas. Sometimes what we bring to the text, unintentionally to be sure, leads us astray, or else causes us to read all kinds of foreign ideas into the text.

Another book I wish someone had made me aware of years ago is D. A. Carson’s Exegetical Fallacies.2 It is an absolutely indispensable guide to the would-be exegete and would’ve steered me clear of many an interpretive morass.

Carson echoes Fee regarding the inescapable subjectivity of the interpreter, noting that the idea has been gaining wider acceptance amongst theologians over the previous few decades. While Carson’s aim is to caution against the epistemological extremes to which this idea is heir, he confirms the central point:
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.
As to Carson's titular fallacies themselves, Dr J. Brian Tucker, Associate Professor of New Testament at Moody Theological Seminary, in his YouTube video called New Testament Greek Word Study, gives a neat summary of nine of them to one of his post-graduate classes:
Avoiding Errors: Exegetical Fallacies

1. Etymological Fallacy: Assumes that the meaning of a word is governed by the meaning of its root or roots.

2. Illegitimate Totality Transfer: Assumes that a word carries all of its senses in any one passage.

3. Semantic Anachronism: A late meaning of a word is read back into an earlier term.

4. Semantic Obsolescence: When one assigns to a term an earlier meaning that is no longer used.

5. Prescriptive Fallacy: Argues that a word has only one meaning and means the same thing in every passage.

6. Word-Idea Fallacy: Assumes that the study of a term is the study of an idea.

7. Referential Fallacy: Limits meaning only to a specific referent.

8. Verbal Parallelomania: Refers to the practice of some biblical exegetes who claim that the presence of the same term in several different contexts automatically indicates conceptual parallelism, borrowing of terms, or literary dependency.

9. Selective Evidence Fallacy: One cites only the evidence that favours the interpretation one wants to defend.

The thing the exegete must always keep in mind is that the three original biblical languages, although “dead” today, were actual languages at the time the books were written. As such, the meanings of the words in the Bible are as dependant on context every bit as much as modern English is. One cannot take the term “the words of God” to mean that every individual word in the Bible is a petrified magic utterance from Heaven. Like all words in every language, they are virtually3 meaningless without a context. They do not carry the message of God; it is the meaning of the words within the confines of the meanings of their arrangement in the sentences in the individual book or epistle at the time of their writing that carries the message. It is, in short, the spirit of the message of the text as the author intended, not the letter.

I’ve committed many of the exegetical fallacies found in Carson’s book and < shudder > posted the results on my old blog. Those are what I was referring to in my First Post on the New Blog explaining why I started it. I won’t go through them all now, of course, but it might prove instructive to look at one of them:
1. Etymological Fallacy: Assumes that the meaning of a word is governed by the meaning of its root or roots.
Back in April of 2012, I wrote the following post on prayer. Along with a nifty little exposition of Jesus’ switch from the singular pronoun “you” in Matt 6:6 to the plural in Matt 6:7, I added a bogus definition of the Greek word for prayer derived from an application of exegetical fallacy number 1.
In the KJV, there are five different Greek verbs, each with different meanings, translated “to pray” and four Greek nouns translated “prayer”. Several of these mean “to ask”, “to express a need” or even “to offer supplication”, but the one occurring in Matthew 6:5, 6 & 7, and every other time when referring to Jesus praying, is the word προσεύχομαι, proseuchomai, which means to demonstrate and express your submission to the Will of God.
I’d “learned” this definition from Jim Brown of Grace & Truth Ministries, whose 58 second lesson on the word proseuchomai I also posted:

What makes all of that even more astounding to me now is the fact that I completely ignored the two definitions—Strong’s and Thayer’s—of proseuchomai provided by the Blue Letter Bible at the hyperlink I gave in the original post!

In order to atone for my crime, here’s two more actual definitions of proseuchomai. From BDAG:4
προσεύχομαι impf. προσηυχόμην; fut. προσεύξομαι; 1 aor. προσηυξάμην… mid. dep. to petition deity, pray
...and Louw & Nida:5
εὔχομαι; προσεύχομαι; εὐχή, ῆς f; προσευχή, ῆς f: to speak to or to make requests of God—‘to pray, to speak to God, to ask God for, prayer.’

Like Jim Brown, I went scrabbling down many a goat track of error in my self-study because my intellectual self-reliance made me think I was capable of educational self-correction. I was convinced that there was no need to be a part of the great doctrinal conversation the Church has been having since the first century. And while there’s nothing wrong with self-study, or in being strongly independent, as a would-be Christian teacher, I must never allow myself to stray so far from the collective wisdom of the family of God that I think I'm above it. As in any area of study, novel theologies and new exegetical insights must always be presented for peer review, in order to provide the necessary balance that comes from points of view the presenter is unable to have and pools of knowledge to which he has no access. The moment we appoint ourselves to be our own hermeneutical quality control officer is the moment when our biblical exegesis becomes biblical wrecksegesis.


1. Gordon D. Fee and Douglas K. Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1993), 18.

2. D. A. Carson, Exegetical Fallacies, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1996), 125-126.

3. A couple of hours after I posted this sentence without "virtually", I came across an article by Daniel Wallace, wherein he gave his take on the "lexical fallacy by linguists" that says "a word has no meaning apart from context." This troubled me a bit, until I read this rebuttal of Wallace by "Kris" at Old School Script blog and felt better. However, to be on the safe side, I thought it better to insert a qualifier here.

4. BDAG, s.v. προσεύχομαι.

5. Johannes P. Louw and Eugene Albert Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains (New York: UBS, 1996), 482.

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