Thursday, April 23, 2009

Context, context, context!

I have just finished reading another "assigned" book called "Exegetical Fallacies" by D.A. Carson, research professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. In my opinion, this is an excellent book. But with one predominant theme being "look at the context!", how could it not be, right? Carson equally takes to task, Baptists, Paedo-baptists, Calvinists, as well as Arminians. Indeed, nobody seems totally immune from making some of the very common biblical interpretation errors that he describes.

According to Carson, word-study errors are much more common than grammatical errors. Because grammar is far more complex and variable than words, one might expect to find more grammatical than word-study errors, but this is not the case. Carson gives the reason---most seminary-trained pastors have enough equipment to generate them, but not enough equipment to make some kinds of grammatical mistakes.

"Perhaps the principal reason why word studies constitute a particularly rich source for exegetical fallacies is that many preachers and Bible teachers know Greek only well enough to use concordances, or perhaps a little more. There is little feel for Greek as a language; and so there is the temptation to display what has been learned in study, which as often as not is a great deal of lexical information without the restraining influence of context."

Carson brings out a total of 16 word-study errors, one of which is the root fallacy. This is the presumption that every word has a meaning bound up with its shape or its components. He classifies this as the most enduring of errors. In this view, meaning is determined only by etymology; that is, by the root or roots of a word. Carson pronounces this to be nonsense. He says this is the same as deriving the meaning of "butterfly" from "butter" and "fly," or the meaning of "pineapple" from "pine" and "apple." He does add three caveats to this, however; 1) he is not saying that any word can mean anything because among other things we can determine its meaning by the context;

"Normally we observe that any individual word has a certain limited semantic range, and the context may therefore modify or shape the meaning of a word only within certain boundaries. The total semantic range is not permanently fixed, of course; with time and novel usage, it may shift considerably. Even so, I am not suggesting that words are infinitely plastic. I am simply saying that the meaning of a word cannot be reliably determined by etymology, or that a root, once discovered, always projects a certain semantic load onto any word that incorporates that root."

2) the meaning of a word may reflect its etymology, but we cannot always assume this; however, he admits this can be assumed more often in such synthetic languages as Greek or German because of their relatively high percentages of transparent words (words that have some kind of natural relation to their meaning) than in a language like English, where words are opaque (without natural relation to their meaning); and 3) he is far from suggesting that etymological study is useless, but that "specification of the meaning of a word on the sole basis of etymology can never be more than an educated guess."

Another word-study error Carson talks about is an appeal to unknown or unlikely meanings. He says that some of these spring from poor research, dependence on others without checking the primary sources, or from the desire to make a certain interpretation work out, and the interpreter forsakes even-handedness.

Carson goes on to talk about logical fallacies. I found this section particularly fascinating. He presents a total of 18 errors here. In number 11 he talks about taking unwarranted associative jumps---"when a word or phrase triggers off an associated idea, concept, or experience that bears no close relation to the text at hand, yet is used to interpret the text." Carson states that this error is very easy to commit in textual preaching, overlooking the old saying that "a text without a context becomes a pretext for a prooftext." For example, one verse often mishandled is Philippians 4:13: "I can do everything through him who gives me strength."

"The "everything" cannot be completely unqualified (e.g., jump over the moon, integrate complex mathematical equations in my head, turn sand into gold), so it is commonly expounded as a text that promises Christ's strength to believers in all that they have to do or in all that God sets before them to do. That of course is a biblical thought; but as far as this verse is concerned it pays insufficient attention to the context. The "everything" in this context is contented living in the midst of food or hunger, plenty or want (Phil 4:10-12). Whatever his circumstances, Paul can cope, with contentment, through Christ who gives him strength."

It is in this section of logical fallacies that I started noticing some of Carson's own personal theological prejudices, which became even more pronounced in his section on presuppositional and historical fallacies. But we all do it---it's hard not to. And Carson readily admits it as well.

"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..."

However, by and large I felt he tried very hard not to use this book as a sounding board to vent his own theology.

There is a lot more I could say about this book, it is packed so full and gave me much to think about, but this post is already too long, so I will quit. I do highly recommend this book. And because I have to return this copy to its rightful owner, I plan to run out and buy a copy for myself.

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