I started D.A. Carson’s Exegetical Fallacies: Second Edition. The book is about the exegetical fallacies that scholars and preachers make in interpreting the Bible, in terms of the Greek language and other issues. Carson even critiques his own past scholarship, which I appreciate because it shows that he sees himself as a work in progress.
Why am I reading this book? It’s not because I share some of the concerns that Carson has—-that the interpretation of Scripture is of eternal consequence, or that the body of Christ should become like-minded (something that Carson also appears to believe is unattainable, even if we can miraculously get rid of the hindrances of ego and emotional attachment to certain interpretations of Scripture). That just doesn’t gel with my picture of God. Rather, it’s because I, as a scholar in religion, feel that I need to sharpen my exegetical skills. Why do I feel this need? First of all, I’ve taken years of Greek, but I do not know as much as evangelical seminary students about, say, the different kinds of aorists (even though I cannot blame my professors for that, for, even though they may not go into detail about that all too often in the classroom, they do refer me to Smythe’s grammar, and it is up to me to read that book). Second, when a scholar says that, say, evangelical pastors have false assumptions when they do word-studies, I do not know why the scholar thinks that way. I myself do word-studies, and I wonder if I am doing them correctly or incorrectly. Carson gets into the issue of word studies in this book.
The introduction had valuable points. First of all, on pages 22-23, Carson addresses the timid Christian who is afraid of falling into exegetical traps and hermeneutical pitfalls and thereby misleading fellow believers. It’s easy to ask “Why even try?” if you feel that way! But Carson responds that it’s better to be aware of the mistakes you can make than it is to remain in the dark and to avoid the tough questions. You can at least deal with potential mistakes if you are aware of them! I think that’s good advice for a lot of things, especially for those of us who tend to make perfection the enemy of the good.
Second, on page 22, a danger that Carson identifies with his study of exegetical fallacies is that it focuses on the negative rather than the positive, and Carson does not want to promote spiritual one-upsmanship. I think that’s good advice for me and for others who learn religion from an academic perspective—-either formally or informally. It’s good when scholars can maintain a down-to-earth quality.
Third, on page 23, Carson talks about “Ernest Christian”, the typical Christian whose faith is transformed when he goes to seminary. Before going to seminary, Ernest Christian has warm and frequent quiet times and believes that God is speaking to him directly, within the context of an intimate relationship. When Ernest Christian goes to seminary (and Carson appears to be speaking here about conservative seminaries), however, he learns about Greek and all sorts of different scholarly interpretations of the Bible. The Bible does not come alive to him as it once did. My impression is that Carson wants for scholarly principles of exegesis to be able to nourish the life of faith rather than leaving students in a state of destabilization.
On a related note, on pages 16-17, Carson talks about a conversation he had in the car with a fellow believer who was telling Carson what he believed God was telling him in his morning quiet time. Carson wondered if he should inform the fellow believer that his interpretation of Scripture was a misunderstanding of the King James Version’s archaic English, and that the KJV itself was misrepresenting the Greek in that case. When Carson gently told him that there were other ways to understand the verse, the fellow believer responded that he received his insight from the Holy Spirit, and that spiritual things are spiritually-discerned!
Carson says that he will not get into the role of the Holy Spirit in biblical exegesis, but I appreciated his comments on this issue in his introduction because I myself have come across this issue. There was a time when I read the Scriptures and felt that I was being led by the Holy Spirit to interpret the text in a certain way, but now, as I look back, I realize that there are other ways to interpret the text, that issues are more complex than I assumed, and that I was reading the Bible with my own evangelical or Armstrongite biases. I have seen or read Christians, even preachers, derive some grand spiritual meaning from the order of the words in an English translation, and then I look at the Hebrew or the Greek and see that such an order is not even there! (I watched Joel Osteen do something like this in one of his sermons.) Nowadays, I find inspiring things in the Bible, but I am not overly dogmatic about what “the Bible says”, and, of course, I’m often impatient about others’ dogmatism about what “the Bible says”. The problem, of course, is that I do not as often feel that rush that came on me when I thought that I was interacting with God and that the Holy Spirit was opening my eyes to the truths of Scripture and making it into a living book for me.
Finally, I liked what Carson said on page 21 in summarizing James Barr’s views on conservative Christianity: “One of the emphases on the acerbic attack on ‘fundamentalism’ by James Barr is that conservatives do not really understand the Bible, that they use critical tools inconsistently and even dishonestly.”
I identify with Barr here, especially because, as I said, I get annoyed with conservatives getting in my face about what “the Bible says”. I differ, however, from some liberals I know who say that conservatives are ignorant about the Bible or are biblically illiterate. (For example, I once heard a professor at Union Theological Seminary, who was giving presentations against Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ, remark that Lee Strobel did not know much about the Bible.) In my opinion, biblical literacy is being aware of the stories and laws that are in the Bible, not so much having a detailed knowledge of the Documentary Hypothesis, or Q, or Marxist criticism, or what have you. I do wish, though, that conservatives would at least recognize that people interpret the text differently, and that their reasons for doing so often are unrelated to spiritual rebellion.