Book Review: Exegetical Fallacies, by D.A. Carson


D.A. Carson, Exegetical Fallacies. Baker Academic, 1996. 160 pages.


Imagine yourself several centuries in the future. You are listening to a talk on “Life Among English Speakers in the 21st Century.” The speaker says (in whatever language they’ll use then), “In the English, the word ‘love’ was often used to talk about the emotional bond between a man and a woman in marriage. But isn’t it interesting that in a game called tennis, ‘love’ also meant ‘zero’.” The speaker pauses, lowers his voice, leans into the audience and says, “To the English mind, love was (dramatic pause) a zero-sum game.”

Low rumblings of “mmmm,” accompanied by knowing nods, fill the room.

As every 21st century English speaker knows, however, “love” in tennis and “love” in marriage are totally unrelated. What you may not know is that the error made by that future scholar of English history has a name: it’s a minor form of illegitimate totality transfer. Simply put, it’s the error of loading multiple possible meanings of a word into a single use of that word.

The red flag for that fallacy usually begins with something like, “In the original, that word can also mean. . .” Of course, there are instances when the use of a word in another text is instructive for interpreting a particular usage. While the range of a word’s meaning (semantic range) can be helpful at times, pointing out the range of meaning may only serve to lead hearers to a wrong, let’s say “fallacious,” understanding of a text.

Illegitimate totality transfer is one of the most committed exegetical fallacies and one of the many covered in D.A. Carson’s book Exegetical Fallacies (EF) (53, 60). At nearly thirty years old, Carson’s book still deserves to be read and regularly consulted by pastors, students, and anyone else who takes biblical exegesis seriously. What follows is not a full-review of EF—there are multiple full, critical reviews available—but a short overview that I hope will bring Carson’s book to the attention of new readers and inspire others to dust off their copy sitting on the shelf since it was assigned in seminary.


Carson divides the main part of EF into four chapters, each of which focuses on a particular category. He devotes two chapters to the sorts of exegetical fallacies associated with the misuse or misapplication of aspects of biblical Hebrew and Greek.

First off are word-study fallacies, such as the one mentioned above in the would-be future scenario. In this chapter, readers will likely come across interpretations they have heard or read about and perhaps even adopted themselves. For instance, there is a popular idea that the Greek word hypēretēs “servant” (1 Cor. 4:1), a compound word composed of the preposition hypo and the word eretēs, refers to a slave on the bottom deck of a Greek trireme ship (29). Carson traces the origin and curious development of this root fallacy that has made its way into commentaries and word-study resources. This chapter will make readers think twice before uncritically accepting the infallibility of that word-study set sitting on the shelf or that note at the bottom of the page in a study Bible.

That is not to say there is no value in Greek study tools or that study Bibles can’t be trusted. We are, all of us, dependent on the work of others, particularly the work of specialists. But Carson’s EF encourages readers to explore claims about special meanings for themselves. So before making a big point about ekklēsia (“church”) meaning “the called-out ones”—another common instance of the root fallacy error—perhaps investigate a little deeper.

Chapter 2 covers Grammatical Fallacies. Here readers will learn, among other things, that the aorist tense—the Greek tense that gets more airtime in sermons than all the other tenses combined—rarely lives up to the hype sometimes attached to it (68-75). As a Greek teacher, I find this chapter especially helpful. Carson’s point is not that Greek tenses have no significance, but that interpreters must be able to discern what significance, particularly what contextual significance, tense has in Greek.

Chapter 3, Logical Fallacies, contains a helpful list of eighteen of the most frequently committed argumentative fallacies. Readers will probably recognize some of the more well-known fallacies like appeals to emotion (106) and to authority (122). On the other hand, fallacies such as worldview confusion (103) and unwarranted associative jumps will be less familiar. Whether readers are familiar with the names of all the logical fallacies, they will recognize them in Carson’s descriptions. As he does in every chapter, Carson provides numerous examples of logical fallacies committed with biblical texts—which makes his presentation far more helpful to pastors and students than a generic list of logical fallacies found on the Internet. Another thing that makes this chapter stand out is Carson’s concise discussion of the word “logic” itself and the importance of distinguishing what is meant by the word (87-90).

Chapter 4 is Presuppositional and Historical Fallacies. Awareness of presuppositional and historical fallacies is even more relevant today than when Carson wrote the book in 1984.

Presuppositional fallacies include the imposition of socio-cultural categories and theories on interpretation (125-128). In 2023, we face the inevitable consequences of that hermeneutical trajectory. The authority of Scripture is traded for the authority of the reader and results in any number of interpretations based on personal and/or group identity.

As for historical fallacies, there are entire books published every year based largely on historical fallacies. Consider all the books and articles claiming that the Bible can’t be understood apart from historical reconstructions and/or backgrounds. For instance, perhaps you’ve heard that in first century Judaism, Jews like Paul had little, if any, sense of a concept of works-righteousness. Likewise, there are books that attempt to get behind the text with historical and cultural “insights” (whether ancient Near Eastern, Jewish, or Greco-Roman) without which readers may wander half-blind through the Bible. Of course, historical backgrounds have a place in exegesis, but reading Carson will help readers keep the text itself, not backgrounds, front and center.


A review of a book published originally in 1984 (2nd edition, 1996) may seem slightly out of date, but exegetical fallacies aren’t time-bound. I have assigned EF in every second-semester Greek class going on nineteen years. I can attest that the book is no less current or relevant than when I began teaching. I suppose that’s the best endorsement I can give the book.

At the same time, readers should take care that reading EF doesn’t result in a lack of confidence in ever becoming a reliable exegete, preacher, or teacher. Inevitably, some of my students feel a sense of defeat after reading EF. One student summed up all the comments I’ve heard over the years by saying, “I need to find another line of work!” He was, I think, joking. In many instances, that kind of reaction to EF can be avoided simply by reading the introduction. Carson, having witnessed student reactions to studying exegetical fallacies (the book was essentially born from the classroom), discusses the dangers and limits of studying exegetical fallacies (22-26).

Finally, just because Carson includes an example of a fallacy in a particular text does not mean that’s the final word. For instance, there are reliable scholars who challenge Carson’s arguments for translating monogenēs in John 3:16 as “one and only” (NIV) rather than “only begotten” (30). Certainly it is a fallacy to accept without question or investigation every example in a book about fallacies!

There is no hack or shortcut for exegesis. It is demanding work that deserves the very best of the gifts and resources God gives us. The interpreter is charged rightly to divide the word of truth and to exegete and exposit the Word of God to build up the church of Christ, and Carson’s book is an indispensable resource for the task of exegesis that stands the test of time.

Brian Vickers

Brian is Professor of New Testament Interpretation at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a member of Sojourn Church, Jeffersontown Kentucky.

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