Wednesday, January 9, 2013

A Prestigious Tradition of Incompetence: Critical Fallacies in Biblical Interpretation

The Diachronic Fallacy

The diachronic fallacy takes place when a scholar uses extracontextual material (i.e., etymology, foreign contexts, foreign genres, etc.) as a part of the context that interprets a word, passage, or book. The diachronic method can only ever be used to answer historical questions (e.g., what did this word/text/book mean in various stages), but it cannot answer the question, “What does it mean in its current context?” To confuse what diachronic analysis can do (provide a history or diverse look) with what it cannot do (i.e., provide the meaning of a linguistic unit) is to commit a critical fallacy.
One might argue that diachronic data might be useful to contrastive/comparison purposes, but one can only contrast/compare synchronically verified meanings in their respective contexts. Hence, one must first interpret a linguistic unit within its context before he compares/contrasts it with its use in other contexts. What this means is that the diachronic data cannot be used as a part of the context, lest the conclusions of one’s study come out falsified. 

Word Studies
Diachronic analysis in word studies has been talked about ad nauseam. To give one of many examples, a word, such as agape cannot be explained as “God’s unconditional and sacrificial love” in all contexts simply because that is to what it refers in some contexts. If one were to apply that to other contexts, he would end up thinking that the word agape, when used of Amnon raping Tamar in the LXX, means that the love Amnon had for Tamar when he raped her was God’s unconditional and sacrificial love. Of course, the word just means “love,” and what kind of love has to be determined by the context. In this, and many other contexts, agape just refers to sexual desire.
In fact, you can see the reverse of this argument by some depraved cultists who make the argument that, since agape is used for sexual love, when Jesus tells His disciples to love one another, He’s telling them to love on another also in a sexual way (i.e., to have sex with one another). Of course, this absurdity comes from attempting to make diachronic material a part of the context of every passage in which it appears.
This is the same thing that happens when one takes a previous use of a word in its history as the meaning. Hence, if one says that he suffers from chronic pain, you might ask him why he permits himself to be in pain, using the archaic meaning of “suffer,” which meant “to permit,” as the definition of the word in the current context. But the meaning in the current context no longer has anything to do with the archaic meaning, as its contemporary context, whether textual or cultural, proves out.

Source Studies
What is not talked about is the diachronic fallacy as it is used in source study of the Bible. Scholars often rather sloppily confuse their arguments when attempting to tell us what the Bible teaches. They then proceed to tell us what the sources may have once taught in different contexts and for different purposes, and then further proceed to tell us that this is what the passage in its newfound biblical context teaches. One finds this fallacy often in the “history” and “religions of Israel” debates, where the passages that may have once taught polytheism, child-sacrifice, etc. are said to teach those things in their biblical contexts, even when their biblical contexts have radically transformed the meanings of those passages and sources.
The same can be said for scholars (e.g., von Rad) who attempt to come up with a theology of J or a theology of P and then place them against one another as conflicting theologies taught by the biblical books in which these sources are used. But it is clear that these sources placed together create a new context that cannot allow for one to interpret them separately without doing violence both to the critical method and to the intended message of the biblical works themselves. It is simply a fallacy to conduct one’s studies this way, as it is a fallacy to conduct one’s word studies this way. The authors of these works placed these sources side-by-side for a reason. They are meant to contrast one another for complementary, not conflicting, purposes. As the context for one another, it is absurd to interpret the context as hostile and contradictory toward one of its elements, and as such, they must be interpreted as a whole work. If one wishes to separate them as a means of diachronic investigation in order to compare/contrast what they mean in their current biblical context, by all means, such is appropriate for historical conjectures, but they are not appropriate for answering the question, “What do they mean in their current biblical contexts?” 

Book Studies and the Canon
The same that we applied to words and sources above, can be applied to entire books within the canon. Often scholars attempt to disillusion poor oblivious students of the Bible of the Bible’s unity. Instead, diversity, which reflects more the modern need to make the Bible after one’s own pluralistic society’s image, is touted as something obvious, since some books, when interpreted as individual books outside the canon, may make conflicting arguments than the ones made by other books within the canon.
But this too is a type of diachronic fallacy in that it does not consider that the modern Bible student, who believes in the canon, sees the Bible as one context. Because of this, after all is said and done, the messages of the individual books must be read in light of the messages of all the books together. To do so is to take it out of context. Hence, the context of what may have been Ezra’s zenophobic argument based on ethnocentric concerns, perhaps only partially of a religious nature, no longer functions as such in light of the Deuteronomistic exclusivism of Yahwism and the Prophets (e.g., Malachi), which makes the issue one, not of ethnicity, but of orthodoxy. And this is certainly the issue of the New Testament as well. Of course, we can quibble over whether even Ezra was not primarily speaking of Yahwistic orthodoxy, but the issue stands nonetheless. One cannot say that he is dismantling the unity of the Bible by using the diachronic method, since that is to ignore the claim made by those who believe the Bible as a unity, and therefore, to ignore the context to which these Bible students are referring when they say the word “Bible.” Most often, students do not mean a series of unrelated words, passages, and books that are collected in a canon, but instead words, passages, and books that make up one book, a concept stemming from their belief that the Bible is One voice through many voices, a unified canon that brings the works therein together to create a new context for all of the teachings found therein. Hence, as one cannot read words outside of the qualifications made and references to which the words refer in that context, one cannot read the teachings of a biblical book outside the context of the qualifications and referents supplied by the other books of the canon that now make up their existing, contemporary context.
Of course, the scholar does not need to share his presuppositions with the student, but he needs to be honest and simply say to him, "If the Bible is to be taken as a whole, as you do, then I actually can't do what I'm doing by attempting to pit it against itself, as I would be reading the individual parts outside of their contexts and then attempting to turn them back in on their other constituent parts. Hence, I first have to believe that the Bible is not a unified work and then proceed from there. So you're views of canon are completely legitimate and when I use the term 'Bible' I can't be referring to it as a whole, lest I commit the fallacy."  Instead, the student is allowed to believe that the definition of "Bible" is the same and then he proceeds to show why the Bible isn't a unified work--thus, begging the question and guaranteeing his result. This is a sleight of hand that utilizes the diachronic fallacy and is not becoming of any honest scholar seeking to employ a precise argument.

The Ad Populum Fallacy
One might wonder why such fallacies as the diachronic one noted above have had such a shelf life among scholars over the past fifty years since linguistics began to take some affect upon biblical scholarship. But this question is not difficult to answer. The answer itself lies in the culture of academia itself and its tendency to rely upon ad populum arguments, i.e., arguments based upon what the majority, or those considered to be in the "in group," believe to be true.
Ad populum arguments, however, cannot establish the veracity of a claim, but are only descriptive, describing what a group of individuals may believe to be true and false. It simply does not matter how many people believe Position X and how well educated they may be, the ad populum cannot replace sound arguments. Once established upon said arguments, one may bring in the ad populum as a way of saying that those who have studied the issue have found such and such arguments convincing; but without those arguments, addressing criticism or establishing a point based upon the ad populum is lazy scholarship that will only perpetuate an inaccuracies that cannot be exposed without first jettisoning the ad populum.

The Historical Absolutism Fallacy
The idea that history, especially ancient history, can be so well reconstructed as to use it to critique other equally valid views of historical events and reconstructions. The nature of the inquisitive task of scholarship is going to cause us to hypothesize according to our worldviews and then determine whether the data fits the hypothesis (and some will attempt to fit the data into our hypotheses, which likely happens more often than not). However, it needs to be understood that history, especially the task of reconstructing ancient history, is never an absolute one. This becomes even more of an impossibility when we are speaking about reconstructing the religion and history of ancient Israel. The academy tends toward a dogmaticism that protects the dominant worldview at the cost of other reconstructions they consider apologetically oriented. Ironically, it is this dogmatism that reconstructions are so absolute that one can discount other reconstructions merely on the basis that they depart from those held ad populum that really is a matter of pure apologetic. Any true historian must realize that he has only a minute percentage of the data and is merely attempting to describe a million-piece puzzle with a few scraps of a single piece found here and there. As such, his conclusions might be interesting and occasionally illumine the past when he hits the jackpot and gets a statement about the past correct. However, for the most part, our histories have more to do with us than they do with the past. Indeed, it may be that all historiography is to some degree contemporary ideological commentary on the past and present more than it has much to do with past events themselves, which is why perhaps the histories in the Bible take on much more of a theological dynamic than something that merely seeks to “record” events. Indeed, even such a pursuit to record only history without the historiographers ideology getting in the way stems from a particular ideology within itself. It cannot be escaped.  Hence, as Grabbe so aptly puts it:

All reconstructions are provisional. New data, new perspectives, new theories may suggest other – better-ways to interpret the data. This openness to new ways of thinking and new configurations of events always needs to be there.[1]

The Epistemic Fallacy
Although most scholars today will take note of subjectivism that stems from bias, very rarely do they succeed in distinguishing these from presuppositions and ultimate beliefs. Because of this, they often make fallacious statements concerning being “more objective,” or “gaining objectivity to a degree” when, in fact, such a feat is not possible. Until scholars realize that all is faith, and that some faith assumptions are shared by many within our culture and some are shared only with a few, they will continue to make statements that ignore the all encompassing grip of epistemology, even while tipping their hat at the idea that no one is completely objective. Indeed, no one is even partially objective, and that is perhaps where the fallacy lies most securely within the individual scholar’s methodology, hidden away and unseen by neither himself nor the colleagues of his ilk.
But all methodologies of inquiry are governed by one’s ultimate beliefs. They, not the data, determine the boundaries for one’s conclusions. One may conclude differently within those particular boundaries, as far as his presuppositions and ultimate beliefs will allow, but no farther. In order to conclude beyond those boundaries, the observer must make an epistemic shift in its entirety, and this must be done in his faith choice. The data cannot help him, as it is driven to support a conclusion within a predetermined boundary that automatically has excluded the possibility of anything viewed as highly improbable by that ultimate belief. It is not that one’s presuppositions merely predispose him to conclude in line with those presuppositions, but that it also predisposes him to reject anything that is not in line with it. As such, presuppositions are not merely biases that may prejudice an otherwise objective methodology of inquiry, but rather they are a priori assumptions that force the whole process into a predetermined set of possible conclusions.
As such, scholars need to admit that their work is a working out of their presuppositions, not an enterprise where they are pulling out objective truth through objective means. These are metaphysical and historical questions. We’re not building rocket ships. As such, what one presupposes metaphysically will determine what he concludes about such as well. Honesty is simply needed here, and the fallacy is committed when a scholar is unaware of these epistemic issues or simply postures himself as one who does not use faith but only facts to determine his conclusions.

The Skeptical Fallacy
This is the idea, built upon an ignorance of the epistemic issues above, that tends toward believing any position that is skeptical toward positions that stem from a foreign worldview and presupposition toward the text. It is not skeptical, at all, toward its own worldview and presuppositions. The fallacy manifests itself in the thinking that any conclusion that supports a foreign worldview and presupposition stems not from a robust methodology applied to interpret the data, but instead is merely a matter of one’s faith determining the conclusion. Hence, there is a distinction between “real” scholarship and “apologetics,” which is viewed as simply an attempt to support a faith position regardless of the evidence. In light of the discussion in the previous chapter, however, there is no such distinction to be made if everyone involved in the scholarly process is employing a methodology of inquiry that is consistent with their ultimate beliefs and presuppositions. Everyone is an apologist for his theories and the boundaries for his theories are determined by his ultimate beliefs. Hence, it is a matter of seeing the data in light of one’s ultimate beliefs, and making a robust argument that attempts to discover how the data might make sense within various worldviews. It is not only a fallacy to assume that there is an objective view versus many subjective ones, but tends toward the religious/philosophical ethnocentricity and zenophobia one now finds in certain academic circles. All is subjectively apprehended and it is a matter of holding scholars accountable to their own presuppositions, not to those of other scholars. As such, it is fallacious to say that interpretations that support a particular worldview are apologetic and interpretations that do not support it are likely more true and objectively accurate. One must simply let the scholar conclude according to his own presuppositions and ultimate beliefs, but keep him accountable as to the consistency of his conclusion with those beliefs and to the nature of the methodology he has chosen to interpret the text accordingly.
The irony of this fallacy is that scholars will continually talk about being open to new theories and ideas concerning history, but in reality, they are merely open to options within their own epistemological boundaries. Theories, methodologies, and conclusions that stray too far outside of those boundaries are not only rejected, but often not even considered as serious contributions to what is often viewed as the private discussion of an exclusive club.
Hence, statements concerning “serious scholarship” versus that which is done by those who believe in, say, biblical inerrancy due to their ultimate beliefs and presuppositions about the Bible are hypocritical and without warrant. The scholar does his research in methodologies that are guided by his view of the Bible, regardless of what that might be. Only a scholar oblivious to how the enterprise of discovery actually works when dealing with non-testable events will make such a distinction. In reality, such an assertion amounts to nothing more than an ad hominem fallacy that leads to one worldview dominating other worldviews, not by way of proving itself to be superior, but by posturing itself into that position of superiority. 
As such, Grabbe notes that “trying to guess motives has become too much of a pastime in the academy,”[2] which leads to limiting one’s understanding of a subject by merely attacking other positions for being ideologically-driven (i.e., a method of excluding hypotheses via ad hominem). Even Grabbe seems to reflect the idea that if one believe in inerrancy, this is a fundamentalist opinion that is merely apologetic and not as valid as a “critical” one. To Grabbe, a fundamentalist is someone who believes that the Bible is inerrant and thus driven by that belief to conclude comfortably that those positions that are favorable toward that position.
However, as I have noted, as does Grabbe, that one can be a fundamentalist who is continually looking for a way to “reject or denigrate the biblical text," as this is "as ‘fundamentalist’ in its own way as a refusal to allow the Bible to be wrong.”[3] Unfortunately, like many scholars, Grabbe sees his view (the agnostic approach that assumes the possibility of biblical errancy) as exempt from such a charge. If the truth be told, all positions are governed by their presuppositions, and thus, should be labeled “fundamentalist” if that term is to be used of those who dogmatically assume a stance in which certain boundaries created by one’s ultimate beliefs concerning reality and the Bible cannot be breached and still be considered “pure,” or should I say, “purer scholarship.”
This is not to say with the postmodern view of historiography that all views are equally valid. Some views do not take the data into consideration. Some views misunderstand the nature of the data and what it says. Some views are held inconsistently with the scholar’s own presuppositions or with his own accepted methodology of inquiry. Some views use faulty logic or employ poor linguistic methods. We might label all of these as “fundamentalist” or “unscholarly apologetics” if a scholar ignored all of the above in order to hold to a certain position anyway. But that’s not how it is used in the academy today. The default assumption of many within the academy is to suppose that when the Bible can be supported by one conclusion and shown to be false by another, the one that shows it to be false is to be preferred unless otherwise definitively disproven by external evidence (external evidence being of primary value to a scholar who does not believe the Bible can be used as a primary source for the history and religion of Israel). Of course, some believe that the Bible is a, if not the, primary source to understand that history and religion. Some believe that the Bible isn’t attempting to speak to either in the way that modern scholarship may think it does. Others believe the Bible attempts to speak to one or both but may often get them wrong. The point is that one group cannot divorce their hypotheses, methodologies, and conclusions from those guiding beliefs, even if the hypothesis itself is that the Bible may be true or false on such and such an issue and I will attempt to test whether it is true or false on such and such an issue. That still assumes the possibility of the Bible being false, that its validity can be established or discounted by an external authority to itself, that inerrancy is not necessarily true, that history can be known well enough to critique the Bible with it, that naturalism is the primary means in a closed system to determine truth, etc.
Instead, one ought to allow scholarship to be open to any worldview, but to critique consistency with what each individual holds to be their sources of authority and logical arrangement of the data. To critique one’s conclusions with Presupposition B because they are based upon Presupposition A is absent-minded bigotry that is, ironically, purely ideologically driven.

These are some of the most common fallacies one sees within the academy today. Unfortunately, they have perpetuated ideas that are simply nonsense, but are widely accepted due to the ad populum noted above. Hopefully, as honest discussions move forward, scholars will begin to see the error of their ways and hubris will turn into humility. One can only hope.

[1] Lester L. Grabbe, Ancient Israel: What Do We Know and How Do We Know It? (London: T&T Clark, 2007) 36.
[2] Ibid., 23.
[3] Ibid.


  1. Are you a Brevard Childs fan? I'm reading his Exodus commentary atm, and I think he does a good job of keeping the final form as the main thing.

    I think you're correct about taking the synchronic as the final meaning, and I love the stuff about unavoidable presuppositions, but I do think the diachronic possibilities need to be thought through theologically. Why may have God been happy to present Himself as two deities at one time, for instance? Divine accommodation for comprehension at that time is my guess. Or say that the 10 commandments developed in their current form over time... do we trust that God was at work to call Israel to exclusive worship of Him prophetically when the 10 commandments may not have existed? I don't see why not. It could be that the Bible contains the tools needed to sort these things out - like Ezekiel 20, for instance, concerning God's child sacrifice command. But I'm sure you've thought these things through.

  2. Hi Benjamin,

    I do like Childs, but he too tends to give more credit to the diachronic material as a means of understanding the final form. I give no credit to it. It is only a means to discover historical development, not the contemporary and contextual meaning.

    I think the issue that scholars don't realize is that I know of very few Christians who believe that God inspired J or P or the original source used for a text of anything. I think what is inspired is the Bible and the books therein that God purposed to make up the canon. I don't believe that God inspired the sources in their original contexts. For instance, I don't believe that the Greek poets that Paul quotes were inspired, nor the part that he quotes, but rather it becomes inspired as a part of the Book of Acts, which is inspired. To me, that would be like saying that God inspired the etymology of every word used in the Bible as much as He inspired the use of those words in their biblical contexts. So I don't actually think that God ever revealed Himself as two gods, but that He used traditions that once conveyed one thing about deities and even Himself and put them in works together that gave an accurate picture of who He is. In the same way, He used words that existed already, not because He inspired every meaning of a word in every context, but because they were the words of the people to whom He was speaking. He is able to take the language of a people and communicate accurately through that language. Hence, He has no need to inspire the language (i.e., words, sources, etc.).

    So if one believes that God actually inspired all stages of a text (although most would not go so far as to believe that He inspired the etymology of the words), then his Bible essentially is only partly received in the canon and the other part must be given to him by conjectural scholarship. I just don't believe that.

    I do believe that God revealed Himself in dreams, visions, theophany, etc. that was not necessarily meant to make it into the Bible, or that was only partial until they were made into larger compositions in the Bible, but the point of their inspiration and made into Scripture was in the writing of the book that God intended to place into the context of an entire canon of inspired books. As such, I believe that those things were truths, although partial, as through a mirror dimly, consistent with what we have in Scripture, but not within their destined fuller context yet.

    1. Hmm... interesting. So are you saying that there are some portions of the Bible that were originally more inspired than others? For instance, if the writer of Deut 32:8,9 did believe El and YHWH to be two separate deities, he was theorizing off the back of what YHWH had already revealed of himself, and this was only made fully inspired by the later full context of Deut. Whereas for the early church's interpretation of Christ's post-mortem appearances as 'resurrection', this was fully inspired from the get-go?

    2. I think you might be getting what I'm saying, but let me clarify just to make sure.

      I believe that you have both revelation of God given through dreams and visions, angels, theophany at Sinai, etc. and ancient Near Eastern concepts, folk religion, religious traditions, etc. that are then applied to God throughout Israel's history. These sayings and concepts become a part of the religious language of the culture. At this point, none of this is inspired into Scripture. Some of it is God's revelation to man and the rest is man's understanding of God that comes from both natural and supernatural sources.

      When some of the Scripture is made, like the Book of Deuteronomy, some of this language is adopted into the text as a way to speak about God. As in the case of the Tetrateuchal History, existing traditions are combined and molded to convey an accurate theology and ethic. Other books may simply be formed by God speaking directly through the prophets and then their revelation is collected into a single book. This is all inspired by God. This is His biblical revelation to Israel and to the Church. He then oversees and directs the books that are placed into the canon so that all of the books He inspired now make up the context for one another as a single book.

      That's my view of how these things take place. So I wouldn't consider what the guy who originally wrote the source of Deut 32:8-9 thought as a part of the divine inspiration of the Book of Deuteronomy. I would assign to him only the language that the author/compiler of Deuteronomy decided to use/incorporate into his work, and ultimately, what God decided to use/incorporate as a part of His God-breathed Word. So just as Luke uses the Greek poets via Paul in Acts is not inspired Scripture until the point they are used in Acts, so also the sources are not inspired Scripture until they are used by God to convey His message in Scripture.

      I also don't think that the individual intent of an author of a book or set of books is necessarily as definitive of what the Bible teaches as that book now interpreted within the qualifications of the larger context of the canon. So, for instance, let's say Paul and James were really meaning to contradict one another. Now, in the context of the canon, they qualify and complement one another instead, since it is the divine author's intent of putting them side-by-side within the canon that holds more weight in determining meaning. In this way, pitting one book against another is a form of diachronic criticism in a Christian context.

      When we come to the resurrection appearances, I don't believe we have inspired Scripture concerning them until they are in their final forms in the New Testament Scriptures. Of course, you can have truth apart from divine inspiration. You can have revelation apart from divine inspiration. Inspiration is really just about the text of Scripture. So I believe the New Testament writings use sources (Luke says that he does himself), but it was not until those sources were utilized by the authors of Scriptures that what is said by those sources in their new found contexts are inspired teachings of Scripture.

      Is that more understandable or did I make things worse there? ;-)

    3. Yes, that makes sense. It will be very helpful to people when you get the book out, I'm sure.

    4. Speaking of books, how is yours coming?

    5. It's not... to cut a long story short, I'm not thinking of becoming a Biblical scholar anymore. I think God would have me use my longer-standing gift of writing fiction for His purposes. Part of this is because He's already using people like yourself to get certain ideas out amongst evangelicals. The approach to the topic of my projected book - Jesus' prophecy - is actually being covered soon in a volume by a man called Christopher Hays, who teaches at Oxford, so look out for that.

  3. Interesting. Well, of course, you'll likely reach a thousand times more people with fiction writing than writing the boring stuff that we do. :-) In the end, it might be a better format to discuss ideas with our generation. God bless you in that pursuit.