Michael Patton offered 7 common fallacies that people use when interpreting biblical texts (found here). A fallacy is simply an unsound argument that is based off of erroneous reasoning (i.e., it is illogical). Patton’s seven common fallacies are:
- Preunderstanding fallacy: Believing you can interpret with complete objectivity, not recognizing that you have preunderstandings that influence your interpretation.
- Incidental fallacy: Reading incidental historical texts as prescriptive rather than descriptive.
- Obscurity fallacy: Building theology from obscure material.
- Etymological root fallacy: Looking to the root etymology of a word to discover its meaning.
- Illegitimate totality transfer: Bringing the full meaning of a word with all its nuances to the present usage.
- Selective use of meaning: Selecting the meaning you like best.
- Maverick fallacy: Believing that you don’t need anyone but the Holy Spirit to interpret the text.
Of these seven, I could comment on all of them because, as a pastor, I see people employ all of them on a consistent basis, though it has become much better in the past two years. I’m inclined to think our class on interpreting the Scriptures (Bible Study Methods) took care of a few of these issues for some, though, not all!
Unfortunately, I think certain traditions of Christianity (and some cults) tend to favor certain fallacies more than others! These are pretty strong generalizations, and a tad bit exaggerative for the sake of humor, but they fit some:
Preunderstanding fallacy: This fallacy is generally held by people who have not studied any theological positions apart from the one they are in. That includes Fundamentalists, Baptists, Pentecostals, Roman Catholics, and just about every tradition ever imagined!
Incidental fallacy: Okay, I’m not pulling any punches here. Pentecostals and Charismatics are notorious in using this fallacy. Take any and every narrative text of Scripture (but only the ones that are “blessing” focused or have positive endings) and apply it to the Christian life. If there is an example of something having occurred in the history of redemption, every Christian should not only seek after that experience, but should demand it and expect nothing less!
Obscurity fallacy: This fallacy tends to find itself expressed in many of the cults that claim to be restorations of Christianity (e.g., Jehovah Witnesses & Mormons). Texts such as 1 Cor. 15:29 are used to “prove” doctrines that, upon closer inspection, are based upon very obscure and ambiguous texts (yes, I do believe in the perspicuity of Scripture). Take one or two verses that are not entirely clear and build really interesting (and often manipulative) doctrines! No, this is not good.
Etymological fallacy: I recently wrote a little about this fallacy here and here. I plan to write more in the near future. The bottom line is that the roots of words do not always share light on the context of a passage. I have seen this fallacy mostly at work in the “bible study” tradition. Groups of people who discover etymology and the implications it can have begin to employ it in every situation and context.
Illegitimate totality transfer: The Amplified Version. Enough said. Any tradition that encourages this translation theory uses this fallacy. Hmmm, which tradition uses the Amplified Version the most?
Selective use of meaning: Uh, just about everyone does this. If the text means you have to stop doing something that the text considers “sinful,” then that can’t be the meaning of the text! Liberal Protestants have done this for many years in relation to issues such as homosexuality. But Liberals are not the only ones that do it. Complimentarians would suggest that Egalitarians do it. Egalitarians would suggest Complimentarians do it. But just about everyone tends to do it, on some level.
Maverick fallacy: Thankfully, this fallacy does not really have a “home” in any tradition other than some of the extreme versions of the “house” church movement (yes, pun intended). Ignoring what Paul teaches in Eph. 4:11-16 regarding Christ’s gift of pastor-teachers for the church, these people tend to think that they can interpret the text on the same level as those trained in the ancient languages who have a wider grasp and understanding of the cultural context. These people rarely listen and are quite convinced that their reading, which supports their crazy interpretation, is the best one to go with.
What do you think? Any other thoughts?
Luke is a pastor-theologian living in northern California, serving as a co-lead pastor with his life, Dawn, at the Red Bluff Vineyard. Father of five amazing kids, when Luke isn’t hanging with his family, reading or writing theology, he moonlights as a fly fishing guide for Confluence Outfitters. He blogs regularly at LukeGeraty.com and regularly contributes to his YouTube channel.
Luke, you are 100% correct about the selective use of meaning fallacy. Systematic Theology has becoming increasingly better, but was certainly guilty of this in the past.
I would have to agree. Sys theo was primarily a circus of proof texting.
After reading your article [I was googling the phrase christian tradition of interpretation],I think I have used every one of these approaches at some time or other. Sometimes each one has been helpful, but I know I have come up with erroneous “so that must mean” with each of these approaches. Since I do not claim to be either systematic or a theologian, any errors I make can be made less harmful with a big swig of humility
[“just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, the..”]