The first time I ever clearly understood what an exegetical fallacy was occurred when I was reading through some books by Gordon D. Fee. I was a young uneducated whipper snapper who had no idea what the word hermeneutics was nor of its importance. No, I just liked reading the Bible and was trying to figure out what some passages of Scripture were about.
At the time, I was interacting with some people who were telling me that the spiritual gifts of speaking in tongues, prophecy, and healings were not for today. Those gifts were simply evidence (signs) confirming the message of the apostles and had stopped happening when the Bible was completed. This was the standard explanation that many of my friends gave for spiritual gifts.
So I was very interested in finding out whether or not I was currently involved in a cult and around people who were deceived! Hence, I picked up a copy of Fee’s commentary in order to try and understand the subject of spiritual gifts better. It was while reading Fee that I came to understand today’s fallacy – Misuse of Subsequent Meaning.
That’s a mouthful.
Whenever my friends would try to convince me that certain spiritual gifts had “ceased,” they would always appeal to 1 Corinthians 13:8-10, which reads:
“As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away.”
They would tell me that the Bible clearly teaches that tongues will cease (which it does) and that “the perfect” has already come – the Bible! What evangelical Christian wouldn’t agree that the Bible is perfect, especially a young guy trying to make sure his theology was based off of Scripture? None that I know of!
Unfortunately, this is a classic example of the misuse of subsequent meaning fallacy. As Fee so eloquently pointed out, 1 Corinthians 13:8-10 can’t mean for us what it didn’t mean for Paul. That’s a primary rule related to proper biblical interpretation. A quick exegetical misstep is when we read later theological meanings back into Scripture. Osborne says,
“This means that we must interpret a theological term not on the basis of what it came to mean later but rather on the basis of what it meant in the past, especially as that past meaning affected the current use of the term.” (The Hermeneutical Spiral, 90)
Since it’s Christmas time, I’ll give you one of the most ridiculous examples of the misuse of subsequent meaning fallacy that I hear almost every single year from some people. It’s about the Christmas tree.
Now, I am fine with people who consciously do not want to have a Christmas tree and struggle with whether such activity is condoning it’s alleged pagan roots. That’s understandable. I used to struggle with that too, and I appreciate people having their own opinions on the matter. I’ve come to the conclusion that many of the arguments used by those opposed to Christmas trees are simply illogical and inconsistent, but that’s not my issue.
My issue is when those same people appeal to an Old Testament passage to “prove” their point:
“Thus says the LORD: “Learn not the way of the nations, nor be dismayed at the signs of the heavens because the nations are dismayed at them, for the customs of the peoples are vanity. A tree from the forest is cut down and worked with an axe by the hands of a craftsman. They decorate it with silver and gold; they fasten it with hammer and nails so that it cannot move.” (Jer. 10:2-4)
I kid you not, this is the passage that they say clearly teaches that having a Christmas tree is pagan. Bah humbug!
Christmas trees are not documented as being used until nearly 2,000 years after Jeremiah lived! To use Jeremiah 10 as evidence that God condemns Christmas tree usage is to read a more modern situation back into the text. It’s the classic misuse of subsequent meaning.
And it gets used year… after year… after year.
Whether you have a tree or not is not the point. Twisting Jeremiah 10 is!
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.