Tom Chantry on . . .

The Fallacies of Fallacies

In recent weeks, as more thorough reviews of Rob Bell’s Love Wins have been forthcoming, I have at least twice seen articles urging pastors and seminary students to read D.A. Carson’s Exegetical Fallacies. Alan Kurschner’s article at AOMinistries is one good example.

I am fully appreciative of the point Kurschner is making, and frankly I agree with his advice. Popular Christian books very often advance error through obvious fallacies of biblical reasoning. A bit of education on how not to handle the Word is essential. Carson’s treatment of that subject is as useful today as it was 27 years ago. That said, I have always been somewhat uncomfortable with Carson, and since his name is being raised once again I think I ought to take the time to say why.

Exegetical Fallacies was required reading at my seminary. I suppose it was unavoidable that I would take issue with it. If you were 22 and all your classmates were coming to you and asking, “What do you think about our textbook citing your dad as an example of faulty logic?” - well, you’d probably get a bit defensive yourself. Perhaps I can be excused if I have always thought of Exegetical Fallacies as “that book that misrepresented Today’s Gospel,” even if I also acknowledge that it said a lot of good things.

It is probably unseemly for me to go about being the defender of my father’s work, but as the decades have rolled by I have never seen anyone attempt to investigate what Carson said, so forgive me if I share my thoughts.

Here in its entirety is the paragraph in question:
The false generalization is well exemplified in Walter J. Chantry’s little book about Today’s Gospel. By and large I agree with its thesis that a great deal of modern evangelism is defective in that it fails to establish need before trying to present the full parameters of grace. But Chantry seeks to analyze the problem solely in terms of his exposition of Mark 10:17-27, the pericope about the rich young ruler. We are exhorted to “look closely at the Master Evangelist” and “note his methods.” That is good advice; but what Chantry fails to do is provide a rationale for his choice of this pericope. His argument almost requires that Jesus (and we) confront every sinner exactly the way Jesus deals with the rich young ruler. But one of the remarkable features about Jesus’ earthly ministry is the amazing flexibility and adaptability of his approaches. There are often common ingredients, of course; but the fact remains that Jesus does not deal with Nicodemus exactly the way he handles the rich young ruler, and he does not respond to the Syro-Phoenician woman exactly as he did to the two men. (Exegetical Fallacies, pp 112-114)

A number of people have commented to me over the years that they think Carson missed the point of Today’s Gospel. I don’t; but more on that in a moment. I take particular issue with this statement: “…what Chantry fails to do is provide a rationale for his choice of this pericope.” It’s frankly a little hard to take. The quotes Carson gives are from pages 17 and 18 of the introduction to Today’s Gospel. A quick glance across the gutter to page 16 reveals this:

Many case histories of our Lord’s personal evangelism and many apostolic sermons would serve well for defining the Gospel. Jesus’ interview with the rich young ruler has been chosen because it is a vivid instance of the elements essential to Gospel preaching which are found everywhere in the New Testament. The words of Mark 10:17-27 stand in stark contrast with the prevailing doctrine of evangelicals today. (Today’s Gospel, p 16)

Several observations are in order.

First, Today’s Gospel clearly argues that “many case histories of our Lord’s personal evangelism and many apostolic sermons” contribute to our understanding of the gospel. In fact, the paragraph openly acknowledges that those case histories differ in particulars. What is especially interesting about this paragraph is that it forms the immediate context of the quotes Carson provides. It is hardly the case that my father was saying, “Look closely at one encounter of the Master Evangelist and memorize this, his only and unchanging method.” Rather, he said that “many case histories” are available and that we should study the riches of Christ’s many evangelistic encounters. Today’s Gospel only attempts to do so with one such encounter.

Second, central to the argument is the idea that certain “elements essential to Gospel preaching” may be discovered “everywhere in the New Testament.” Now Carson is enough of a scholar to know that this is not meant to imply that every passage contains every element, but rather that the evangelism of Jesus, of the Disciples, and of Paul - together with their writings - all point to these elements. It so happens that one pericope provides “a vivid instance” of these elements. Carson may blithely dismiss this idea with the words, “There are often common ingredients, of course.” He doesn’t seem to wish to address whether these “common ingredients” are in fact “essential elements” of the gospel message.

Third, and most obviously, the book most certainly does “provide a rationale” for the choice of one pericope. It is, after all, a “little book”; my father never attempted to write The Gospel According to Jesus. The rationale is in two parts: this pericope is a vivid instance of those “essential elements,” and it stands in particularly stark contrast to modern evangelical practice. Carson may think that is not sufficient rationale to write a book about one pericope, but it is in fact a rationale.

I am reminded of something rather telling which I once read about the interpretation of Scripture - words which could be equally well applied to our handling of other people’s writings:
From another perspective, the example from Steinmetz’s writings can be seen not only as a failure to recognize distinctions, but also as an instance where there has been so selective a use of evidence that other evidence has been illegitimately excluded...As a general rule, the more complex and/or emotional the issue, the greater the tendency to select only part of the evidence, prematurely construct a grid, and so filter the rest of the evidence through the grid that it is robbed of any substance. (Exegetical Fallacies, pp 98-99)

Oh, wait a minute - that was Carson again? Indeed, he understands the issue of an appeal to selective evidence; he writes quite forcefully about this logical error - a mere 12 pages before rather blatantly engaging in it himself.

What exactly is going on here? I would suggest three conclusions:

First, D.A. Carson has been a great blessing to the church, and we would do well to heed the lessons on fallacious reasoning and exegesis which he has so ably expressed. Every fresh heresy that comes down the pike reminds us of the importance of careful exegesis. That Rob Bell’s latest book can be picked to pieces using only a book of Carson’s which doesn’t even address the question of hell is itself a remarkable testimony. We would be ill-served by ignoring the resource which Carson has provided.

Second, being something of an expert on hermeneutics and logic has not spared Carson from the danger of his own prejudices. Sadly, Carson’s own theological flaws are behind his misrepresentation of my father. I suggested earlier that I don’t think Carson misunderstood Today’s Gospel at all. Rather I believe he understood it quite well - and that he objected to the insistence on at least one of the “essential gospel elements” for which it argues.

Here is a paragraph with which I suspect Carson really took issue:
Now is the hour to recover the full, rich Gospel of Christ. We must preach the holy character of God. We must preach the eternal law of God with diligent and thorough application to our congregations. General terminology is accomplishing just what Jesus’ general mention of the law would have elicited: an ignorant, unfeeling, self-exalting protest. Oh, for the studied application of the moral law to the inward man! (Today’s Gospel, p 46)

Carson’s approach to the law is essentially identical to that of the New Covenant theologians, and he no doubt shares their disdain for an approach to gospel presentation which insists on the preaching of the law as a means of conviction. The thesis of Today’s Gospel was not “that a great deal of modern evangelism is defective in that it fails to establish need before trying to present the full parameters of grace.” Rather, it was that modern evangelism fails utterly to present the whole counsel of God - of which a considerable piece is the moral law.

The law is an “emotional issue” to Christians who reject its application. It is understandable why one of them would “prematurely construct a grid” for a book which argued the necessity of preaching the law, suggesting that the book actually argues that the sole biblical approach to evangelism is found in one pericope. That way the objectionable passages can be filtered through that grid: “Is he saying that Jesus always recited the Ten Commandments when he evangelized?”

Thus does Carson marginalize a book with which he disagrees, but at the same time he makes himself a negative example of another logical fallacy. The effect is a sharp warning: just because we know the nature of fallacies does not exempt us from their danger.

Third, D.A. Carson has never been “Reformed” in the thorough, confessional sense. This is why I finally decided that this issue needs to be addressed. Exegetical Fallacies is once again being brought forth in defense of traditional, Scriptural doctrine - and rightly so. Those of us who are Reformed, though, would do well to remember that at some points Carson is a rather weak reed on which to lean. His theology is certainly evangelical. It is unquestionably orthodox. At certain points it is even Calvinistic. He is, though, opposed to confessional Reformed doctrine, and he is very capable of abandoning the lofty hermeneutical standards for which we admire him when pressed on those doctrines about which he is quite simply wrong.

I suppose at the end of the day I still shouldn’t publish this. It will no doubt look like a reflexive defense of my father’s writing. Bear in mind that I’ve been pondering it for nearly two decades, and I have yet to see anyone else take it up. Consider it with a grain of salt if you must, but consider it nonetheless. Even our heroes in the big fights can be woefully inept theologians when their own pet weaknesses are exposed.


Blogger Coram Deo said...


If you think this is a bitter pill to swallow just imagine how Peter must have felt having his cowardice and hypocrisy inscripturated.

In Christ,

4/08/2011 11:00 PM  
Blogger Tom Chantry said...

Honestly, CD, not sure what the connection is.

4/09/2011 5:03 AM  
Blogger Coram Deo said...

Sorry if the reference was overly oblique, Tom.

I took it that you had been feeling defensive about Carson's treatment of your father, which wasn't occasioned during a fireside chat in your home, but rather was widely published; and if that weren't enough it turned out to be published as a textbook example of a fallacy, and you were forced to study it as assigned reading.

Irrespective of the merits or demerits of Carson's critique of your father, there they are in black and white for all posterity.

And according to your own testimony you've been pondering this matter for two decades, yet that's not even a drop in the ocean of eternity; plus Carson's book, like all things in this world, will one day pass away.

Additionally you can come along and attempt to dismantle - or at least blunt - Carson's critique, as you've done here because his words are not ultimate, authoritative, or infallible.

On the other hand Peter's hypocrisy and cowardice were infallibly and authoritatively inscripturated in God's eternal Word which shall never pass away.

Although I don't suspect that Peter is still smarting over this fact today, we can be sure that wasn't his proudest moment considering his bitter, penitent weeping.

Anyway, that was my point, such as it is.

In Christ,

4/09/2011 10:35 PM  
Blogger Alan Kurschner said...


Thank you for the corrective on that fallacy in Carson's book. I updated my blog post with a link to your article so people can be aware of your valid critique.


4/18/2011 1:18 PM  
Anonymous Ivan Lambert said...

I sincerely thank you for this post, I found it good interaction with Carson's criticism of your dad's book.

However, in continuing to read your post, I observed that following your rite to defend your own father's statements, you then made quite the string of accusations in stating, "D.A. Carson has never been “Reformed” in the thorough, confessional sense". "Carson is a rather weak reed on which to lean"... "He is, though, opposed to confessional Reformed doctrine, and he is very capable of abandoning the lofty hermeneutical standards for which we admire him when pressed on those doctrines about which he is quite simply wrong."

Tom, it may be helpful to your readers if you were to have elaborated with supporting data, rather than simply repeatedly throw jab after jab at Carson.

4/20/2011 8:57 PM  
Blogger Tom Chantry said...


The point was that Carson's objection to Today's Gospel is based upon his well-publicized rejection of the view of the moral law espoused in every classic Reformed confession. To say that he is not Reformed in the thorough, confessional sense is neither a jab nor even a particularly novel insight. Those of us who do hold to a Reformed confessionalism would do well to remember that fact.

4/20/2011 9:09 PM  
Anonymous John Thomson said...


I enjoyed and benefitted from reading your father's books when I was a young man. That said, I guess Carson's reservation is mine; to a people under law preaching the law's condemnation is appropriate. In Romans, to people without law Paul preaches creation and the works of the Law written on the heart as convicting probes.

When preaching a series on the Law we began with a statement something like this: 'God's Law was given to Israel as a nation. The heart of this Law wwas the Ten Words so fundamental they were written on tablets of stone. We can learn from these commandments given specifically to Israel something of the moral demands God makes upon all people and in particular how impossible it is to meet them.'

5/02/2011 2:01 AM  
Blogger Tom Chantry said...


I do not agree with you, or with Carson for that matter, about the nature of the Commandments or about their function under the Old Covenant. However, that is really beside the point. I only mention the law as a likely explanation of why Carson didn't like Today's Gospel.

What is really at issue, though, is the rather ironic logical fallacy into which Carson fell when he said that my father failed to provide a rationale for the choice of a pericope, while including quotes from a few paragraphs after said rationale was provided. This allowed Carson to misrepresent the book by inventing his own rationale - the idea that Christ's approach to the Rich Young Ruler is the sole approach of biblical evangelism. None of this has anything directly to do with competing theologies of the law. Carson simply misrepresented Today's Gospel and offered a criticism that was patently false.

What is ironic is that he did so in a book entitled Exegetical Fallacies, in a chapter entitled "Logical Fallicies," twelve pages after explaining the very fallacy by which he misrepresented another author.

Am I the only person who finds that amusing?

5/02/2011 6:11 AM  

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