The Fallacy Fallacy
In his recent post about demetaphorizing, Greg raised some great issues. So I thought I’d piggyback off his idea, hitch my wagon to his star, jump on board, and make a little hay while the sun shines–hopefully without falling off the wagon . . . or the turnip truck.
As Greg mentioned, Carson’s Exegetical Fallacies is extremely helpful for identifying, categorizing, and exemplifying all kinds of bad reasoning in logical, historical, and hermeneutical contexts. It’s possible, however, for someone to get hold of the wrong end of the stick and assume that something is a fallacy when, in fact, it’s not. I’ll call it the Fallacy Fallacy.
A fallacy in this linguistic sense is not a falsehood; it is “an often plausible argument” based on an “invalid inference” (Webster). It is coming to a conclusion (sometimes maybe even a correct conclusion) via an illegitimate line of reasoning.
But fallacies are like loaded guns; they have to be handled carefully or they’ll go off when they’re not supposed to.
ETYMOLOGICAL FALLACY FALLACY
For example, the etymological fallacy assumes that a word can be defined on the basis of its etymology. An equally fallacious assumption, however, is that etymology is never relevant for defining a word. Etymology is useless or misleading for words like honeymoon or cockpit or peanut or bulldozer. On the other hand, etymology and definition are virtually identical for words like retrospect or lighthouse or teapot or hyperventilate.
The fact that the etymological fallacy has to do with determining meaning doesn’t mean that etymology cannot be legitimately useful for illustrating a word’s meaning. When a husband is “in the doghouse,” etymological origin creates a helpfully picturesque image of the metaphorical meaning of that expression. The same can be true of biblical words, like ekklesia.
The etymology of ekklesia involves a combination of kaleo (to call) and ek (out).* So when a preacher says, “The word ekklesia comes from two Greek words meaning ‘to call [someone] out,’ so the word ‘church’ means a body of believers called out from the world by God”–that’s the etymological fallacy. Usage determines meaning, not etymology.
But when a preacher merely calls attention to a word’s etymology, or suggests that a word’s meaning is consistent with its etymology, or even uses the word’s etymology to help explain or illustrate a word’s meaning–that’s not the etymological fallacy. And the zealous, youthful reader of Exegetical Fallacies who smugly sniffs, “Pshaw, I’m not listening to him; he just committed the etymological fallacy” would, himself, be guilty of a Fallacy Fallacy.
The problem is, even though the first preacher’s definition is linguistically invalid, it’s actually an excellent definition exegetically and theologically. When you combine (1) the NT’s use of ekklesia as the prime designation for a body of believers (why did God choose that particular word?), plus (2) the prominence of
That’s not quite the same as saying that the word ekklesia means a called out body of believers. In nearly all its NT usages ekklesia means an assembly of believers, whether local or universal, gathered or scattered. The difference between a lexical definition and a theological definition, and the valid basis for each, may be a fine line to walk; but the distinction is an important one. And even the etymology of ekklesia can be useful, not for defining but for illustrating or even explaining the reality of the NT ekklesia’s character and identity.
SEMANTIC OBSOLESCENCE FALLACY FALLACY
Greg’s discussion of demetaphorizing is, in some ways, related to what Exegetical Fallacies calls the semantic obsolescence fallacy–assigning a meaning for a word based on an earlier, obsolete usage that’s not within the live semantic range of the word at the time of writing. Let me (if I may demetaphorize) take a shot at illustrating this.
Greg and I share a keen appreciation for the writings of humorist Pat McManus. In his loosely autobiographical stories about his youth, McManus’s standard sobriquet for his older sister is “The Troll.” He later lamented his use of that nickname–not because he felt bad for his sister, but because he was afraid that his original intent in choosing that title was lost on many of his readers. The image he intended by “The Troll” was not that of a mischievous dwarf, but Beowulf’s rampaging monster, Grendel the troll.
That example illustrates the semantic obsolescence fallacy in reverse. The chronological distance between McManus and Beowulf is so great, few if any readers would ever have suspected that he was actually alluding to a specific, obscure, fictional creature in ancient literature over a thousand years before he lived and wrote. The only reason we know he was referencing Beowulf is because he says so in a later essay. Should that essay ever be lost to posterity (perish the thought!), future interpreters of McManus would likely assume the wrong referent. “Clearly,” I can hear them opining, “McManus couldn’t possibly have such an obscure and ancient reference in mind; Beowulf’s ‘Grendel’ was almost certainly not within the live semantic range of the vast majority of English readers in McManus’s day.” And you know what? They’d be right. And wrong.
The Achilles’ heel of the semantic obsolescence fallacy, it seems to me, is (a) the dubious assumption that we can determine with reasonable certainty the “live” semantic range of a word in another language two thousand years ago, and (b) the erroneous assumption that a writer would never choose a word specifically because of the distinctive nuance of an obsolete sense or referent–like McManus did. Semantic obsolescence may, in some cases, be no more than semantic somnolescence.
(I have a theory about the verb
All that to say, (1) Greg’s right: “We must ponder whether a word has been ‘demetaphorized’ by the time the biblical authors use the word in the first century, or if it still retains its metaphorical meaning.” And ponder carefully. Beware of seemingly logical but uncertain assumptions about readers halfway around the world two thousand years ago. And (2) Paul may or may not have had specific metaphorical images in mind; but even if he didn’t, that doesn’t mean the metaphors can’t be legitimately useful in illustrating the more prosaic sense. It’s important to differentiate defining a word’s meaning and illustrating a word’s meaning. For some people, some metaphors continue to carry stubbornly vivid images. (“Are you gonna fish or cut bait?”) Just because we don’t (like Greg’s wife) remark on those images when they’re used doesn’t necessarily mean those metaphors have completely kicked the bucket.
*Indeed, in it’s original usage the noun referred to “a regularly convoked assembly” (OED). “Convoke” means “to call together” or “to summon to assemble.” In other words, ekklesia originally meant “a called-out assembly” not merely in terms of etymology but in terms of actual usage, though it eventually came to be used of a gathering of people whether there was any formal summons or not (like in Acts 19).
Photo Credit: Isaac Talbert