By Oswald Sobrino, J.D.; M.A. (Econ.); M.A. (Theo.); M.L. (Master of Latin), doctoral student, University of Florida.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Exegetical and Other Fallacies

A good friend lent me evangelical biblical scholar D.A. Carson's book on exegetical fallacies (2nd ed.), that is, fallacies in biblical interpretation. I recommend it. I was also pleased to see that Carson relied twice on the work of Jesuit Fr. Maximilian Zerwick, an expert on biblical Greek, whose Grammatical Analysis of the Greek New Testament I sometimes use. Here are some of my reactions to the book:

1. We need books like these, whether we are reading the Bible or liturgical documents or papal encyclicals, even if we are reading secular texts. For we are all in danger of committing these fallacies. It is easy to commit them. Carson discusses word-study (etymological) fallacies, logical fallacies, grammatical fallacies (a little bit of knowledge can be very dangerous when it comes to Greek grammar), fallacies stemming from our presuppositions, and fallacies in historical reasoning. As Carson notes, if we can be saved from committing any of these fallacies or simply become somewhat more vigilant about them, the book has accomplished its purpose.

2. Yet, as a Catholic reading this book full of examples of fallacious and conflicting interpretations of the Bible, I am more convinced than ever that the chaos of biblical interpretations that has spawned thousands of denominations points to one essential thing: we do need a doctrinal Tradition to guide our interpretations or at least set the outer boundaries and limits of our interpretations. The quibbles of scholars over the very same Scripture verses indicate that, without the parameters of a Christian Tradition (especially the parameters of the historic Creeds of Christianity), we are left with a profusion of conflicting opinions on a wide range of issues and few certainties that we can hold in common. We as Christians need a teaching authority--the unworthy Catholics have received it through the Petrine ministry. A text needs an authoritative, final interpreter; or else any individual interpreter can argue that the line ought to be drawn at a different place, and no one can logically deny him the right to do so.

3. Finally, I was happy to read the book after writing my series on liturgical fallacies concerning the ordinary form of the Mass. The book reminded me of some the fallacies that I tried to expose, fallacies that float around without challenge among too many on the theological right who consider themselves "super-Catholic."

Let me give one example of the logical fallacy underlying one of the false myths about the ordinary form of the Mass that followed Vatican II. Many on the internet and elsewhere follow a causal fallacy about the ordinary form, namely, that, because the ordinary form arose as the ordinary or normal form of the Mass after Vatican II, the ordinary form represents a rupture from or an illegitimate development of the Mass of all ages.

Well, an examination of what the Catechism calls the "Mass of all ages" (in contrast to what traditionalists, with a small "t," call the "Mass of all ages") indicates that the ordinary form is simply a restored version of the fundamentals of the Mass--just as restoring an old, obscured, smoky but extremely valuable and beautiful mural clarifies the original rather than creates a completely new and different art work from scratch.

Yet, many live by the fallacy that, just because this restored form of the Mass arose after Vatican II, this  restored form was invented whole cloth by Vatican II or shortly thereafter. Two causal fallacies are involved here: post hoc, propter hoc (after this, because of this) and cum hoc, propter hoc (with/during this, because of this). The first causal fallacy states that, because something came after X, then X is the cause of it. The second causal fallacy states that, because something is correlated with X, then X caused it.

Simply because this liturgical restoration, the ordinary form, arose after Vatican II does not mean that the ordinary form was invented from scratch by Vatican II. Or, if some feel that the alleged "liturgical betrayal" happened, more precisely, in the aftermath of Vatican II, then we see the other causal fallacy: just because something was restored during the aftermath of Vatican II when many things went wrong (and also when many things went right) does not mean that it was invented from scratch during the aftermath of Vatican II.

The bottom-line is that the unstated assumption held by many is that the ordinary form was created out of the blue by Vatican II or created out of the blue in the aftermath of Vatican II.  That unstated assumption needs to be proven, not assumed. In my judgment, the Church's living magisterium clearly and officially teaches that this unstated assumption is profoundly and radically wrong. I would add that, in my personal opinion, this unstated assumption even borders on the blasphemous.