Coherence fallacy

Thinking that having good exegesis automatically makes good theology

Exegesis is a term used to describe the process of taking meaning “out of” the text. When we exegete Scripture, the implication is that we are using a method of hermeneutic that values understanding the authorial intent of the passage in order to derive its true meaning (often called “authorial intent hermeneutic” or “historical-grammatical interpretation”). In other words, exegesis attempts to understand the meaning of the text on its own terms. To properly exegete Scripture we must understand many things about the individual book. Among other things, we must seek to understand the purpose for the writing (the occasion), the audience, the cultural and historic backgrounds, linguistic issues such as syntax, word usage, and contextual boundaries, type of literature (genre), and attitude and personality of the author. All of these factors come into play with a good exegete. There is nothing more important, as we will see, than having good exegesis. God does not speak to man outside of the vital role represented by the human author. As Kevin Vanhoozer states in The Dictionary of the Theological Interpretation of the Bible, “We may legitimately presume that the divine intention corresponds to the human intention unless there is good reason—given the nature of God or the broader canonical context—to think otherwise” (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2005, 329).

Having said that, it is important to realize that good exegesis does not automatically produce good theology. Exegesis deals primarily with temporal meaning, theology, on the other hand, deals with eternal implications. Exegesis provides what it meant then, theology provides what it means for all time. Exegesis shows what an individual author had to say in the context in which he was writing, theology synthesizes this with the rest of Scripture attempting to understand what God was saying in relation to the completed revelation. In other words, exegesis looks at the trees, theology looks at the forest.

Evangelicals believe in what is called the dual authorship of Scripture, believing that the Bible is the product of God (being theopneustos “God-breathed” 2 Tim. 3:16) who fully utilized man in all ways to produce an inspired text. While this utilization of man makes solid exegesis indispensable for theology, we cannot get so caught up in temporal exegesis that we do not see this in relation to the coherent whole. If God is the ultimate author of Scripture, there must be an underlying coherent purpose in which the text lies. This assumption of coherence leads one to the next steps in interpretation.

The first is the discovery of the broader theological teaching in which the present passage fits in the progress of revelation. This is often described as the “canonical context.” It asks the question “How much did the individual author know at the time of his writing and how does this help to understand the teaching at hand?” This assumes that not all authors have complete revelation. In other words, some authors knew more about God’s ultimate purpose than others. No one would disagree that Paul had a greater understanding of, for example, the Gospel, the grace of God, nature of the Trinity, and the universal sinfulness of man than did Moses who wrote 2500 years earlier or Abraham who lived 4500 years earlier. This does no injustice to the teachings of Moses or Abraham, it simply recognizes that prophets, while inspired, were not omniscient. They simply had the information that was necessary for their part in the revelatory whole. As the Chicago Statement of Biblical Inerrancy states: “We affirm that inspiration, though not conferring omniscience, guaranteed true and trustworthy utterance on all matters of which the Biblical authors were moved to speak and write.” The Bible is true without conveying “omniscience” upon the individual authors. Therefore, when we exegete a particular author, we must understand that he can provide us with a teaching that is true and limited at the same time. Its truth adds to the fuller truth of that which is revealed elsewhere in the canon. This canonical approach to interpretation can be neglected by well intentioned exegetes who may have the tendency to focus only on the value of the immediate argument or teaching at hand, and thereby commit the coherence fallacy.

Another important hermeneutical concept that can be neglected by exegetes is called the analogy of Scripture. Simply put the analogy of Scripture means “the Scripture interprets Scripture.” It is often used synonymously with the canonical approach concept, but is distinct in that it is a way in which the canonical approach is accomplished. The canonical approach deals with a hermeneutical philosophy that the different books of Scripture fall somewhere within a coherent whole that creates a theological system, while the analogy of Scripture seeks to interpret the part based upon the whole. For example, we read of the curse upon the snake in Eden:

“And I will put hostility between you and the woman and between your offspring and her offspring; her offspring will attack your head, and you will attack her offspring’s heel.” (Gen 3:15)

Concerning this passage a good exegete would tell you that the text does not tell us, based upon authorial intent hermeneutics, who the snake was or what the curse meant. Moses himself probably had no idea of the full implications of this passage. To the Israelites residing in the land of Canaan who initially received this account, having no other revelation to compare this event to, it probably amounted to an obscure hope. Understanding this would be necessary for our understanding of the situation of the time and is vital to proper exegesis of the passage. But we cannot stop there. With the assumption that this passage is a part of a canonical whole superintended by God, we would take the next step in our interpretive process and seek to find if there is further revelation about this curse throughout the rest of Scripture that helps clarify and advance what, if left alone, is obscurity. Later in Scripture we are told that the snake was Satan (Rev. 12:7-9 and the overriding theme of the consistent enmity that Satan enacts with humanity) and his defeat, being “attacked on the head,” was enacted at the cross and will be fully realized in the eschaton (Lk. 10:18; Rom. 16:20; Heb. 2:14; 1 Jn. 3:8).

It is an unfortunate thing when we get so bogged down in the meaning of the text, trying to understand what the text meant, and lose sight of the big picture question “What does it mean?” Often, we can become such good exegetes that we forget to put the pieces of the puzzle together to form a coherent whole. Vanhoozer continues concerning this, “Recognizing Scripture’s divine authorship ultimately requires us to the read the biblical text as one book. As with any action, we can adequately identify what has been done in Scripture only by considering its action as a whole. The divine intention must come to light when God’s communicative acts are described in canonical context” (ibid.).

This fallacy often incarnates itself in the form of a more specific fallacy called the “proof-text fallacy.” One form of the proof-text fallacy simply strings together many out-of-context passages in an attempt to confirm a theological mandate or teaching. This is often committed by those who are committed to the inspiration of Scripture, but fail to recognize the role that man plays in the immediate intent behind Scripture. The second type of proof-texting, and the one that concerns our present purpose, comes from those who neglect the implications of inspiration, focusing on the author at hand. In other words, it can be committed by exegetes focused only on the authorial intent of the immediate text. This proof-text fallacy essentially takes one portion of Scripture and uses it as an autonomous proof-text for a dogmatic assertion. This can be illustrated by the infamous statement of James in James 2:24:

“You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.”

Someone might say that this passage teaches that justification is not by faith alone, but by works as well. If interpreted outside of the canonical whole, this passage could be used to support this teaching. But when its canonical context is considered, we find that such a conclusion is based upon hasty autonomous proof-texting that does not take into consideration the broader theological teaching of the whole of Scripture. Among others, Paul seems to state just the opposite in many of his letters. Most specifically and clearly this is seen in his letter to the Romans.

For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.” (Rom. 3:28)

Understanding that the Jews did not separate between any so-called moral Law and the Mosaic Law (Matt. 22:37-40), one would be hard pressed to distinguish between the “works” that James was speaking of and the “works of the Law” that Paul was speaking of; they are one and the same. In other words, Paul could have just as well said that we are justified by faith apart from (choris, “without relation to”) works period! But he used the Law to illustrate the most virtuous embodiment of works that was known to the Jewish people. Using the analogy of Scripture, the canonical process, in conjunction with an authorial intent hermeneutic, these passages can be reconciled. First we must recognize the purpose of the writing. Paul’s purpose is clearly stated in the prologue to his letter. He sought to give a clear presentation of the Gospel to those who were in Rome, a city to which he had never been (Rom. 1:11-15). Knowing that Paul had never been to Rome and that his purpose was to lay out the working of Christ in a large influential metropolitan area, we understand that this was not a letter in response to any problem that he sought to correct. He was not reprimanding the Romans in any way. His passions are guided by his passion for the Gospel, not based upon any chaotic circumstance which had initiated the letter. Therefore, we would expect his writing to be more objective in argumentation. We would expect Paul to be able to systematically lay out his argument concerning the Gospel unimpeded by frustration or anger. It is because of these reasons that the book of Romans forms the greatest theological treatise in the whole of Scripture. James, on the other hand, was writing to circumstances all together different than Paul’s. James is writing in response to abuse in the church. His tone is more pastoral and his passions are based upon the desire to correct these abuses rather than give an objective presentation of the Gospel, like that of Paul. There were “brethren” to whom he was writing who were showing favoritism in the church setting (Jam. 2:1). This causes James to have a tone of frustration and often sarcasm as he writes. Angered by the fact that these people were evidently claiming that they could neglect people of the basic needs in life and still claim to have faith in Christ, he responds that faith without works is a dead faith that cannot save.

What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,’ and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself. (Jam. 2:15-17)

Imagine people who call themselves Christians not helping those who are in need when they have every means to meet their needs, claiming “I don’t need to help this person since I am saved by faith alone and not by feeding the hungry.” That they were claiming this is evident by James’ rhetoric. Maybe they had heard Paul’s teaching on salvation by faith alone. Maybe they had heard James himself give a similar lesson. But in the process, this doctrine was abused and misapplied to the point where James explicitly says that salvation is not by faith alone using Abraham as an illustration (note: the same Abraham that Paul used to illustrate the opposite in Romans 4!).

You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.” (James 2:24)

As was said before, if this passage in James were taken out of the canonical context, we could go either way with it. But, understanding the clear and more objective teachings of Paul, we understand this passage in a different light. We see that James, frustratingly writes to people who are abusing the true doctrine of justification by faith alone in order to justify their sin. The entire context presents James as one who believes that true faith will always produce works. He says in verse 18, “But someone may well say, ‘You have faith and I have works;’ show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works.’” So, his purpose is not to objectively lay out the Gospel message of salvation, but the practical message of what true faith will accomplish, which is a changed life. Knowing this, it is understandable why James would seemingly counter Paul saying that man is justified by works and not by faith alone. I am a pastor, and I can see the need for such an exhortation. If the situation presented itself where my people where neglecting the needs of others claiming the doctrine of justification by faith alone as an excuse, I would have every right and obligation to question the validity of their faith. I might even go so far as to tell the people, like James, “You think your faith saves you? Well let me tell you, faith does not count if it does not produce works, because the kind of faith God gives will always produces works. You think you are justified by faith alone? You are not!” The context would determine the meaning. In the broader “canonical” context of my life, others would know very well that I believe in justification by faith alone. They would know this from other teachings that I had given them over the years. But this perspective that I add through my frustrated exhortation would be that true faith always works, and the type of faith that you claim to have alone will not save. Knowing the whole of my teaching and doing an “analogy of Michael” would explain perfectly well what I meant and there would be no contradiction, just different emphasis and perspective based upon the situation. In short, a canonical approach to Scripture helps us to understand that the Bible teaches, as the saying goes, that justification is by faith alone, but the faith that saves will not be alone. But we could never come to this theological big picture conclusion if we did not employ both the authorial intent hermeneutic along with the canonical approach to Scripture. That is why this type of autonomous proof-texting is so dangerous. We must understand that the divine authorship of Scripture demands a systematic coherency.

This coherency fallacy is understandable for those who reject the divine inspiration of Scripture since they do not believe that God was superintending the writing of Scripture, but it is inexcusable for those who believe that God is the ultimate author of the entirety of Scripture. That is why it is so important to keep the big picture in front of you at all times. To help avoid this fallacy, I would suggest keeping up with a “thru the Bible in a year” program (without losing interest after month three!) at the same time as studying individual books exegetically. This will force you to synthesize what is being said with what has been said and what will be said no matter what book you are studying. It will help you to see the beautiful tapestry of Scripture at that same time as struggling through the inherent tensions that exist. In short, never sacrifice good exegesis, but spend more time thinking about the implications of your interpretation in relation to the rest of God’s word and his world before formulating a dogmatic theology upon one exegeted text. We need to see studying less as reading the part and more as thinking about the whole in order to avoid this first fallacy.

C Michael Patton
C Michael Patton

C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo House Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger. Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I'm a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. Find him everywhere: Find him everywhere

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