The second week of my Greek syntax & exegesis class, we had a discussion on D.A. Carson’s classic work, Exegetical Fallacies.One particular fallacy and point that I mentioned in class was Carson’s idea of distanciation.Our discussion was helpful and clarifying, and this post is some the result of some continued reflection on the idea of distanciation.I did a cursory look to see if I could find any more elaboration on distanciation to no avail, not even in the nice Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible or other exegetical books.I would have to say that the lack of distanciation is one of the lesser known exegetical fallacies, so to give it some exposure would, in my mind, be a worthy endeavor.
Let me make a caveat here: You do not have to be a Greek student to appreciate sound exegesis.If you believe in the sufficiency of Scripture and want to build your life and teaching on sound doctrine, then proper exegesis is absolutely imperative, regardless whether you have been formally trained at seminary level or studying the original languages.However, if you are (in seminary and studying original languages), then the imperative is all the more pressing as you are being equipped for, and bear the responsibility to, the sound exposition of God’s Word.
What Is Distanciation?
In his book, Carson actually does not define distanciation, at least not directly.What he does share in his book is the necessity of distanciation and the dangers of the absence of it through the story of “Ernest Christian”—a seminary student undergoing the process of distanciation.As he leads into the story, Carson writes:
“The fundamental danger with all critical study of the Bible lies in what hermeneutical experts call distanciation.Distanciation is a necessary component of critical work; but is difficult and sometimes costly” (23).
The fallacy that comes from the omission of distanciation has to do with an interpreter’s inability to distance himself from his presuppositions in the interpretive process and discerning the meaning of the text.We all have presuppositions which are simply beliefs or convictions we hold prior to handling the text (also called apriori convictions or control beliefs).Having presuppositions is not bad, of course, but what is detrimental and fallacious is when we use our presuppositions to influence our interpretation and alter the meaning of the text.Carson explains,
“If we sometimes read our own theology into the text, the solution is not to retreat to an attempted neutrality, to try to make one’s mind a tabula rasa so we may listen to the text without bias.It cannot be done, and it is a fallacy to think it can be.We must rather discern what our prejudices are and make allowances for them; and meanwhile we should learn all the historical theology we can” (129).
Essentially speaking, the consequences that comes from the omission of distinction is the dreaded practice of eisegesis—the subjective approach of the interpreter which forces the Bible to mean something that fits their existing belief (presupposition) or understanding of a particular issue or doctrine (i.e. reading into the text one’s own ideas).While often times the eisegetical work seen today is due to a defensive pietism or uncritical anti-intellectualism, eisegesis also is practiced among intelligent and well-equipped ministers, who either intentionally do not distance themselves from their presuppositions or simply fail to see text due to a skewed lens (apriori commitments) which affect their ability to see the text as it was intended by the author.
The difficulty with distanciation comes when one does not realize one’s presuppositions or neglects their influence in eclipsing the truth of God’s Word with the overshadowing effect of his tightly held convictions.To practice distanciation in the process of interpretation, one must begin by acknowledging one’s prior convictions and then distance himself from them in order to allow the text to speak for itself.Carson explains that “we must first of all grasp the nature and degree of the differences that separate our understanding from the understanding of the text” (24).This process becomes quite disturbing and discomforting, but intellectual virtue and critical study demands that the interpreter be open, honest, and thorough in the work of exegesis.A closed-minded, biased interpreter will find their exegesis to be a reflection more on their personal theology than the text itself—a fallacy which can be found in every theological camp.
Another aspect of the difficulty and even danger in distanciation is how it affects you as a student of the Scripture.As you adapt a critical and careful study of the text, you can easily find yourself examining it merely for the acquisition of nuances and intellectual precision and fail to realize that the purpose of interpretation is to lead to a greater love and devotion to God.In other words, distanciation can, if not guarded, cause a student to treat the Bible as a textbook only and fall short of understanding that the purpose of sound exegesis should translate into heightened affection for and deepened devotion to Jesus Christ, the Living Word.
In a follow-up post, I will share two ditches to avoid as well as some benefits from the work of distanciation.Presupppositional fallacies arising from the omission of distanciation in the interpretive process is rampant today in preaching and teaching, and it is my hope that as this fallacy is addressed, we would give due diligence to be workmen who are not ashamed as we seek to rightly divide the word of truth. While there are some real dangers and difficulties in the process of distanciation, the consequences from omitting distanciation is even greater as many of the false and heretical teachings can, at some point, be chalked up to an interpreter who failed to present the text in its truest and fullest light.