Thursday, October 7, 2010

The Worst Possible Exegesis

When does Sola Scriptura really matter? We all use scripture and tradition and many other sources of revelation. When something rings true to us do we use Sola Scriptura. Not really. We embrace what is said because it connects with our thinking, with our instincts. It does not make it true. Something can resonate with us very powerfully and still be false. In fact, that is when Sola Scriptura really matters. When we somehow embrace falsehood very strongly and really resist being corrected by God. That is when we must not follow our heart but must follow God's word.

But what happens when we read something in scripture and we really hate it? When we don't want to accept it as  God's word? We look at other interpretations. Could it be a translation issue? Maybe the context makes it seem to say something it really doesn't. Either I am wrong or God is wrong or there is another way to exegete this passage. Guess which one is the easiest to accept? So you look around for an alternative exegesis. If there is one that allows you to retain your preferred theology that is going to be irresistible to you.

So when does scripture end up changing your wrong thinking? Only when scripture is clear even assuming the worst possible exegesis of the passage. Is it really that bad? Let's take an example. Suppose you have a woman who feels in her heart the call to be a pastor. How clear does scripture have to be before she will accept that God's word is against female pastors? If there is anyone anywhere teaching that it is OK that is going to be pretty attractive to her. Conversely, suppose somebody felt strongly in their heart that women should not be pastors. How clear would scripture have to be before they would accept that God's word is in favor of female pastors? The point is when we feel strongly about an issue we are willing to embrace the worst possible exegesis rather than accept that our feelings are opposed to God's word.

What has happened in recent years is we have gotten a lot better at doing bad exegesis. Part of it has to do with mass media making many theologians accessible to people outside their tradition. Part of it has to do with the academic world encouraging very liberal theology. The number of strange theologies that are defended as biblical in a fairly reasonable manner by a respected scholar has grown immensely. Just about any belief you want to accept has a ready-made biblical defense published somewhere. Sola Scriptura has no way to rule any of them out of bounds.

We have sinful hearts. We can become firmly convinced that right is wrong and wrong is right. That is when we need God's word desperately. Scripture alone with the worst possible exegesis is not going to be good enough. Maybe we believe our hearts won't go there. We might have tradition in our subconscious and we are convinced we won't embrace error like that. That may or may not be so. But what about your children? Or your grandchildren? Will they have the same instincts about God's truth embedded in their thinking? What will protect them from the worst possible exegesis?


  1. If it weren't for this "exegesis" there would be an even greater dissent from the church than there already is in US and around the world. It is a widespread belief that religion is the basis for morality. Its on the strength of that belief that people cling to their religious beliefs. Even more so on that strength its why people believe religion is necessary. In reality however our social Mores have been changing consistently throughout the last two centuries. These views are indeed more liberal as the article states. How can this be, if as pointed out in the article society is more liberal, yet people think religion is the basis of morality who is wrong? Most of you will answer this by saying that society has or is losing its way because of less participation in the church. On the contrary we are becoming a greater moral society all the time. It wasn’t that long ago that scripture justified slavery, was used to condemn divorce, or prevent women from having all the rights of men. Only in these examples can we maybe have an objective enough of a perspective to see how the bible is wrong. Most would agree that slavery is wrong, or women should have the right to vote? But ask someone whether gays should be allowed to get married and as a society we are split. Why is this current issue any different than the rest? Why don’t modern day theists believe as their ancestors did with regards to the issues of the past slavery, women’s rights, polygamy, the list goes on and on? Is it concerning to you that someday gay marriage will be commonplace, and that they may be welcomed into the church as divorcees are today? I would argue that it’s only through what you would call "bad exegesis" that we keep people from totally rejecting the bible in today’s culture. Maybe you would agree that if people really only used 'good exegesis' to interpret the bible their views wouldn’t change? But without that adaptability how many people would still be followers? After all it was the church who saw the dollars and cents of what condemning large portions of their congregation they may loose in condemning divorce. So bad exegesis is actually the way that religion keeps a grip on society. Good exegesis is used to argue against the social issue of its time until finally enlightenment wins out at which point the church just simply changes its view employing the same ‘bad exegesis’ you speak of. Surely there is no interpretation other than slavery is ok when you read Lev. 25:44-46?

    1. Thanks for the comment Carl. There are two issues here.

      1. How do we determine God's word?
      2. Do we want to obey God?

      If you do a really good job at answering #1 you make #2 harder. If you know for sure what God is asking then we have no choice but to obey or reject Christianity. You argue that many would choose rejection. You may be right.

      What I see is is many doing a lousy job at #1 and that makes #2 easier. We can pick and choose what form of Christianity we want. The trouble is that serving God when you don't really know what He wants from you is rather pointless. Eventually people notice this and reject Christianity anyway. It is a losing game.

      The only way Christianity can win is to give a definitive answer to #1 and get it right. That is to provide wisdom and virtue that simply can't be found in the secular world.

      Your view of the moral history of the west is interesting. I don't agree with it but I won't get into details here. I will ask if we can take a wrong step in becoming a "greater moral society?" If we do, how will we know? What is the measure of moral goodness? Why can mankind get sidetracked into evil?

      God bless you.

  2. There are several theories that can account for why mankind can get "sidetracked" into evil. This issues as well as the origins of morality continue to be the one of the sticking points in the debate of whether religion is necessary in culture. However as easily as the idea of sin can account for people acting 'evil' or perhaps a less rhetorical adverb, selfishly, so too can a Darwinian explanation.

    However I don't want to go down that road. Id really like to explore more of some of the original questions I posed. Do you indeed think slavery is ok? Or will you assert that I am somehow interpreting those verses wrong? I think it would take nothing less than, as you called it "bad exegesis" or eisegesis, to interpret it any other way. Do you believe that a task as casual as gathering sticks on a Sunday merits execution? Should a women be stoned to death if she is found to not be a virgin on the day of her wedding, Deuteronomy 22:20-21? There are other examples I could cite as well but for the sake of the argument Id like to keep the scope narrow enough to have some type of productive dialogue. Which brings me to my next point. And that is that open conversation, a humility in knowing that you indeed don't know everything, and the pursuit of truth are good things. Science vs religion aside, those ideals in a few short centuries have brought about the enlightenment of the 19th century and the industrial revolution 20th century, greatly improving the quality of life not just in westernized countries but throughout the world. Religion however doesn’t promote those things. It stifles the sort of investigative approach to the world that I alluded to one that again is unequivocally good and has led to nearly all of the progress made by humanity.

    1. I replied in a new post

  3. Its seems to me that your argument has put you and anyone else who argues for the bible in a corner. You seem to subscribe to Revealed Exegesis, or that the bible was inspired by the holy spirit. The other type of exegesis is Rational Exegesis, in which its believed the authors had their own inspiration and therefore are a product of their time and environment. Personally I don’t see the difference between rational exegesis and exigesis. IM not even sure that there is such a think as true Exegesis to begin with. Its impossible to read something and not make some amount of subjective interpretation of it. Words aren’t written in absolutes. They always have and they always will fail to perfectly convey the near infinite complexity of human thought let along the complexity of the will of god. It is for that reason that I as a young child first started to question whether god would, could, or really did reveal himself to us through the bible or any other so called religious text. Even if you could then you are forced to commit to the now clearly ancient mores and beliefs some of which are clearly in contrast with what we call moral today. This type of thinking is homophobic, patriarchal, genocidal and in stark contrast to the loving message most try to take from religion. Again this is the reason for people subscribing to a more rational exegesis of the bible. The problem here of course is you get people who take it too far, who can justify any cause with the bible.
    that article was written by walter wink who is a professor of biblical interpretation, and he says “the crux of the matter, It seems to me, quite simply is that the bible has no sexual ethic”. Or Ken Wilson the evangelical pastor who recently made a case for LGBT rights! Obviously we cant know what god wants for us if we allow people such free reign on what the bible is meaning to say. I am sure I could just as easily find another biblical doctor to find a quite different interpretation.

    To quote Charles dawkins on the god of the old testament:

    “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully”

    Most people have the luxury of ignoring much of this in the old testament, they advocate the loving showed by jesus. But if you truly want to take the bible at face value, and you reject as I am sure you do conclusions like Ken Wilson, and Walter Winks, aren’t you left to support this unequivacolly?