Let’s get right to it: I’d like you to consider an increasingly widespread problem of poor interpretation of Scripture.
I refer to colleagues who seem to disregard Scripture when it disagrees with the modern culture. You see it more and more in our denomination, especially around the convening of General Conference.
Every seminarian was once taught that Scripture is the shaper of culture and life, not the other way around.
Naturally, I’m a little worried about colleagues who try to read some sort of approval for one thing or another out of the voices of early Christianity when we have centuries of interpretation to show otherwise. I’m especially concerned when the argument is made from poor exegesis, or interpretation of Scripture.
In Biblical exegesis, the opposite of exegesis (to draw out) is eisegesis (to draw in), in the sense of an eisegetic commentator “importing” or “drawing in” his or her own purely subjective interpretations in to the text, unsupported by the text itself.
An Eisegetic Example
A couple of days ago, an opinion piece appeared at the United Methodist Portal. I read through retired pastor Rev. William McElvaney’s comments on the misplaced emphasis on Discipline rather than discipleship.
I wasn’t surprised to hear that he felt that we needed to focus more on God’s grace than on judgement. He went on to say that there are far more passages about God’s love than verses about sexual sin, among others.
His opening paragraphs utilize a great deal of rhetoric to attack the wording in the Book of Discipline. He makes a good case for eliminating — or tightening — the language regarding incompatibility. Should it be “Christian teaching” or “Jesus Christ?”
That’s a different blog post. The problem I have with the article comes near the end. Clearly, Rev. McElvaney is lobbying for a change. I fear that his interpretation of Scripture has been affected by his opinions instead of the other way around. Read his last few paragraphs closely, and you will find that he is trading the term “grace” for a more important term: Atonement.
But before he does this, he attempts to stack God’s radical love against a few statements against immoral sexual behavior.
The ranking of a few statements by Paul above all the persuasive and powerful texts related to God’s radical love through Jesus Christ can hardly qualify as serious biblical inquiry and authority.
The bad news here is that they aren’t mutually exclusive. And I was gravely concerned about why Rev. McElvaney thought that they were. A few lines down, and I found the flaw in his theological argument.
A Wrong Understanding of Grace
With all due respect, Rev. McElvaney has made the mistake of thinking that grace is what overcomes sin. Atonement is what overcomes sin. Grace is what made it, and continues to make it available. Without grace, we could not be forgiven.
John Wesley believed that “nothing in the Christian system is of greater consequence than the doctrine of atonement” (Letter to the Reverend Mr. Law, Jan. 6, 1756). And yet, many churches spend far more time on grace than atonement these days. Wesley understood that Christ died to satisfy the wrath of God, and he held that the purpose of Christ’s death was the restoration of man’s relationship with God. We don’t hear about that much. I suppose it makes for bad press and poor reception by the public.
McElvaney provides this misuse of grace as a description for atonement by saying:
To be profoundly biblical from a Christian standpoint is to give prominence and priority to texts in which Jesus lifts up God’s unconditional and inclusive grace.
There is no question that Wesley comprehended an atonement that was universal in nature. No sin can prevent God’s grace. There is no one, anywhere, who has sinned to the extent that they cannot be forgiven, period.
But it has to be received. What does that mean?
Grace makes atonement available, but it does not make it mandatory. In other words, grace is hardly unconditional. Repenting of sin is the requirement, made possible by Christ’s atoning sacrifice and available to all through God’s grace.
To be clear, I’m sure that we all agree on God’s inclusive grace. There is no sin that can separate us from the love of God. And God’s grace is offered unconditionally. We can’t earn it. We can’t deserve it. That’s the nature of grace. For some Scripture to back that up, just read this:
“4But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, 5he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, 6whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, 7so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.” — Titus 3:4-7
However, we can reject God’s grace and thus the atonement that comes through it. Take a look at this:
14 Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord. 15 See to it that no one falls short of the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many. 16 See that no one is sexually immoral, or is godless like Esau, who for a single meal sold his inheritance rights as the oldest son.
My understanding of Wesleyan Arminian theology is that our justification is dependent upon repentance. Metanoia is the Greek word, meaning a change in one’s thinking and thus behavior.
While I accept and understand the notion of unconditional love and inclusive grace, I cannot find grounds to accept unconditional grace. There are no preconditions, to be sure. But there are some expectations that follow.
“4It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, 5who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age, 6if they fall away, to be brought back to repentance, because to their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace.” — Hebrews 6:4-6
Technically, that’s not one of God’s conditions. That condition falls upon us.
Rev. McElvaney has made the common mistake of applying grace for atonement. I’ll admit that the difference is subtle, but not for someone who has studied theology as all Elders of our denomination are required to do.
A Simple Mistake
From what I can tell, this confusion about “universal and unlimited grace” and “limited, post-conditional atonement” is brought on by the driving need to give a growing crowd what they want. It does not come from Wesleyan principles. It cannot be found in our doctrine. It is absent from Scripture, insofar as we currently read it as a denomination. If there is another way to read it, then by all means, share it. How has grace superceded atonement?
Unfortunately, he has provided no grounds for interpreting Scripture differently. At best, he has alluded to the fact that that Scripture might not be speaking to monogamous, loving, homosexual relationships — although that assertion bears the taint of eisegesis.
In other words, the arguments I am hearing are based on eisegesis of Scripture — under the sway of popular opinion. Rev. McElvaney points out that other denominations are pursuing this mindset “have caused no great departure.” So popular opinion should be considered here?
Hardly. That is exactly what eisegesis is.
noun, plural -ses ?[-seez]
an interpretation, especially of Scripture, that expresses the interpreter’s own ideas, bias, or the like, rather than the meaning of the text.
Two Major Problems
Theologians make mistakes. We do it all too often. Here, we are finding two major theological mistakes. Whether offering salvation without requiring repentance, or interpreting scripture so as to ignore sin, we are making a mockery of our faith and a shambles of God’s Word.
Salvation without repentance is cheap grace and makes a joke of the crucifixion. But this is what we offer when we appeal to the “grace passages” over and against the passages where sin is condemned. When we claim grace and assert that God is going to continually reapply forgiveness for a repeated sin, we crucify Christ again and again.
“1 What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? 2 By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” — Romans 6:1-2
We must stop ignoring behaviors that God prohibits. And before anyone cries out that this is a misbegotten focus on sexual sins, I would be glad to point out that I spend far more time on strife, jealousy, angry tempers, disputes, slanders, gossip, arrogance, and disturbances as per the admonition in 2 Corinthians 12:20. I find that in the church far more often than sexual sin.
And I’m often surprised to hear that I’m the first pastor to take a stance on any of these sins. Perhaps that is the problem, more than any focus on homosexuality. A fine argument could be made that we have softened our stance on practically every sin.
The Ubiquitous Specter of Eisegesis
The core of the problem is the practice of allowing the views of society to color the interpretation of Scripture. Theologians simply cannot rewrite the meaning of Scripture to meet the needs of modern culture.
The Bible says what it says. It applies where it applies.
I suppose that where Scripture is silent, we could always maintain silence as well. Except that there is a howling culture out there demanding an answer. In fact, many of them are already manufacturing an answer.
Make the Move
Though Scripture is plain spoken on the issue of homosexuality, a growing number of theologians are convinced that what the Bible calls homosexuality is not the same as the “long-term consensual same-gender loving relationships so prevalent today,” as Rev. McElvaney puts it.
If that means that Scripture is silent, then where is the prophetic word? Rather than standing boldly to proclaim that God is doing a new thing, too many scholars and pastors point more and more often to the growing crowds who are becoming less patient with the Church. Popular opinion and cultural bias in our reading of Scripture dishonors our traditions of excellence in scholarship and inflicts harm on those who have been faithful to the interpretation they’ve been handed.
In the absence of a prophetic word of authority and authenticity, this justification for homosexual behavior may be received by the world, but it cannot be received by the Church or the Kingdom of Christ for which it stands.
And in any event, serious theologians must abandon eisegetical practices and remember that our calling is to shape the culture and not be shaped by it.