Recently, I had the opportunity to gather with area pastors to discuss our ministries and churches. This is a regular occurrence that I look forward to and enjoy. It is a privilege to learn from men and women who have experienced so much in their own ministries.
During our gathering, part of our conversations turned to the idea of the role of church and culture. The conversation began in response to the 2012 United Methodist General Conference, but soon focused on the changing nature of society and how young adults view the church.
We agreed that one of the things we are seeing in the church, today, is a focus on eisegesis. This is an interpretation idea that is counter to the more traditional form of exegesis. In exegesis, we are seeking to determine exactly what is the Scripture trying to tell us. With eisegesis, the interpreter is trying to read his or her specific ideas into the Scripture text. This leads to a problem of focusing on the self above what Scripture is or is not saying.
As I have processed this conversation, I believe this is not a recent phenomenon. In fact, I wonder if it has been the main interpretive focus of much of the American church since the days of the American Revolution.
Since the colonies separated from the British Empire to form the United States, American scripture interpretation has focused on the idea of this country being God’s chosen country. (For a look at how this has played out in preaching, I suggest reading A City on the Hill by Larry Witham.) Each generation, in some way, has continued a legacy that was started by Puritan John Wintrhop, who famously suggested that the new Plymouth colony was to be a “city on a hill.”
This interpretive journey causes some interesting consequences. It leads one to believe that God is always on “our side,” even if we are actively in disobedience with a known will of God. It allows a reader to avoid Scripture passages that would seem to challenge one’s basic ideas about culture or life. It also places ourselves in the position of God, which is a dangerous position to be placed in.
The American eisegetical process is about validation. We want to have our ideas and our opinions validated and approved by God. It is about our need to be seen as right while the other is seen as wrong.
This is a false way to do Scripture and can leave to a destructive idea about God. What happens when God challenges our idea on war, government, homosexuality, marriage, or even finances? If we only look to Scripture to be validated then this challenge could lead to us questioning our own faith and, unfortunately, walking away from God all together.
In order to truly engage Scripture, we must be willing to come to an important realization. That is that our opinion and ideas might be wrong. That’s not the “American way,” is it? The American way says that you never admit your mistakes and that if someone disagrees with you then they are the ones who are wrong. We can see where this line of thinking has impacted our society and culture today. Scripture routinely challenges us at the depths of our soul about our ideas, our wants, and our desires. If we are only seeking validation in Scripture then we miss out on the greater truth that God is seeking to express to us.
Our challenge as Americans is to deny ourselves and hear what God has for us. To not seek validation, but instead seek deep transformation through our relationship with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. When we do, we will inherit a greater understanding of God’s call for us and we will find a deeper truth to the issues we care passionately about. But, are we willing to do just that?