Eisegesis, Or "I So Don’t Get How A Pastor Can Use Scripture To Make Jesus A Gun Advocate"

Any good Bible student knows that when she extracts what she believes to be the true understanding of a passage of Scripture, she is engaging in exegesis — the “pulling out” of the meaning of a text before her.

Theologians have coined the word “eisegesis,” or “isegesis” less commonly, for the process whereby a Bible student adds into the text what she or he believes it says, or must say, or should say to promote a particular point of view.  I think it’s easy enough to see why “exegesis” is applauded and “eisegesis” is not — because inserting our opinions and perspectives into the text does damage to it.  Of course, all of us come to Scripture with background, experience, knowledge, biases and other baggage; to pretend not is silly.  No one just “comes to the text,” and the way to tell an honest exegete is when he or she acknowledges that.  Still, by the time a minister commands a widening network of enterprises — churches, publishing houses, colleges, presbyteries, etc. — he has generally been deemed by his peers and his teachers to be an honest expositor of the Word of God, an honest teacher of the message therein.

But some fall through the cracks.

For example, when a man ordained in a church and denomination of his own creation is named pastor of his church and makes a name for himself in, say, Reformed theological circles — even as that name is as much by the notoriety of his odd teachings and his bad behavior — those who sit at his feet will occasionally hear some fairly jolting stuff.  Some of the stuff will be obviously wrong, although most of his followers will accommodate it, however awkwardly, because to disagree would be too risky to their businesses and their family lives.  Defending slavery in the American South, with its reliance on the Scripturally-condemned practice of manstealing — kidnapping — and its violent, family-destroying, race-based qualities, would be one example.  Another would be a “Biblical” defense of using slurs and making jokes about homosexuals.  That one goes down a little easier, I’m guessing.

But those examples, however hideous (and they are hideous), aren’t IMMEDIATELY dangerous.  And, while the cowardice and compromising of the Christian Church in America is rampant, most clearthinking Bible students and Christ followers will disregard any such teachings, knowing that at their core they are simply wrong and simply the product of a man grasping at straws to defend the indefensible for his own purposes, whatever they may be.  It’s unlikely that anyone will call for a reintroduction of chattel slavery in 2013 because of them, and no one who doesn’t already crack hateful jokes about gays and lesbians will suddenly decide to do so because their pastor says it’s OK.  Not just OK, but praiseworthy.  Still, homophobes aren’t likely, in most cases, to graduate to actual violence against their LGBT neighbors because of some “Bible teacher’s” justification of his own bigotry, although God knows it happens.

However, we live in a cultural zeitgeist that makes some of his teachings utterly and immediately dangerous in their indefensible understanding and application.  Douglas Wilson’s recent Blog and Mablog assertion that Luke 22, for example, reveals a Savior, Jesus Christ, who urges his followers to pick up the sword as they go about on their mission in His name is an example.  I called it “filthy” in my most recent blog post.  I believe it to be so — not just wrong, not just misunderstood, but foul, coming from Wilson’s own love of guns and gun culture and his contempt for “sentimentalists,” liberals, and lackeys of what he refers to as a tyrannical regime headed by a shady, shadowy, socialiast usurper to the Presidency.

The filthiness that enervates his exegesis is quite simple, really.

Wilson, who in his post set forth the correct hermeneutical notion that unclear passages of Scripture must be interpreted in light of the clear ones, immediately violates his own purported exegetical method.  Luke 22:35-38 reads:

He said to them, “When I sent you out without a purse, bag, or sandals, did you lack anything?”  They said, “No, not a thing.”  He said to  them, “But now, the one who has a purse must take it, and likewise a bag.  And the one who has no sword must sell his cloak and buy one.  For I tell you, this scripture must be fulfilled in me, ‘And he was counted among the lawless’; and indeed what is written about me is being fulfilled.’  They said, “Lord, look, here are two swords.”  He replied, “It is enough.”  (NRSV)

This takes place right before Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion, when, in fulfilling the Isaiah 53 prophecy He refers to in v. 37,  He says He will be “counted among the lawless,” meaning that He will not only be crucified among two criminals, but will be killed because the people will consider him a bad guy — to the Romans, an insurrectionist looking to subvert the “divine rule” of Caeser, and, to the Jewish establishment, a blasphemer sinfully equating himself with Yahweh.  The goodwill the disciples had enjoyed among the people previously was the goodwill that made their carrying provisions unnecessary; they could depend, as followers of the One they announced as Lord and Savior, upon the generosity of those touched by His message.

But times change, people are fickle, and the tide would very shortly turn against Jesus.  The loving, healing, miracle-working Teacher would within hours be arrested, beaten, tortured and crucified, and not because, to his assassins, he was a loving, healing, miracle-working man.  He would, in fulfillment of Isaiah 53:12, be considered a criminal.  That well of generosity and public affirmation would dry up just as surely as autumn leaves dry up, die, and decompose.  The disciples would have to provide for themselves, it appears.

What, then, of his admonition that they sell their cloaks and buy a sword?  Did Jesus, knowing the depth and strength of the Roman army, really think two weapons among the Twelve would be enough?  Was His “It is enough!” an assessment of their military preparedness — or, as every commentary I’ve consulted says, was it a table-pounding, irritated rebuke along the lines of “That’s enough out of you!” or “Knock it off!”?  How does a responsible teacher and exegete deal with a verse that, if understood literally, has the Prince of Peace counseling His followers to ignore the Sermon on the Mount and every other bit of His message that calls for His followers to practice peace, refuse to resist evildoers, love their enemies, and trust in God?

Well, he doesn’t, given the hermeneutical rule Wilson, I, and every other Bible student holds to.  That interpretive rule — the unclear understood in light of the clear — cannot allow us to conclude that Jesus steps way out of character here and suddenly embraces violence as a solution to the disciples’ persecution.

The Bible student should look to the other Gospel accounts, which, if he, like Wilson and like myself, is a theological conservative, he believes to be in utter harmony with one another.  Matthew 26:51-13, for example, the authorities coming to arrest Jesus — likely, just hours after the Luke 22 words He spoke.  In this account, one of the disciples whips out his sword — one of the two previously accounted for in Luke — and shears off one of the arresting authority’s ears.  The NRSV relates:

“Suddenly, one of those with Jesus put his hand on his sword, drew it, and struck the slave of the high priest, cutting off his ear.  Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you not think that I cannot appeal to my Father and He will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? . . .”

The same account in John 18:10-11 says, “Then Simon Peter, who had a sword, drew it, struck the high priest’s slave, and cut off his right ear.  The slave’s name was Malchus.  Jesus said to Peter, ‘Put your sword back into the sheath.  Am I not to drink the cup that the Father has given me?”  (NRSV)

I grant that, despite the overwhelming theme of enemy-love and reconciling peaceableness present in Jesus’ message, neither of these passages has Jesus explicitly condemning the use of the sword — just the disciple’s apparent attempt to forestall Jesus’ arrest.  Neither, however, do they endorse “redemptive violence.”  Even Luke, in the same chapter Wilson so badly mishandles, illustrates both the swordplay and Jesus’ rebuke, only a few verses after His apparent instructions to deny everything He’s ever taught them and go out and buy arms to violently defend themselves.  Luke 22:49-51 says:

“When those who were around Him saw what was coming, they asked, “Lord, should we strike with the sword?”  Then, one of them struck the slave of the high priest and cut off his right ear.  But Jesus said, “No more of this!”  And He touched his ear and healed him.”  (NRSV)

No more of this.  Jesus said, referring directly to the use of the sword to defend him and attack his enemies, “No more of this.”  Then, as Jesus is prone to doing, He goes one step extra to heal the damage wrought by the disciple’s aggression; He heals the slave’s ear.
It seems, in light of the immediate Lukan text, that whatever Jesus meant, He did NOT mean that they should really buy up swords, take up arms, or use violence to defend themselves and protect Him.  The other Gospels make Jesus’ dislike of violence even more clear, while just a few verses from Luke 22:35-38, we have a clear account of the Lord’s insistence that there BE NO MORE OF THIS — that violence, swordplay, and, we can safely presume, assault weapons and gun proliferation are not the answer to the persecution, conflicts, and struggles believers go through.  That message constitutes the entirety of the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life, echoed again and again in the Epistles and in Acts.  In Luke 22:35-38, we may not understand what He did say — but a proper exegesis will surely tell us what He didn’t.

(Another note is that if Jesus, in Luke 22:35-38, truly meant “That is enough” in assessing the strength — two swords — of the disciples’ armory, as in “Yes, that’s sufficient,” our Lord was a miserable military strategist, as evidenced by the fact that most of the disciples were martyred and that two swords protecting a dozen men in the face of the ferocity of the Roman Legion clearly would predict that outcome and no other).

Wilson wants, because he thinks there is a “Christian virtue” to owning guns, for the One he calls Lord and Savior to be on his side, counseling  his disciples even today to arm themselves and knock intruders back down the stairs and rely on firepower to keep themselves safe.  I’m sorry he wants that.  I grieve for that kind of hardness of heart, and I grieve for that kind of blind, willful ignorance.

But in a violence-saturated world, in a community of testosterone-saturated angry men with more guns at home than I have Bibles, any man who sounds the bell for tyranny when there is none, promotes strife and division, and comforts and appeases the gun idolaters and gun-trusters AS A MINISTER OF THE GOSPEL is a sad, sorry, sickening excuse for a pastor.  And his turning the Word of God into an apologetic for anti-Christian behavior is beyond unfortunate, beyond shameful, beyond dangerous.

It’s filthy.  And that his congregants and elders let it stand is, too.

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