Recently, I read a book by Alister McGrath titled Christianity’s Dangerous Idea: The Protestant Revolution—A History from the Sixteenth Century to the Twenty-First. McGrath’s thesis was that Protestantism is based upon “The dangerous new idea, firmly embodied at the heart of the Protestant revolution, was that all Christians have the right to interpret the Bible for themselves” (McGrath 2007, 2). Referring to this “dangerous idea,” McGrath writes,
“But how was the Bible to be interpreted—for example, on the contentious issue of homosexuality, a major cause of friction within Anglicanism at the moment? Despite the best efforts of the Conference, reflecting multiple tensions between religious liberals and conservatives, modern and post-modern worldviews, and the very different cultural context of the West and emerging world” (McGrath 2007, 1).
It appears that McGrath is spot-on with his assessment. In 2011, the Presbyterian USA approved a controversial change in their Book of Order. Their website states,
“A majority of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s 173 presbyteries have ratified an amendment to the church’s constitution that removes a provision flatly prohibiting the ordination of sexually active unmarried Presbyterians as church officers.
The 87th vote in favor of the measure ― dubbed Amendment 10-A after it was approved by the PC(USA)’s 219thGeneral Assembly last summer ― was cast today (May 10) by the Presbytery of Twin Cities Area.
The unofficial tally now stands at 87-62, with 24 presbyteries still to vote. The change takes effect July 10 ― one year from the adjournment of the 219th Assembly.
The action replaces the current G-6.0106b in The Book of Order with new language. That provision, which was placed in the constitution following the 1996 Assembly, requires of church officers “fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman or chastity in singleness.”
As a result of the vote, ordaining bodies ― local church sessions for elders and deacons and presbyteries for ministers ― will have more flexibility in determining individual candidates’ fitness for ordained office in the denomination” (Marter 2011, www.pcusa.org).
Even more recently the Presbyterian USA (PCUSA), the largest Presbyterian denominations in America took the issue a step farther. David Roach of Baptist Press reports,
“The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) became one of the largest Christian denominations in America to endorse gay marriage when its General Assembly voted in Detroit yesterday (June 19) to allow pastors to conduct same-sex weddings and approved a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between “two people” rather than “a man and a woman.”
The authorization for pastors to perform gay weddings takes effect immediately and applies only to ministers in the 19 states where the practice is legal. The measure passed by a vote of 317 (61 percent) to 238 (39 percent) and was classified as an “Authoritative Interpretation” of the PCUSA constitution.
A commissioner at a meeting of the General Assembly’s Civil Union and Marriage Issues Committee raised a point of order regarding the Authoritative Interpretation, noting that it appeared to contradict the constitution it purported to interpret, the conservative Presbyterian Lay Committee (PLC) reported on its website. Currently the PCUSA constitution states, “Marriage is a civil contract between a woman and a man” as well as a “covenant” between “a man and a women” for Christians. The point of order, in parliamentary rules, was “not well taken.”
Also in the Civil Union and Marriage Issues Committee meeting, a motion to read Scripture for 20 minutes before starting discussion of same-sex marriage was defeated 39-22, the PLC reported” (Roach 2014, www.bpnews.net).
Protestantism is a wonderful, glorious gift. The gift is that all individuals have the opportunity to read and interpret the Word of God. The Word of God is meant to be read by all and translated so that all can understand its meaning. However, there are also dangers to biblical interpretation when it is abused. As mentioned in the article Biblical Exegesis vs. Eisegesis: Practicing Good Hermeneutics here on pastorbrianchilton.wordpress.com, exegesis is the practice of allowing the Bible to speak for itself. Eisegesis is the practice of making the Bible state what one desires it to say. Is it not ironic that the Bible was not allowed to be read before a vote was taken in this year’s PCUSA assembly? The following are some of the common temptations that seek to thwart one into the dangerous practice of biblical eisegesis:
When society dictates something that is contrary to the Bible’s teachings, it is tempting for one to give in to the pressure. Such was the case with the Roman persecution of Christians. It would have been easy for a Christian to accept emperor worship and avoid the wrath of the Empire. Crucifixions, hangings, beheadings, and being food for wild animals have never been appealing to anyone of right mind. However, Christians stood firm. For instance, take Stephen in the book of Acts: he could have given in to the pressure placed upon him by his persecutors. Instead, Stephen said,
“You stiff-necked people! Your hearts and ears are still uncircumcised. You are just like your ancestors: You always resist the Holy Spirit! Was there ever a prophet that your ancestors did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him—you who have received the law that was given through angels but have not obeyed it” (Acts 7:51-53, NIV).
The Christian must ask oneself, “Who am I trying to please by my interpretation of Scripture…people or God?”
If one is engaged in a particular sin, it is easy to justify it by using eisegetical practices instead of exegetical practices. Consider the slave-owners of American colonial times. McGrath states that the slave-owners use of the Bible to promote slavery “represent a fascinating illustration and condemnation of how the Bible may be used to support a notion by reading the text within a rigid interpretive framework that forces predetermined conclusions on the text” (McGrath 2007, 324). In other words, the ends justify the means. The interpreters were going to force the Bible to say what they wanted it to say. Is this a healthy way of biblical interpretation?
Amaziah was at least honest in the fact that he did not want to hear a word of warning from the actual prophet Amos. In fact, he told Amos, “Get out, you seer! Go back to the land of Judah. Earn your bread there and do your prophesying there. Don’t prophesy anymore at Bethel, because this is the king’s sanctuary and the temple of his kingdom” (Amos 7:12-13, NIV). Amos’ response will be given later. But suffice it to say, it is important that one is willing to actually hear the voice of God instead of hearing what one desires to hear.
If one has a family member that is engaging in a sinful practice, one may be tempted to justify that member’s actions. In the book of Acts, there is a story about two dishonest individuals named Ananias and Sapphira. They lied to God and to the congregation about the money they gave. Ananias, the husband died, for his lie. The wife, Sapphira, went along with her husband’s lie and suffered the same fate (see Acts 5). In other words, let the truth be the truth. For this is part of what Jesus meant when he said, “If you love your father or mother more than you love me, you are not worthy of being mine; or if you love your son or daughter more than me, you are not worthy of being mine” (Matthew 10:37, NLT). Whose love do you cherish the most? If we are honest, God is the one who is responsible for our existence…and our eternity.
Often, one will use the Scripture to justify one’s church’s or denomination’s position on a certain issue. It is often humorous to read and/or hear of the theological gymnastics that hyper-Calvinists use when reading John 3:16 and 2 Peter 3:9 and that hyper-Arminians use when reading Romans 9 and Jeremiah 1. While one should support one’s church and denomination, it may be that one finds him/herself standing in opposition to the decisions of one’s denomination. For instance, I am a Southern Baptist. However, this writer would disagree with some decisions made during the SBC conferences. Nonetheless, having a disagreement is one thing. But when one’s denomination practices or endorses practices that do not coincide with the clear teachings of Scripture, then more serious matters are at hand. One then must ask whether it is worth staying with such a group. The question must be asked: who does one serve…God or one’s church and/or denomination?
The main point is that Protestantism brings with it an intense responsibility. Peter Parker was told in the Spiderman comics that “With great power, comes great responsibility.” This is true of biblical interpretation. There is a great responsibility that every interpreter holds. There will always be points of difference within one’s interpretation, but one needs to ensure themselves that they allow the Holy Spirit to speak to them through the Scriptures instead of forcing one’s views onto the pages of Scripture. Amos’ conflict with Amaziah was mentioned earlier. After Amaziah asked Amos replied, “I was neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet, but I was a shepherd, and I also took care of sycamore fig trees. But the Lord took me from tending the flock and said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel'” (Amos 7:14-15, NIV). Will we read and hear the Word of the Lord or will we fall into the temptation of forcing our views onto the pages of Scripture? Will we be found to be more like Amos or Amaziah in our biblical interpretations?
Roach, David. “PCUSA endorses gay marriage.” Baptist Press. (June 20, 2014). http://www.bpnews.net/42832/pcusa-endorses-gay-marriage. (accessed June 23, 2014).
Marter, Jerry van. “PC(USA) relaxes constitutional prohibition of gay and lesbian ordination: change reaffirms historical practice of ordaining bodies determining fitness for office.” PCUSA.org. (May 11, 2011). http://www.pcusa.org/news/2011/5/11/pcusa-relaxes-constitutional-prohibition-gay-and-l/ (accessed June 23, 2014).
McGrath, Alister. Christianity’s Dangerous Idea: The Protestant Revolution—A History from the Sixteenth Century to the Twenty-First. New York: HarperOne, 2007.
Scripture noted as NIV comes from the New International Version. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011.
Scripture noted as NLT comes from the New Living Translation. Carol Stream: Tyndale, 2007.
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