Sunday, October 20, 2013

A Plea For Exegetical Humility

The last week has been a sad one but an instructive one at the same time. It has featured well respected men of the church, teachers that I have found profitable from a distance, using their interpretation of an admittedly unsettled subject to abuse other Christians. They did so in the name of tough love, a concept that has merit but one that all too often has been used as cover for theological bullying. If a friend comes to me and bluntly tells me I am out of line, that is tough love. If I use the access to a huge audience that God has provided me to impugn a huge number of people that I have never met, that is not tough love, that is simply being a pompous jerk.

Amidst all the angst and chest beating, some brothers took the time to say some consequential, thoughtful and wise things. I saw the phrase "exegetical humility" used in one context and I liked it a lot.

If you have known me or read me for any length of time I doubt that "humility" is one of the words you would label me with. I have strong opinions. I think I take the time to work them out and when I am confident in something I say what I believe and I don't apologize for it. That often comes across poorly which I know and I am trying to work on. Some people (including me in times not too distant) take great pride in being loud and clever and frankly arrogant jerks. That has been on full display but as the church by and large sets aside this day for the worship of Christ our Lord in the company of other believers, let me plead with my brothers for humility in our exegesis.

I think we can all agree that no one of us has it all perfectly figured out. I am not the same Christian I was half a dozen years ago and I am not so certain of myself to think that I have everything perfectly understood and nor do I ever see myself having that sort of complete understanding this side of eternity. I don't think that it was God's intent to reveal all things in nice, neat black and white. Did the sign gifts end or are they for today? What does the end of time look like? What exactly should the church look like when it gathers and what should the church look like when it goes? Who are the proper recipients of baptism, what does the Lord's Supper mean, contain or symbolize? There are many questions and we need to recognize and accept that the church is likely never going to agree on all issues. The constant division we see, the sinful dividing of the church, is the result of our unwillingness to approach one another in humility while at the same time standing firm in the faith and devoting ourselves to the study of God's Word and the seeking of His Spirit.

This is not a plea to go along to get along, to seek lowest common denominator, dumbed down Christianity. I am certainly not calling for a doctrinal blind eye turned toward error in some sort of misguided uber-ecumenism. It is a plea for us to recognize differences and to humbly listen to one another. It is one thing to have a one-sided conversation with nothing but people who agree with you, it is another to reason together with the church, to wrestle with the word, to have conversations that make us uncomfortable but are critical for the church to ever move away from increasing division and toward some semblance of unity. The days are coming and are now nearly here when we will need each other more than ever before and a church that cannot co-exist amidst differences will lose what little voice we have left when the culture no longer tolerates Christianity as a willing patsy in placating the general population. I would also say that engaging those you disagree with in love and humility leads to a far deeper faith than simply being content with theological in-breeding.

Along with this humility in our exegesis there is another side to the equation. If we are still being honest, there are real and necessary consequences to our examination and exegesis. There are some things, some positions, that if you come to them you of necessity find yourself outside of the historic, orthodox Christian church. That doesn't necessarily mean you are not saved but it does mean that the church at large will consider your beliefs to be at best heterodox and at worst heretical and dangerous. That comes with the territory. If you don't believe that Jesus is God or that He was born of a virgin or that He died and rose again that is your call but it isn't part of Christian orthodoxy and you should not expect it to be treated as such. I am not someone who believes something just because it has always been believed but exegetical humility also demands that we respect the work of exegesis that has gone before us. The divinity of Christ is not a new concept, it has been challenged and defended by far better men than I a long time ago. We should continue to study it and wrestle with it, it is a concept that is beyond the ability of finite man to fully understand, but there is a position held by the church and that needs to be respcted.

I am not at all saying we can't or shouldn't hold firm to the truth. We can. We must. The writer of Hebrews exhorts us: Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. (Heb 10:23) We can and ought to hold fast without wavering in our convictions but do so in love, gentleness, patience and humility with our brothers and sisters. The Christian life is not a contest to see who can score the most points. You don't get a special crown in heaven for selling the most books or getting the most page views. The One who authored the Bible we seek to interpret is an infinite, unimaginable, eternal being. We can show some grace toward our brothers and exhibit some humility when we try to interpret, understand and apply His perfect Word.

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