(addendum on 06-15-08—In retrospect, I probably was a bit heavy-handed with the word-count point I was making.)
The discipline of interpreting Biblical texts is a potentially complex subject, and I do not pretend to have anything approaching a comprehensive grasp of the subject, so take my less than informed meanderings for what they are worth; I am no seminarian or scholar. However, one thing I feel somewhat strongly about is something I refer to as a word-count Biblical eisegesis, perhaps a compound term I just invented. Let me give you a few examples of what I believe is a systematic reading of meaning into (eisegesis), rather than out of (exegesis), Biblical texts that I have encountered over the years.
I used to attend a liberal Protestant church. As an aside, I did not know it was liberal in it’s theology at first; I did not have the ability to discern such at the time. That being said and though I reject most aspects of ‘progressive’ theology without reservation, I quite like the minister. He is a very warm and friendly man, well-read, and possesses a keen intellect. I remember listening to him speak one Sunday, and during the sermon he made a few observations regarding a recently released film called The Passion of the Christ. I cannot recall verbatim his comments, but I remember that he found the film distasteful because, among other things, it was focused on the events immediately surrounding the crucifixion of Christ rather than the works of Christ. His critique of the film alluded to the fact that comparatively few words in the Gospels actually refer to the death and resurrection of Christ, but more the Gospel texts seems to focus on the works of Christ. Loosely using this word-count perspective of the Gospel texts, the movie was deemed by him to be, at best, unbalanced. While I understand his perspective, and I am absolutely not inferring any over-all lack of sophistication in his hermeneutics or inferring that word-count drives all his exegesis (or eisegesis), what I believe is revealed in his contrast between the quantity of text referring to the cross verses the quantity of text referring to Christ’s deeds and teaching is the liberal perspective of Jesus as a peaceful, sandal-clad, counter-culture revolutionary known for his wisdom rather than as a death-defeating Redeemer. Word-count was used as a means to illustrate a ‘progressive’ theological end.
On the more conservative side of ecclesia, I see further examples of work-count eisegesis. If I had a dime for every time someone has said something along the lines that Jesus talked more about money than heaven or hell, I would be far better off financially. Usually one hears such proclamations during a tithe-centric sermon on giving and money management. First, I question if the Bible, in general, really speaks more about money than heaven or hell, etc. Too, I have to hold the “Christ speaks about money more than heaven, etc.” statement in tension with those who proclaim that Christ speaks more about hell than grace, mercy, or heaven, etc. The hierarchy of doctrinal import may possibly get quite muddled when one puts too much emphasis on word-count in interpreting Biblical texts. To be consistent with a word-count approach to the Bible, perhaps we should focus more on genealogies than grace.
That all being said, I could easily become guilty of that which I lambaste. For example, I have stated in previous posts that I have been led to embrace what may be described as a Calvinistic, or Reformed, understanding of the doctrine of salvation, of soteriology. I have heard others state that the verses that are interpreted as favoring a Calvinistic perspective out-number those that favor, at least superficially, an Arminian view by a four to one ratio, and I find that statement engaging on a couple of levels, one because it plays to my present presuppositions. Am I engaging an eisegesis of word-count? Actually, I did not get to where I am theologically by a word-count eisegesis, but, if not careful, I could easily find myself using such a methodology to defend my point of view.
While I do not wish to paint with too broad of a brush and infer that all topical sermons, which sometimes engage a word-count eiseges, are always bad all the time and all expositional preaching is always sound all the time, but perhaps expositional preaching does encourage the expositor to be more faithful to the text. Following a text from its natural beginning to its natural end gently encourages one from engaging in eisegesis, the reading of meaning into the text. There is truth to the old maxim that “text without context is a pretext for proof-text.”
Without regard to the quantity of words found in the New Testament texts describing the deeds and wisdom of the Messiah, the text of the Gospels clearly affirms that merely doing the good works of liberal, social gospel Jesus does not open the door of grace. Neither are the instructions on tithing found in the Old Testament, often used to prop up the money management lessons of life-coach Jesus, the key to heaven. Though goods works and good money management are not trifling matters, they are of much import, the bottom line and big picture is this: the words of the inspired and infallible canon of Scripture speaks to our fallen condition, to our total depravity. In speaking to our fallen nature, Christ offers grace. He teaches those who have been saved by repentance and faith in Him to reflect His grace to others, to show grace and mercy even when it may not be returned back to us. He tells his flock that we are to consider others more important than ourselves. He tells his flock to serve one another. When speaking of managing our resources, His tells his flock to give from a generous heart, to give sacrificially. He tells His flock to gently correct others in the flock who engage error. He tells His flock that they must pick up the cross and die to self. He promises his flock the Helper, the Holy Spirit, to guide us and conform us to His image. He promises His flock a cross to carry on earth and eternity in heaven with Him.