My ministry focus early on was also on divergent theological views, specifically in the cults. Much of my Christianity was formed in an atmosphere where I was continually challenged to evaluate someone's reading of a text by making sure the verse or passage was being used according to the context. In many ways, my diverse upbringing prepared me to be critical of proof-texting simply because everyone could not possibly be right in their contradictory uses of the same text.
When I later entered the world of scholarship, I realized that most scholars, particularly those most influenced by what were considered more liberal theories of interpretation, do the exact same thing that laymen do when studying the Bible. They proof-text and ignore the context.
Indeed, their so-called exegetical methodologies are filled with linguistic fallacies that are instead eisegetical to the hilt. It may be old news to us now, but James Barr's monumental critique of diachronic methodologies really should not have been necessary; but the abuses of ignoring context had become so entrenched in modern scholarship, there are those who still argue against it today.
But why is this? Shouldn't scholars understand the Bible more than laymen and cultists?
I think the primary reason why liberal scholars ignore context so much is because they are not actually taught how to exegete a literary text. They are, instead, taught how to fragment the text. They are taught source criticism, redaction criticism (which would be fine if they used compositional criticism as well, but they often don't), feminist hermeneutics and post-colonial hermeneutics (both of which tend to be anachronistically eisegetical and impose postmodern paradigms onto the Bible), background texts for the purposes of creating contexts that many times end up being contradictory to the literary context of the text itself, and to see contradiction and read controversies into the text that, frankly, may not be there once a good literary reading is given to each book. In short, they are taught to see the Bible as a fragmented text.
To be sure, one's view of the Bible will dictate whether he or she thinks, even accepting all of these sorts of critical views, that the Bible should be put back together once deconstructed in such a way.
But my simple point is that this is not exegesis. Many evidence the very diachronic methodology critiqued by Barr so long ago. The problem with Barr's critique is that it was too focused on word studies. What Barr should have really published was a critique of all of these critical methodologies as being linguistically fallacious if one is attempting to determine meaning of a particular text in its current context, rather than put together a speculative history of a text. Indeed, it is not that the word studies of scholarship were fallaciously diachronic in nature, but that all of liberal scholarship treats entire texts this way.
So liberal scholars are taught to impose contexts on the Bible, many speculative and even anachronistic at the cost of the actual literary context and reading a book as a unit, simply because when a context is not observed, it is replaced with another.
This explains why they often use Scripture in the same way that laymen, also ignorant of context, do.
Many Bible scholars are not taught logic either. This is why they often clash with theologians who are (as well as the fact that many theologians are often not taught the findings of biblical scholarship very well). That is an important point, since logic courses don't make the list of their required courses, and logic is at the foundation of language study. They are bump into logical arguments, but they do not necessarily have any requirements to take courses on epistemology or philosophy of religion, or even basic cognitive thinking skills. They will often either learn these elsewhere, perhaps in their liberal arts degree or as an elective (which is what I had to do), or not at all. But linguistics is a branch of logic. It is the logic of communication, and it is vital in studying texts written in a language, which is what the Scripture, at its base, is.
In the liberal's view, of course, the Scripture is just a bunch of fragments. His methodologies of inquiry, rooted in ultimate beliefs (the claim that he has come to such an idea of the Bible via biblical study is just naive to say the least), have led him to view the Bible this way. So it is merely an anthology, a very broken one, of diverse opinions, redacted time and again by various people.
I am reminded of this when I read teachers New Testament like James McGrath, who recently attempted to condemn Christians for not following Jesus' teaching concerning "turning the other cheek."
As my readers know, I've clashed with McGrath a few times in attempting to show that he does not understand the vital function of ultimate beliefs in one's methodologies of inquiry (also see this, this and this), nor how, or even why, one ought to read a biblical text "literarily," and this is likely due to his limited education.
But the dogmatism, and even narcissism, of the idea that those who disagree with him concerning the teaching of Jesus on the matter is a fascinating example of what happens when one is immersed in a particular tradition, and that tradition, rather than the literary context, provides the context for the passage. McGrath is just as much filled with certainty on what he thinks Jesus is saying as any dogmatic fundamentalist who thinks he's just reading what Jesus said without interpreting it (i.e., without placing it in a context). But this is a blog post for another day, so I digress.
This has happened before when we discussed the parable of the Good Samaritan, where McGrath simply could not see that he was moving the characters of the story around, but even more ignoring the context of Luke's overall literary argument, to fit his traditional reading. And why should he see it? He's not trained to do so. He's trained to read it as a separate unit, isolated from a larger context that would inform it, since that larger context is simply filled with contradictory fragments and traditions.
In other words, like the Jesus saying in the Sermon on the Mount, it has no context. So why not just read the text, as many laymen do, within a particular tradition? As humans, we actually don't read things without context. So if we hear something, like a proverb, in attempting to understand it, we supply one. And if we do not supply the actual literary context in which it is given (or context in which something is said for that matter), we end up creating a context from our traditions, speculative background studies, etc.
Fundamentalists do this all of the time as well, and it is why I often say that liberalism is really just a form of fundamentalism. A fundamentalist, however, won't use speculative critical methodologies to do this, but his traditions and even other Bible passages. The latter, as the former, are merely brought in to replace the literary context, and the end result is a text that has been transformed to mean something very different than it would have meant within its literary context.
So let's take McGrath's use of this phrase, "turn the other cheek," as an example. What does the phrase mean? To McGrath and most in the liberal world that has taken it to mean that Jesus is calling for non-violence in every sphere means that one should never retaliate. Some of the immediate context, not the larger literary context of Matthew, is brought in to show that this is in the sphere of one's enemies who "persecute" you. They are called evil and wicked, and of course, this could not be referring to fellow Christians who Jesus thinks are all good and perfect little angels (wink, wink). Hence, to follow Jesus' teaching is to advocate for non-violence against anyone, even enemies (foreign and domestic), period.
If Christians advocate something else, they are not following Jesus' teaching, and if they attempt to interpret the text within the context of the book, or even in light of Jesus' other teachings, they aren't being faithful and honest like McGrath and other liberals (this is where the narcissism comes in).
Now, if Christians hold to their traditional interpretation, and it looks like McGrath's, then he actually has a point. Christians ARE being inconsistent. They are inconsistent with they defend their homes and even do anything of a social justice nature as well btw, since social justice action often wants government, backed by the coercion of violence, to enforce just laws (so McGrath and many liberals would also be inconsistent).
When McGrath is called on his arbitrary picking and choosing of what he considers the true teachings of Jesus, or what he considers good in the actual teachings of Jesus, he simply retreats to his personal views (that's the epistemic problem liberals have and we've discussed this time and again on this blog, so I won't rehash it again right now). But it is an interesting display of our current climate where one can be so dogmatic in his condemnation of others and then retreat into the idea of uncertainty when questioned how he knows something so certainly to be dogmatic. Hence, regardless of McGrath's retreat to some ironic dictum about uncertainty, his condemnation that Christians are not following the teachings of Jesus here are pretty certain.
Here is why I don't think they should be, and why I don't think his interpretation of this passage has much to do with actual exegesis, and is rather a good example of eisegesis.
Matthew is not arguing about anything having to do with unbelievers. The argument in Matthew, if taken as a literary whole, is presenting the idea that since Jesus is the true Israel, everyone in Jesus is a part of Israel and will receive its promises (everyone outside, including ethnic Jews, will receive the curses of those outside of Abraham, David, and the Diaspora--which is why Matthew's genealogy centers on these three points). Hence, everyone who is a disciple of Jesus is a fellow Israelite who represents the Lord Jesus. This includes fellow Jews who are at odds with one another, women, little children, and most importantly in Matthew's argument, Gentiles who have received the baptism and teachings of Jesus, and are under his lordship. Hence, all evil toward those in Christ are to cease, all manner of reconciliation toward fellow disciples is to be pursued in forgiveness and even church discipline, all good is to be done to "the least of these brothers of Mine," not causing any one "these little ones who believe in Me" to stumble.
If one does not forgive a "fellow servant," if one does not pursue reconciliation, or beats his "fellow slave," practices "lawlessness" toward one who is in Jesus, he does not have the fruit of repentance and evidences that Christ is not His Lord. He is thus thrown out with the unbelievers.
The unbelievers will be violently destroyed by Christ, cut to pieces, thrown into the Gehenna of fire, etc. Not quite the non-violent view of Jesus painted by traditional contexts seeking to replace the literary one, is it?
So Matthew's argument has nothing to do with how one treats unbelievers. It has nothing to do with governments or the issue of self defense. It has nothing to do with pacifism. Jesus is going to violently destroy all of His enemies. That doesn't sound very pacifist to me.
Instead, since Matthew is concerned with reconciling everyone in Christ, particularly Jews who see the Gentiles as their enemies and oppressors, i.e., those who have done evil to them, his argument is that Jesus' teaching demands that all believers, whether at odds with one another for various reasons, are to forgive one another, love one another, and do good, pray, and bless one another.
In other words, the literary context indicates that Matthew is not taking a break from his entire argument that has to do with how one treats fellow believers in order to say a little isolated blurb about treating unbelievers well, especially when Jesus doesn't treat them well. Jesus actually curses unbelievers, and violently so, in throughout the book.
Is He a hypocrite? Maybe in McGrath's theology, but maybe that conclusion would be due to poor exegesis, rather than an actual hypocrisy (and no, Jesus is not allowed to be hypocritical because He is God, since He just argued that God does this with wicked men--although taking the analogy that God causes the rain to fall on the just and unjust as absolute in isolation from Matthew's argument is part of the problem of the traditional reading).
My simple point is that the entirety of Matthew's argument is concerned about how believers treat other believers due to internal conflicts within the religious community, and the greatest conflict was the Jewish-Gentile conflict we see reflected time and again in the New Testament (Acts, Romans, Galatians, etc.).
So the great irony is that McGrath isn't actually following Jesus' teaching here via non-violence, as it has virtually nothing to do with how a government defends itself or retaliates or whether Christians would back a particular government for doing so. They may or may not for various reasons but it has little to do with Jesus' teaching here.
On a final note, the persecution involved in Matthew is said to be slander, not people killing you, as unbelieving oppressors would be doing. Persecution is seen as one "saying all sorts of false things about you." In other words, turning the other cheek from persecution is not elevating a conflict with other believers by returning insult/slander for insult/slander. Slapping one's cheek is not a term that refers to some violent physical attack, but someone cursing or saying something bad about you. That's why one is told not to "curse," as that would be the natural response. Jesus does not say, don't physically attack the person back, as he isn't talking about someone physically attacking his disciples at all. Instead, they are to bless when receiving curses from other Christians who don't like them, are angry at them, etc. They are to leave their worship aside until they have settled things with their fellow Christians.
The great irony is that I know plenty of people who would make the argument McGrath does and yet willfully continue to be at odds with other Christians, simply because they don't actually know how to read this text in its literary context.
As I have said before, if the entire story is about the relationship of two ducks, then a passage isn't suddenly talking about one's relationship with an aardvark out of nowhere. Yet, that absurdity is precisely to what a fragmented, proof-texting, interpretive methodology brings us.
What McGrath has done is to create a false dilemma by dogmatically asserting his alternative, traditional reading to the literary one. But in doing so, he really isn't condemning conservatives who support Netanyahu for not following Jesus. McGrath is merely condemning them for not following his own teaching and tradition. As I've said before, when one does not have a reliable divine revelation as an accurate measuring stick, he merely uses himself as one, which is why liberalism seems to produce nothing but narcissism.