Writing about the problem of judges who essentially try to free themselves from the constraints of legal texts, Scalia and Garner make these interesting observations:
“Is it an exaggeration to say that the field of interpretation is rife with confusion? No. Although the problem of tendentiously variable readings is age-old, the cause is not: the desire for freedom from the text, which enables judges to do what they want.
“Distortion of text to suit the reader’s fancy is by no means limited to the law. In the field of literature, T.S. Elliot warned about literary critics who forget that they are dealing with a text and instead find in a work such as Hamlet’s vicarious existence for their own artistic realization.’ They substitute ‘their own Hamlet for Shakespeare’s.’ The practice of injecting one’s own thoughts into texts has long been given free rein in some schools of scriptural exegesis—so long, in fact, that scholars have given the practice its own disreputable name: eisegesis. The antonym of exegesis, the term eisegesis denotes the insertion of the reader’s own ideas into the text, making the reader a full collaborator with the original author and enabling the introduction of all sorts of new material. For eisegetes, the possibilities are endless.”*
Reading into Scripture our own ideas leads to the practice of our own ideas, also. It’s not just interpretation alone, but the practices that stem from freeing ourselves from the biblical text. By freeing ourselves from the text of Scripture, we are freeing ourselves from the authority of God, substituting our own Jesus for the biblical Christ, which enables us to freely practice what we wish. Without due respect of God’s authority and the voluntary restraints that come from this recognition (not to do whatever we want), self-willed practice is inevitable. Neglecting God’s commands for the sake of men’s traditions has long been a problem (Mark 7:8). Ironically, sometimes those who complain the most about men’s traditions are willing to insert their own traditions, which themselves are not warranted by Scripture. They are just newer in nature. Witness the modern practices of praise bands for worship in the assemblies of churches, for example. Is there any evidence of such a tradition in Scripture? Does that prohibit churches from doing it anyway? Does it matter?
Jesus is our King (Isa. 52:7; Rev. 19:16), and He has all authority (Matt. 28:18-20). This is incontrovertible for the Christian. This also means that He has total say over what we do, and as His subjects we are to obey Him (Heb. 5:9). Will any Christian affirm the opposite?
Yet it seems that some interpret the emphasis on adherence to the Scriptures and obedience to the King as being legalistic or too nit-picky. Of course, no one should or should ever want to heap upon others rules that God never made, and no one should ever think that obedience is to be equated with merit. We are saved by God’s grace, and there should be no dispute about that either (Eph. 2:8-10). Also without dispute is the fact that grace can only come from One who has the authority and power to grant it (Mark 2:1-12). Stressing both obedience and grace is not a conflict of interests, as some might think, for grace teaches us to “to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age” and to be “zealous for good works” (Titus 2:11-14).
Do we need to obey God or not? If not, are we saved anyway? Will the “wrath of God” come upon the “sons of disobedience” or not (Col. 3:6; Eph. 2:2; 5:6)? If so, is it legalistic to say that we need to obey? To teach people what God says and that they need to do what God says? That disobedience brings judgment from God? If so, what in Scripture gives us the impression that obedience to the King is not important? Where are we taught that not obeying the King is acceptable as an attitude or a practice? Will our attitude about this have any bearing on our salvation? Are we being legalistic to ask these things? Yet if one agrees that being disobedient brings God’s judgment, on what basis will that one argue that we really don’t need God’s authority for what we do?
Asking such questions is not to imply that we are flawless in our obedience. No one can make the case for that level of perfection, and we must rely on Jesus for mercy and forgiveness (1 John 2:1-2). Further, without question we want to obey the Lord out of a heart of love, “For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments” (1 John 5:3). Nevertheless, we are still probing the issue as to whether or not we ought to stress our need to obey the Lord to the best of our ability. Ought we to strive to walk in the light as He is in the light, which includes confession of sins (1 John 1:7-9)? Or can we back off of this and not be so concerned about obedience? Can we afford to think that we are fine in straying from what the Scriptures teach us to do and not do?
When it comes to listening to and obeying God’s authority, there are really only two ways we can go with our attitudes:
1. We ought to stay within the boundaries of what God’s word teaches, or
2. We are free to move beyond the boundaries of what God’s word teaches.
The first option should be a given. Does it really have to be argued? “If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine” (John 8:31). “Finally then, brethren, we request and exhort you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us instruction as to how you ought to walk and please God (just as you actually do walk), that you excel still more. For you know what commandments we gave you by the authority of the Lord Jesus” (1 Thess. 4:1-2). “Now these things, brethren, I have figuratively applied to myself and Apollos for your sakes, so that in us you may learn not to exceed what is written, so that no one of you will become arrogant in behalf of one against the other” (1 Cor. 4:6). Are there principles in here to be understood and adhered to?
Passages can be multiplied on just about every page of Scripture. Is it legalistic to make this point? Is it legalistic to stress these passages? If you think this is legalistic, what would you do with these passages (and the host of others)? Argue that they even though they appear to say what they say we are still free to follow our own will in the name of Christ? That the authority of Christ allows us to disregard any limitations with respect to abiding within the Scriptures? How would you teach someone about what Jesus said in Matthew 7:21-23? Is this passage too harsh and judgmental?
If the second option is taken (if it really is an option), then what would make one think it is viable? What passage makes one think that moving beyond the boundaries of what God’s word teaches is really okay? Where would they go? What passages show us that this is the way to go?
Let’s say that someone decides to leave one church that he thinks is too legalistic to become a part of some other, more enlightened church, thinking that this will bring him closer to God and His will. Yet this enlightened church practices what is not taught in Scripture. This church uses names and titles that are not biblically defensible. This church worships in ways unknown to the early Christians, and spends its funds in ways that lie well outside of any biblically authorized work. What is the defense? That it’s legalistic to insist on the first option? That since we are free then we don’t need to be that concerned and that picky? Do we just need to get over it and accept that Christianity is now free-form, open to whatever we like?
Where does it end? On whose authority does it end? Once we go with option 2, who decides where the limits are, if there are any at all? One may think, “We’d never go that far,” but this is naive. Just witness how far the last 20 years or so has brought those who lay claim to Christ. Think of what is now being culturally defended in the name of Jesus. Think of what this new, non-judgmental Jesus looks like today. Of course people will “go that far.” They already have.
Either there are biblical limits or there aren’t. There is no such thing as partial boundaries, for these only make the self-willed go around them to get outside of them, and if there are openings, people will take them. Self-will is at the heart of all disobedience and disregard for God’s authority, and it should have no place in our hearts.
One might think that this is oversimplified. “This is more a matter of interpretation,” one might argue. No, what I’m talking about here is an attitude, a starting point for the way that we approach Scripture and how we make real-world applications. Again, no one is arguing that we are perfect at obedience. Obviously we are not. However, our starting point cannot be the idea that it’s acceptable to move beyond the boundaries of God’s word and authority. We have a perfect Standard (Matt. 5:44-45), and we must never think that disregarding that is to be commended. An attitude that thinks poorly of the authority of the King puts us in the same position as those kings of the nations who wanted to cast off the fetters of God’s rule (Psalm 2). The same exhortation should be observed:
Now therefore, O kings, show discernment;
Take warning, O judges of the earth.
Worship the Lord with reverence
And rejoice with trembling.
Do homage to the Son, that He not become angry, and you perish in the way,
For His wrath may soon be kindled.
How blessed are all who take refuge in Him! (Psalm 2:10-12).
*Antonin Scalia and Bryan A. Garner, Reading Law: The Interpretation of Legal Texts (St. Paul, MN: Thompson/West, 2012), 9-10.