The Nutrition Facts of Modern Preaching: Trans-Fatty Eisegesis

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In Part 1, we considered the idea that the average spiritual diet of many people is just as bad as their physical diet—but with far worse consequences. Pastor Phil Johnson's comments summarize this sad reality:

The pulpits of American churches are overrun with hireling shepherds who are starving their flocks by withholding the nutrition they need; they load them up instead with the spiritual equivalent of cotton candy, Pop-rocks, and Kool-Aid. You don't have to feed your sheep spiritual strychnine in order to poison them; you will accomplish the same result, perhaps a little more slowly, by feeding them nothing but marshmallows. Today's average evangelical is overdosed on entertainment, cultural fads, secular politics, and other cheap nonsense. People are starved for good biblical teaching.[1]
It’s not that the average churchman is hungry; it’s that he’s malnourished.

And notice an important distinction: it's not that the average churchman is hungry; it's that he's malnourished. That's because the famine in the land is for expository preaching. People are being fed all kinds of foreign substitutes from the pulpit, falsely concluding that their spiritual needs are being met. Like drinking saltwater to quench their thirst, many simply live contentedly unaware that what they are consuming is ultimately to their own detriment.

But what exactly are the problems? To answer that, we must take a look at the nutrition facts of modern preaching. We need to peel back the label and examine the content.

After all, you are what you eat.

Trans Fatty Eisegesis

When it comes to nutrition, one of the worst things that could be found on a food label is a kind of fat known as "trans fat." There are two general types of trans fats found in foods: naturally-occurring trans fats and artificial trans fats. Naturally-occurring trans fats are produced in the gut of some animals, which is why foods derived from these animals (i.e. milk and meat products) may contain small quantities of these fats. On the other hand, artificial trans fats are created in an industrial process that adds hydrogen to liquid vegetable oils to make them more solid.[2]

According to the Mayo Clinic,

Trans fat is considered by many doctors to be the worst type of fat you can eat. Unlike other dietary fats, trans fat—also called trans-fatty acids—both raises your LDL ("bad") cholesterol and lowers your HDL ("good") cholesterol. A diet laden with trans fat increases your risk of heart disease, the leading killer of men and women.[3]

Trans fat is not a healthy component of a well-planned diet. With that said, naturally-occurring trans fats are unavoidable when it comes to consuming animal products; a small amount simply comes with the territory. Yet, many people consume high amounts of artificial trans fat in the packaged foods they purchase. But that raises an interesting question: why are artificial trans fats found in food products if it's so detrimental? Why would companies go out of their way to make and include trans fat? It's simple: artificial trans fats are included by manufacturers because they are easy to use, inexpensive to produce, beneficial for texture and taste, and helpful for unnaturally extending shelf life. Any of those characteristics sound familiar? When it comes to modern preaching, that is precisely what we see on the label, in what is known as eisegesis.

When it comes to properly interpreting Scripture, exegesis is the process of determining the author's intent and understanding a verse or set of verses according to their proper context. Using normal rules of language, exegesis occurs when the student of Scripture seeks to interpret a passage according to its literal, grammatical, historical context. On the other hand, eisegesis occurs when a person reading the Bible disregards a passage's context, and interprets the passage based on preconceived ideas.

One scholar describes exegesis and eisegesis as follows:

Exegesis can be defined with reference to its opposite: eisegesis. To exegete a passage is to lead the native meaning out from the words; to eisegete a passage is to insert a foreign meaning into the words. You are exegeting a passage when you are allowing it to say what its original author intended; you are eisegeting a passage when you are forcing the author to say what you want the author to say. True exegesis shows respect for the text and, by extension, for its author; eisegesis, even when based upon ignorance, shows disrespect for the text and its author.[4]

Exegesis occurs when a preacher faithfully, skillfully, and carefully interprets God's Word so as to accurately represent what God intended to say through it. On the other hand, the kind of eisegesis commonly seen in modern preaching often occurs when a preacher mangles and mishandles God's Word in order to twist it into whatever foreign notion he has concocted in his own vain imagination (to put it bluntly).

Philippians 4:13

Philippians 4:13, one of the most cited verses in the Bible, serves as a classic example of a passage commonly subject to eisegesis. This passage was penned by Paul as a testament to his God-given resolve to be content despite difficult circumstances, as indicated in the verse just prior to it: “I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need” (Phil. 4:12). Paul was reminding his hearers that he knew how to “get along” in any circumstance. God had graciously granted Paul the mindset of a humble slave, happy to serve his master in whatever situation was necessary.

And yet, since Philippians 4:13 is so often stripped from its context, it is typically used as nothing more than a rallying point for self-willed success. Quoting it standalone, the passage is regularly cited simply to put a Christian spin on whatever selfish endeavor a person pursues.

For example, Joel Osteen, the leader at one of the largest so-called "churches" in America, speaks of Philippians 4:13 as follows: "Most people tend to magnify their limitations. They focus on their shortcomings. But scripture makes it plain: all things are possible to those who believe. That’s right! It is possible to see your dreams fulfilled. It is possible to overcome that obstacle. It is possible to climb to new heights. It is possible to embrace your destiny. You may not know how it will all take place. You may not have a plan, but all you have to know is that if God said you can…you can!"[5]

See your dreams fulfilled? Climb to new heights? Embrace your destiny?

Make no mistake about it: that kind of misinterpretation is not an isolated incident. Don't think Osteen is a Philippians 4:13 one-man army. On the contrary, the pervasiveness of such eisegesis is undoubtedly seen by the fact that, in recent years, Philippians 4:13 is reported as being the most popular verse among believers—beating out heavyweight contenders like John 3:16 and Romans 8:28![6] It’s unlikely that the concept of contentment is what has fueled Philippians 4:13's sweeping success. And of course, the ultimate irony for those who use Philippians 4:13 to justify “fulfilling their dreams” is that the letter was written by Paul while imprisoned under house arrest for preaching the Gospel (cf. Phil. 1:13-14).

Savage Jesus?

In another example of masterful eisegesis, Steven Furtick preached a recent message from his "Savage Jesus" sermon series that was supposedly based on Mark 6:1-6.[7] In this message, entitled "Trapped In Nazareth," Furtick highlighted the fact that Jesus was born in Bethlehem but grew up in Nazareth, and that when He returned to His hometown with His disciples (whom Furtick referred to as His "squad"), the people closest to Him took Him for granted. This was Furtick's way of describing Mark 6:4, which says, "A prophet is not without honor except in his hometown and among his own relatives and in his own household." Playing off of this account, Furtick concocted his own spiritual-sounding principle, stating, "Sometimes, in order to be used by God you have to leave what is familiar."

Furtick then went on to say, "I want to be admired by the people who really know me. That means something to me because I figure, I can fake everybody else out, but if the people who are closest to me, and know me the most—if they don't think I'm full of crap—I'm doing something." Dancing on the edge of truth, but littering the message with concepts entirely foreign to the text, is the epitome of eisegesis. And that's precisely what is common in Furtick's messages. They have the semblance of relatedness, but the substance of ridiculousness. Rather than deriving the author's intent out of the text, eisegesis inserts the speaker's intent into the text, and it works especially well when a speaker wants to hijack the Bible's own inherent authority in order to bolster his own.

Later in his message, Furtick launched another fortune cookie slogan, saying, "The moment you categorize something as common that was sent to be special, you trip over the miracle because you miss it in the mundane." Again, Furtick's eisegesis was on full display as he imposed his own principle onto a text concerning Christ and His hometown. Furtick then applied that acontextual principle to the concept of marriage, in which a husband complains about characteristics of his wife that he once admired. At that moment, he literally dropped his microphone for effect.

All of this from Mark 6:1-6? Apparently. It would be one thing if Furtick's method of handling Scripture were unique to him, but as the leader of a multi-site, 15,000-person "church," he is both the product and the purveyor of a widespread mentality. The only thing "savage" is how God's Word is extensively twisted in modern preaching.

Throughout Furtick's message, the audience applauded his comments, blissfully unaware of their own predicament.

No Recommended Amount

These examples represent eisegesis: twisting a passage of Scripture by inserting and imposing your own ideas onto the passage rather than interpreting it correctly in its natural context. And just like trans fat, much of modern preaching employs eisegesis because it is easy to use (interpretation can be made up on the fly), inexpensive to produce (no study is required), beneficial for texture and taste (makes the hearers feel good), and helpful for unnaturally extending shelf life (masks incompetency). But, also like trans fat, there's no recommended amount in a person's diet. Although inadvertent misinterpretation may happen from time to time, it's never an admirable trait of preaching.

To identify possible eisegesis, ask yourself questions like:

Is the preacher citing the passage without explaining its surrounding context?

Does the interpretation offered line up with what I know of the rest of Scripture?

Are historical and grammatical details described in order to explain the point?

Does the sermon magnify Christ, or self?

Would the point of this sermon be understood by those in the text's original setting?

Would this sermon be relevant to believers of other times and cultures?

Would I be able to teach this passage to others based on what I've heard?

Does this sermon convict me of my sin, or comfort me in my sin?

Was the passage turned into an allegory in order to make a point?

Did the preacher insert himself or others into the text in order to "personalize" it?

Is this message specifically Christian, or generically "religious?"

Is the theme of the sermon hinging on a particular English word or translation of the text?

Could the principles from the sermon be developed without using the Bible?

Did the message begin with application before interpretation?

As with any nutrition plan, it's ultimately up to you to be a good Berean and examine what you're consuming (cf. Acts 17:11). You wouldn't blindly put anything in your mouth; neither should you blindly put anything in your ears. Remember: a diet laden with trans fat increases your risk of heart disease, the leading killer of men and women.

In the next post, we'll take a look at carbohydrates, the body's preferred fuel source.


References:

[1] Phil Johnson, "The Care and Feeding of God's Flock," The GraceLife Pulpit, accessed June 13, 2016, http://www.thegracelifepulpit.com/Sermons.aspx?code=2013-03-06A-PJ.

[2] "Trans Fat," American Heart Association, accessed December 6, 2017, https://healthyforgood.heart.org/Eat-smart/Articles/Trans-Fat.

[3] https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/high-blood-cholesterol/in-depth/trans-fat/art-20046114?pg=1

[4] James R. White, Scripture Alone (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House, 2004), 81.

[5] http://religionnews.com/2014/01/16/philippians-413-many-christians-misuse-iconic-verse/

[6] Jeremy Weber, “Sorry, John 3:16: The Top 10 Bible Verses YouVersion Shared Most in 2013,” Research (blog), Christianity Today, December 30, 2013, http://www.christianitytoday.com/gleanings/2013/december/sorry-john-316-youversion-top-10-bible-verses-shared-most.html.

[7] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t9IVhQaLJ7I