Prayer, Christology, and the Need for Better Exegesis

This is something of a rant.  I have some pet peeves, among which is when people misinterpret the Bible to fit their pet concepts and models.  Even if the larger point they are making is good, good ends do not justify bad means.  I’m reading a book on prayer right now which I think illustrates this perfectly.  I’m not quite halfway through it, and I generally have a high bar for what constitutes good writing on the subject of prayer (and a low tolerance for Christian cliches and platitudes).  On the whole, I think the book is very good, and it has already helped me with certain issues in my prayer life.  But some of what the book says about Jesus is just flat wrong, even if it’s with good intentions.  And much of how the author draws from the Bible is deeply wrong-headed, even if I think the author has understood some important things about prayer.  (Because of this mixed review, I will not name the author or the book in this post.)  So I’m not condemning the book or the author, but I thought I would vent my frustration by using a few examples from the book to show how bad exegesis is a problem, even for a good end.

What is the relationship between Jesus and prayer?  Well, Jesus prayed (Mark 1:35) often  (Luke 5:16) and long (Luke 6:12).  His followers asked him to teach them how to pray (Luke 11:1), which he did by giving us what is now known as the Lord’s Prayer (Luke 11:2-4, another version in Matt 6:9-13).  He himself prayed in many different ways, at many different times, not exclusively following a set routine, and the earliest Christians did likewise.  It is fair to say that, as Jesus is our model in every other respect (e.g. Rom 8:29), so he may also be a model for prayer.  All of this is in the book I’m reading, and so far, so good.

What I particularly like about this book is that it does not focus on tricks or formulas, nor does it focus on cleaning ourselves up before coming to God.  Rather it focuses on God and his good news, that he is transforming a broken and messy world into his kingdom (God is, after all, the doer in Rom 8:29, not us).  The book talks about coming to God still messed up and by repentance opening ourselves up to God’s plan for cleaning us and fixing us.  The author emphasizes our helplessness without God (citing, aptly, John 15:1-5), and that this helplessness can drive us to God in prayer, if we allow it to do so, rather than pulling back and cloaking our weakness with cynicism.  This is all real meat to chew on, and I love it.

The problem comes when the author tries to make some of these latter points, which properly pertain to our sinfulness, based on the example of Christ in the Gospels.  He sometimes quotes or alludes to a string of Bible verses in defiance of the context. One more amusing example of this: the author indicates that John’s gospel presents people coming to Jesus “because of their helplessness.”  He cites the Samaritan woman (John 4), the royal official with a sick son (John 4), the man at Bethesda pool (John 5), the crowd without bread (John 6), the man born blind (John 9), and Lazarus who is dead (John 11).  His point about coming to Jesus in our helplessness is fine (and might have been legitimately supported from Hebrews 4:15-16), but these stories don’t show that.  The Samaritan woman wasn’t coming to Jesus at all, but to the well on which Jesus happened to be seated (John 4:7).  The man at the pool was waiting for a chance to take the plunge into the healing waters; he wasn’t coming to Jesus or anywhere else (John 5:5, 7).  Jesus came to him, rather than the other way around.  The crowd did come to Jesus, but not about their bread shortage; rather, they came to watch because he was doing amazing things (John 6:2), but they came unprepared for how long it would take (Matt 14:15-16).  The man born blind, like the man at the pool, didn’t come to Jesus but was begging beside the road (John 9:1, 8), and he got more than money or food.  Most tellingly, Lazarus was dead, and hence not coming to Jesus or anywhere else.  Jesus came to him to raise him to life.  Of these half-dozen examples, only the royal official was coming to Jesus for help with his own need, and some members of the crowd came to be healed (not to be fed).  The notion that people come to Christ in their helplessness cannot in fact be supported by John’s gospel (though it can be from elsewhere, as stated).  Instead, what these examples show is that Jesus meets people who do not seek him (Samaritan woman, man at the pool, blind beggar, Lazarus) and meets their real needs, whether they knew what those were or not (Samaritan woman, crowd without bread, blind beggar).  Jesus doesn’t even require that we be headed in his direction before he’s willing to meet us and start to fix us!  That’s really awesome, and more inspiring than cultivating the proper attitude of helplessness!  (Incidentally, I also think it’s more consistent with what the author says elsewhere.)

Quoting a Bible verse without awareness of its context is proof-texting, and it is hit-and-miss with regard to accuracy because the context is ignored.  Quoting a Bible verse against its own context is always false.  A string of biblical references does not make an assertion biblical if those biblical references are misinterpreted, no matter how many there are.

I had a more serious problem when the author attempted to convince the readers of our helplessness by appealing to Christ’s helplessness.  Before getting into his arguments, it’s worth noting that this is not a theological nicety for him.  It is in fact necessary for his exposition, because he simply equates prayer with helplessness.  If prayer is helplessness, and Jesus prayed, then Jesus must likewise be helpless.  He supports this contention by quoting Jesus’s own characterization of his relationship with his Father: “The Son can do nothing of his own accord” (John 5:19), “I can do nothing on my own” (John 5:30), etc.  (He also cites John 8:28 and 12:49, similar verses.)  From these he concludes that Jesus is “the most dependent human being who ever lived.”  Jesus prays because “he can’t do life on his own.”  The author interprets John 15:5 as Jesus’s call to “realize that, like him, we don’t have the resources to do life.”  The author subsequently asserts that John 5:6 shows that Jesus consistently focused only on the one person he was interacting with (in this case, about to heal), which he takes to be an essential characteristic of love.  From this, the book further concludes that Jesus “doesn’t multitask well,” being evidently only able to focus on one person at a time, and for that reason, “He needs to be away from people in order to tune in to his heavenly Father.”  Finally, the author alleges that Jesus followed a “pattern of morning prayer” seen also in the Psalms (he cites 5:3, 59:16, 88:13, and 143:8).

Okay, let’s start at the beginning.  Jesus did indeed say the quotes attributed to him, but to what purpose?  In John 5, Jesus is facing a group of Jewish leaders who are ready to put him to death because they (rightly) interpret his Father-Son relationship with God to indicate a claim to being divine himself, which they (wrongly) conclude is blasphemy (John 5:18).  Jesus responds that he is not doing anything but what God the Father is doing (John 5:19), including miracles to make the crowds marvel (5:20).  This is a claim to wielding divine power beyond mere human ability, and doing so with divinely perfect character in complete accord with the Father.  In this same context, Jesus claims to give life (5:21) and to execute perfect judgment (5:22) so that all may honor him as the Son of God (5:23).  He promises to give eternal life (5:24), to raise the dead to life (5:25, 29), to wield authority in judgment (5:27).  Then he circles back, “I can do nothing on my own initiative.  As I hear, I judge, and my judgment is just, because I do not seek my own will, but the will of him who sent me” (5:30).  Jesus is the just judge because he doesn’t seek his own gain, as far too many corrupt human judges do, but is perfectly in tune with the Father’s judgment.  What the author interprets as Jesus’s confessions of helplessness, an inability to “do life,” is in fact a claim of being God’s perfect agent wielding full divine power and authority, doing what God does and judging as God judges.  Indeed, this passage contains one of the greatest gems of a gem-studded Gospel: “Just as the Father has life in himself, even so he gave to the Son also to have life in himself” (5:26).  Far from being unable to “do life on his own,” Jesus is the source of life, sharing in this divine attribute by the Father’s gift.  (Incidentally, this is also what I take to be the clearest scriptural exposition of the doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son, now maligned among certain biblicist evangelicals.)

John 8:28 and 12:49 are not about ability, but what Jesus says, and they are similar.  In John 8, Jesus claims to be the Light of the World (8:12), which his opponents jump on as testifying to himself (8:13), which Jesus himself had earlier said (5:31) was not true if he alone testified to himself.  Jesus responds that even when he testifies about who he is, it is true, because he knows (8:14), whereas they judge falsely because they only judge in human terms (8:15).  Just as he had earlier done (5:32), he now asserts that he does not testify to himself alone, but the Father also testifies to him (8:18), whom they do not know (8:19).  He now foretells his death (8:21), and believing “that I am” is the only way for them to avoid “dying in their sins,” i.e. eternal condemnation (8:24).  They respond by asking, “Who are you?” (8:25), since that is the crux of the matter, and he responds by saying he’s already told them, and that he has many things to say to the world and to judge from the one who sent him (8:25-26), who is God, though they don’t understand that (8:27).  Jesus then foretells that when they “lift him up” (i.e. in crucifixion), then they will realize both who he is, and that “I do nothing on my own initiative, but I speak these things as the Father taught me” (8:28).  In other words, he’s not speaking of an inability to act, but of the fact that he’s not making stuff up or doing his own thing.  The point is not “I do nothing,” but “on my own initiative.”  As Christ, the Messiah, he voluntarily submits to the divine plan and is so fully in step with God the Father that they say and judge the same things the same way.  (This is a point which the book also makes, in a somewhat off-putting but not exegetically problematic way.)  Their relationship is so inextricable that Jesus says, “He who believes in me does not believe in me, but in him who sent me, and he who beholds me beholds the one who sent me” (12:44-45).  Jesus came to bring those who believe in him out of darkness (12:46), while those who reject him will be judged by what Jesus has said (12:48).  “For I did not speak on my own initiative, but the Father himself who sent me has commanded me what to say and what to speak” (12:49).  Again, the point is not Jesus’s inability, but rather the power of his words, because they are the very words of God.

In other words, these four quotations from the Gospel of John do not present Jesus as “the most dependent human being who ever lived.”  That is a bizarre recurrence of Friedrich Schleiermacher’s view that Jesus was not God, but had a “potent God-consciousness,” that is, a strong awareness of his own dependence upon God (who, in Schleiermacher’s account, was unitarian).  Instead, these passages show Jesus as so fully in step with God the Father that he works divine miracles, executes divine judgment, speaks the divine messages.  “I do nothing on my own” is not inability, but the shared life of the divine Trinity.  Context is important for exegesis.

When context is lacking, biblical references become questionable proof-texts. It is the same wrong method, though usually less extreme, as taking Jesus as forbidding thought because he said, “Do not think” (Matt 5:17).  Indeed, the command was so important that he repeated it (Matt 10:34)!  But what he really said was, “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill” (5:17) and “Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword” (10:34).  Both of these are important assertions by Jesus; neither is a prohibition of thinking.

What about Jesus’s “one-person focus”?  While it is true that Jesus saw the crippled man by the pool in John 5:6, what else would the inspired text have said?  The story is not about the crowd, which is mentioned only to explain this man’s inability to get healed through the expected way.  The story is about Jesus, and how he healed this man, so it starts with mentioning the man (5:5) and that Jesus noticed him (5:6).  If Jesus hadn’t noticed him, there would have been no healing, and hence no story.  On the other hand, other stories from the same Gospel demonstrate that Jesus was also aware of others, even while performing his miraculous healings.  In turning the water into wine, he gets servants involved to bring the wine to the master of ceremonies, thus keeping himself out of the limelight while broadening the number of witnesses (2:9).  He tells the Samaritan woman to call her husband, knowing she’s living in adultery, which prompts her to summon the whole city to him (4:16-18, 28-30).  Even in John 5, he specifically tells the healed man to pick up his cushion (5:8-9), knowing this would get him in trouble with the Pharisees (5:10) and provoke a conflict, which enabled him to tell them of his divinity.  He likewise healed the man born blind in a way that the rabbis would (erroneously) find offensive, rather than (rightly) interpreting as a re-enactment of the initial creation of humanity (John 9:6, 14-16 with Gen 2:7).  Most explicitly, Jesus prayed aloud for Lazarus to return to life, explicitly acknowledging that his loud prayer was for the benefit of those standing around (John 11:42).  Jesus does not have an exclusive one-person focus, and thus his perfect love need not have an exclusive one-person focus.  He was also apparently able to “multitask” better than some (including the author of this blog post; I do tend to zero in on one person at a time, because I don’t multitask well!).  His prayer while raising Lazarus also reveals that Jesus, far from needing to get away from people “in order to tune in to his heavenly Father,” had God on the radar even in the crowd, as well as the crowd.  We might have a lively discussion why Jesus sometimes evaded the crowds and spent time alone with God, but it was evidently not his only way of getting in touch with the Father.  (In our weakness, it often is ours!)

The author does qualify his statement about Jesus’s “pattern of morning prayer” with an acknowledgment that Jesus prayed in the evening too (e.g. John 17, and the Garden of Gethsemane).  But the psalms he quotes do not indicate a divine preference for morning prayers, because other psalms equally describe prayers at other times.  Psalm 4:8 speaks of prayer before sleep, and 141:2 of prayer as the evening offering.  Psalm 42:8 speaks of singing to God at night, and 63:6 to meditating on God by night.  Psalm 119:55 mentions remembering God’s name at night, and 119:148 to anticipating nightfall for the opportunity to meditate on God’s Word.  Several psalms combine praying by day and by night (22:2; 77:2; 88:1; 92:2).  Psalm 55:17 even speaks of complaining to God at all times of day and night!  In other words, the author has taken his own preferred pattern of morning prayer and selected only those verses which support it, ignoring the equally numerous verses which present other practices.  (How often we all do this!)  If anything, this mix of time references indicates that one can find a psalm for any occasion (and perhaps we should)!

This is a long post, but why does it matter?  If the author is making good points about how we should pray, what do we care if he stumbles a bit in exegetical precision?  It matters because we cannot trust every author to make good points.  Schleiermacher’s views were well received in his own day, but his teaching caused a great deal of damage to the church, leading many to prefer a sentimental cuddly identification of Jesus to a true creaturely worship of the King of kings, God incarnate.  If we tolerate sloppy exegesis when we like the result, we shall lose the ability to confront sloppy exegesis when the result is simply wrong.  Indeed, most insidiously, we shall be most vulnerable when we do like the result, because we will have no means of telling whether the point is in fact biblical, or merely our wishful thinking!  Instead, we must continuously sharpen our understanding of the Bible and our ability to distinguish true from false interpretations, so that we may not be misled by the enemy, “for we are not ignorant of his schemes” (2 Cor 2:11).

On the other hand, how ought we to respond?  Should we burn all of our copies of this book?  Not at all!  Pillory the author?  Not a bit!  The fact of the matter is that none of us are perfect, and all of us make mistakes in how we interpret the Bible.  Our understanding of the Bible, like our Christian life more generally, is a work in progress.  I, too, am flawed, and if people feel I have misrepresented any of the passages alluded to here, please let me know!  So we should raise concerns about Bible interpretation to each other, but in love and humility, knowing that we too are susceptible to stumble in many ways.  Love will enable us to desire to improve each other’s ideas, for the greater benefit of all, rather than just to tear down each other.  “But if you bite and devour one another, take care lest you be consumed by one another” (Gal 5:15).  As I said at the start, this is a good book on prayer, and I am greatly benefiting from it!  I appreciate the author’s honesty about his own struggles, engaging with problems which I also feel, but which many Christians are too scared to talk about openly.  In all likelihood, he had copied out the particular verses as “striking,” and then come back to them later having blanked out their context; or perhaps he was working to meet an editor’s deadline, knowing that his point (by and large) was biblical, but having trouble pinning down the precise verses, and these are the first ones he came across, without time to verify their context.  I’m not excusing exegetical sloppiness, but it is understandable.  But the payoff for this rant is not, “That’s a bad author” or “That’s a bad book,” both of which would probably be worse conclusions than taking the book wholesale.  The payoff instead is that good exegesis gives a better message.

The book observes that many Christians pray out of an empty sense of obligation, with no eagerness nor expectation that it will change anything.  That is a problem.  The author proposes that when we realize how much we need God, we shall be more eager to pray, and more desperate to see God work.  That is correct.  But what the Bible tells us is even better: God doesn’t need us to seek him, but he comes to us who didn’t bother with him, and he transforms us, cleaning up our mess often before we even knew we had a problem.  God said, “I permitted myself to be found by those who did not seek me.  I said, ‘Here am I!  Here am I!’ to a nation which did not call on my name” (Isaiah 65:1).  He found us, washed us, and put his Holy Spirit in us to seal our adoption and to lead us in prayer to our Father in heaven (Rom 8:14-16, 26; Gal 4:6).  We, the unworthy recipients of all this kindness, have been invited into an eternal loving relationship with God, which Jesus as the perfect God-Man already opened for us and demonstrated to us, so that we may grow to pray like Jesus, not because we need to, but because we get to.

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