Tuesday, February 7, 2012

In Defense of President Obama

Presidential Exegesis 

Evangelical Republicans have sharply attacked the President for his appeal to the Bible to support his tax policies. He says he believes that those in the higher income brackets should have their taxes increased, because “unto whom much is given much will be required.” (ESV text: “Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand more.”) The right has replied that Jesus us did not intend to say a thing about taxes as he concluded his parable with that saying (Luke 12: 35 – 48).

But then I have heard theonmists argue that Jesus teaches about employer employee relations in the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20: 1 – 16). Employers have a right to discriminate in wages and may pay some less for the same work if they wish, so long as those who end up getting less pay for the same work agreed in the first place to the offered wage. Employees have no right to complain, if they find out the employer made a more generous arrangement with some of their co-workers who work less but are rewarded the same.

The point is not to argue who has the better exegesis and application of these parables that are meant to show us the kingdom of God (which as  2-Ker I read “visible church”). On the whole I will trust a theonomist’s exegesis and use of Scripture before I will the President’s. However, in the use of Scripture in the two cited cases, I think the President’s may have a slightly stronger position. That said, I don’t think either position is right, and I don’t really want either Presidential or theonomic exegesis of Scriptur,e because I don’t think either hermeneutic is sound.

As I have noted before, you can propose any question you want to Scripture, and you can get an answer, but that does not make the answer a “Biblical” answer. Grammatical-redemptive-historical exegesis is meant to enable us to determine what was originally meant by the speaker or writer and how the original audience understood it. This method gets takes us to both meaning and intent, and so imposes discipline on use (application).

There is an old fundamentalist-evangelical joke about the man looking for guidance by the “close your eyes, let the Bible fall open, point to a verse, and find God’s direction to you” method. The story goes the man tried it once, read, “Judas went out and hanged himself,” and decided he better dip one more time. When he did, his eye fell upon, “What thou doest, do thou quickly.” With that he closed his Bible.

Sometimes the Biblical thing to do is to leave your Bible closed. Not because the Bible is not the Word of God, and not that God does not care about everything. But because God has not chosen to speak to us a word of revelation about everything.

BTW, I wonder what Bill Clinton was really thinking about when he quoted “eye has not seen and ear has not heard the things that God has prepared…”


Scott Simmons said...

I think it may go too far to suggest that he was offering the quote as exegesis. He merely said his view "coincides" with Jesus' words.

We use quotes from the Bible in many ways. On one end of the spectrum, we quote the Bible as "exegesis." On the other end of the spectrum, we simply like the way the Bible worded something similar to what we want to say. Some quotes and allusions have become proverbial in American culture, like "seeing the handwriting on the wall." We won't question whether people using that phrase are properly interpreting Daniel 5 by grammatical-historical exegesis.

I suspect Obama's quote was intended more to be on that side of the spectrum. And, if a conservative candidate invoked the Bible to support a conservative agenda with equally bad "exegesis," I doubt these people would complain.

biggsenator said...

If one examines the context of the President's remarks, it becomes clear that he was not simply quoting the Bible because he liked the way the Bible worded it. This is unmistakenly a rush to justify the President's misuse of Scripture, Scott. Nice try, but no dice. Obama was clearly claiming the Bible's authority for the stance he was advocating, thereby requiring that he correctly discern the intent of Jesus' remarks for his point to be valid. This requires, as Bill points out, correct exegesis, or there is no reason for the citation. By the way, I have personally criticized conservative politicians frequently for their careless and ignorant citation of Scripture, so this is a slander of which you need to repent. I regard myself as one of "these people."

Scott Simmons said...

Please read my statement a little more closely. I'm not rushing to justify any misuse of Scripture. I'm simply suggesting that we shouldn't rush to condemn the use of the quotation by assuming every quotation is intended to provide Biblical authority to a position with proper exegesis. His exact words were:

“But for me as a Christian, it also coincides with Jesus’ teaching that, ‘for unto whom much is given, much shall be required,’"

He said his views coincide with Jesus' teaching. He did not say Jesus' teachings mandate his tax plan. There's a BIG difference.

I think one other correction to your exegesis of my first comment is in order. I drew a continuum between what we might call an "authoritative" quotation and what we might call a "proverbial" quotation (for lack of better terms. I said it seems to me that the president's quote was closer to that end of the spectrum. I didn't say his quotation was fully on the side that he "just like the way the Bible worded it."

So we may disagree over how he intended the remarks, but as I read the quote, I remain unconvinced that he was using the verse as Biblical authority for his policy.

Good for you that you criticize the exegesis of conservative politicians too. You weren't part of the "these people" to whom I was referring. I was talking about public figures that broadcast their views on blogs and airways that give much harsher criticism to politicians they oppose than to those they support--that is, the people that made this an "issue." It's silly, really.

The Christian Curmudgeon said...

No, I do not think Obama was doing anything nearly so sophisticated as any of that. For one thing I don't believe for a moment he believes in Biblical authority. Nor, do I believe he was engaging in serious Biblical argument. He was looking for a way to get religious cover for his policy. And in doing that he did use a saying of Jesus in a way that betrays misunderstanding of it and makes a misuse of it.

Scott Simmons said...

If I may venture to restate your view, you're saying he doesn't believe in Biblical authority himself but was appealing to the Bible authoritatively to get religous people to back his policy; he misused the verse to make it seem like his tax policy was in line with Scripture. I just want to be clear on what you mean so that you can correct any misunderstanding I may have.

But if on the other hand, you acknowledge that he wasn't "engaging in serious Biblical argument" (this I think is the main thrust of what I'm suggesting), and if we acknowledge that this verse has become proverbial in American culture, why can't we just take this as Obama saying that he believes there are analogies between his tax plan and this Biblical saying? To me, that seems to be the thrust of his statement.

The Christian Curmudgeon said...

Is this really all that complicated. My sense is Obama does not believe in Biblical authority but he is not above saying "as a Christian" and then quoting Jesus. He is trying to get support for his tax policy by an appeal to a Bible he does not believe in because there are a great many who hold the Bible with some reverence. His appeal to the Bible involved misinterpretation and misuse. How cynical, if at all, was he? Don't know, don't care. But I think it is clear he intended to make use of the Bible to garner support for his policy, just one aspect of a many pronged strategy. But my main point is that lots of people misinterpret and misuse the Bible and that we need the discipline of good exegesis to avoid such.

Scott Simmons said...

I agree with the first thought at least. It's not really that complicated. He was giving a speech to raise support for a tax plan and believed that his plan coincided in some way to a Bible verse, so he quoted it. Pretty simple.

People seem to want to make way too complicated though. We can speculate that he was using it to justify his tax plan to those who believe the Bible, but that seems to go beyond his words. You can further speculate that he was ignorant about the verse(not knowing what it originally meant) or that he was disingenuous (not caring what it originally meant and using it for his own purposes anyway). But this just complicates a very simple thing. He quoted it because he believes it coincided in some way with his views on taxes.