If we were to sit down and I asked you to name some well-known platitudes or maxims, what would you say? “God helps those who help themselves.” “A penny saved is a penny earned.” “Money is the root of all evil.” All of these would work. However, none of them are actually biblical. For whatever reason, the Western (read, Greek influenced) world loves a good proverb. While that’s fine, there are too many people who attack the bible the same way.
Okay, at the end of the day this post is about eisegesis– the pracitce of taking a section out of a passage of literature regardless of the meaning given by the surrounding context. However, I think the specific form of eisegesis I’m talking about is the fruit of our Platitude-o-philia (author’s note: not a real word). While the comedic example of why eisegesis (proof-texting) is bad is fairly obvious– Mat 27:5, “Then Judas threw down the pieces of silver in the temple and departed, and went and hanged himself…” Luke 10:37b, “…Go and do likewise”– there are many people who are guilty of it without even realizing that they are doing it.
For example, how many of us have heard some well-meaning individual at some point or another pull out the good ‘ol saying, “without faith, it is impossible to please God”? This slightly squishy phrase has been morphed to cover just about everything from why the wicked need to be saved to why the righteous just need to stop feeling bad about poor circumstances. However, to “platitudinate” (author’s note: also not a real word) this verse does such a great violence to the text as to render it almost unrecognizeable from it’s original intent.
To put it simply, Hebrews 11:6a (“But without faith it is impossible to please God…”) fits in the context of Hebrews 11 (go figure), which is a continuation of the argument from Hebrews 10 (no duh). After a careful reading of the text and a little bit of background research, you find that the book of Hebrews is written to those in the Jewish Diaspora who believe in Jesus and are suffering for their faith. After eight chapters describing how Jesus is superior to all the spiritual giants of Judaism, Hebrews 9 and 10 begin an exhortation to the reader to not throw away their faith on Jesus because Jesus is so superior to that which they are considering returning to. Hebrews 11 then continues this argument by talking about faith, and more specifically about the faith of the “saints of old” such as Abel, Enoch, Noah and Abraham… apart from the Law of Moses. This is why Hebrews 10 between the one who dies at the word of two or three witnesses under the law, and the punishment awaiting the one who has crushed the Son of God underfoot. Thus, Hebrews 11:6 is most specifically about the superiority of faith to the ineffecacy of the circumcision to attain salvation. Without faith it is impossible to please God, because it is by faith in the High Priest (Jesus) that we are able to approach God at all.
In this example, using the beginning of Hebrews 11:6 to browbeat those who are in a rough spot over their lack of faith is not actually anything even slightly resembling a proper use of the text. Based on the implications of the text, we could say something more along the lines of, “going to church on sundays is no enough to save your soul. Why? Because without faith, it is impossible to please God.” The point of Hebrews 11 is that faith is the stick by which everything else should be measured, not that God’s displeasure is a sign of your lack of faith.
So now we have to ask the question of why. Why are we so prone to this? History and mindset play a significant role, but the other part of it is our basic lack of humility. Being steeped in Greco-Roman culture as we in the West are, we love our platitudes. Little bite-sized chunks of truth that we can substitute for critical thought and ethics are how we are raised. Why does almost every story have to have a moral? Because we want to have a three sentence “point” that we can file away to feel like good people. The problem is that the Bible is not Poor Richard’s Almanac. Jesus wasn’t Aesop. For that matter, St. Paul wasn’t Socrates.
The problem is that Life doesn’t always have a quick, throw-away answer that can be spouted in 30 seconds or less. If nothing else, the book of Job should teach you that. Someday, I hope that we will wake up and realize that our platitudes are worthless because we are “answering” problems we know nothing about with information we haven’t taken the trouble to learn. For right now, however, that day doesn’t seem to be coming.