But could a God like that be good? Exe-trajectical believers from the Bible (Part 4)
A few days ago, one of my readers caught me making up a word. (Ha!) Exe-trajectical.
It’s a combination of two different concepts the Bible encourages Christians to embrace in faith-based living: (1) exegesis and (2) trajectory.
Let me explain both individually before I bring them together...
When a Christian uses exegesis, he or she is using a text-reliant method of interpreting the Bible. It's the opposite of EISegesis, which is twisting the Bible to support an individual's pre-existing opinion.
The Greek prefixes are helpful here. “Eis,” means “into"--eisegesis tries to force meaning “into” the text. An eisegetical reader hunts for stories and verses that back his own opinions; he uses the Bible manipulatively.
“Ex” means “out of”--an exegetical reader isn’t trying to push his own meaning in, he’s taking meaning out. He is willing to sit under the authority of the text and receive what it teaches, even if this instruction challenges him. (If you are interested in knowing more about this, check out Knowing Scripture by R.C. Sproul, page 39. IV Press, 1977).
The term “trajectory” is generally used in the realm of physics. A trajectory describes the path an object takes while moving through space/time. It tells us about a moving object’s position in light of its own momentum and any external physical forces influencing its flight.
The concept of spiritual “trajectory” is also taught regularly by the Bible/ From start to finish, God shows us how souls and nations exist in motion, moving toward the natural ends of their own choices.
We see Lot moving closer and closer to Sodom, until his family is lethally entangled within its culture. We see Cain’s refusal to honor God wholeheartedly, leading to jealousy, to murder, and to exile. The Proverbs are full of exhortations about the ends of various life choices. The Gospels, Epistles, and Revelation all show how internal choices express heart postures that—over time—either yield to renovating union with Christ or hardened hostility to the faith.
Strangely, though, despite the prevalence of trajectory teaching in the Scriptures, this concept is generally ignored by many conservative Biblical teachers. Why? Well, because when this concept is mishandled, it’s inherently dangerous.
Sure, writers like C.S. Lewis have handled it brilliantly in essays like “Weight of Glory” and “Transposition.” But many others have misused the concept to re-create theology so that it jibes with secular humanism. Particularly, we see this happen to assumptions about the heart and nature of God.
Example 1: “Oh, God would never (insert random hard thing I don’t like) because he is love.”
Example 2: “God loves us. He wants us to be happy. He would never ask me to (insert hard thing I either don’t understand or don’t want to do).”
These are unreliable arguments of trajectory, assumptions that distort what has been revealed about God. We create statements like these when we want to use God to get what we want.
I wish I could tell you that I weren’t subject to this temptation, but I am. We all are. That's why this concept is dangerous. Nearly every eisegetical distortion of Scripture that I’ve seen in the past thirty years can be traced back to assumptions about God that are twisted by personal bias.
Yet avoiding the concept isn't entirely safe, either. Throughout Scripture, God praises believers who were willing to stand in the confusing intersection of past revelation and future hope, and believe huge, exe-trajectical things of him.
AN EXE-TRAJECTICAL LIFE
The first example that comes to mind is Abraham’s.
In defiance of everything we now know about Biblical Law—the command to refrain from murder, the command to refrain from sacrificing family members to gods--God asked Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. And Abraham was willing to go there. He would have killed the boy, if God hadn’t stopped him at the last moment.
Mosaic law wasn’t around at the time, but still, Abraham had a general idea of right and wrong. You don’t have to sit through a Hebrew Ethics 101 class to know that you shouldn’t kill your own son after waiting 100 years for him to be born. And yet, God asked him to.
If you don’t gasp in horror while reading this tale, you’re not super religious—you’re numb. God knows how human hearts work—he included this narrative, in part, to jolt us out of spiritual apathy. The appropriate spiritual response to Abraham’s terrible journey up the mountain isn't a passive shrug and a, “Well, God is good!” This story is supposed to bother you to your bones. It’s supposed to challenge you. It’s supposed to expose idols we hide in our hearts, and force us to ask hard questions, and drive us to our knees.
It's also supposed to show us something radically unconventional about Abraham’s relationship with God. Not until the New Testament book of Hebrews do we get a little insight about what the old man was thinking here. Hebrews says, “He [Abraham] considered that God was able even to raise him [Isaac] from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.” (Hebrews 11:9)
Do you get why this is so critical?
If Abraham had used exegesis alone, how could he have ever made an assumption so radical? Had he ever seen God raise anyone from the dead?
If we hijacked the Tardis to send Wayne Grudem back to Abraham's moment in Biblical history, could Grudem have provided systematic, textual evidence that Abraham’s hypothesis was solid? Would Abraham’s assumption have withstood a standard Dallas Theological Seminary hermenutics analysis?
Probably not. An exegetical analysis might focus on God's promise to multiply Abraham through Isaac--that promise had to be fulfilled. But a plan to raise Isaac from the dead can't be achieved in the exegetical realm alone. That leap has to be made by trajectory + exegesis.
Abraham chose not to limit God's future behavior to his past behavior. Yes, he held fast to God's promise, character, and power--but he didn't use that information to try to harness the options of the divine. He set his faith in the groove of the motion God had revealed--something I would have a difficult time doing without feeling like a heretic. Yet, we know Abraham was right to assume the unconventional of God because he’s praised for it in the chapter of the New Testament which lauds Biblical trust.
It would be easier to dismiss this story as a quirk of pre-canon, pre-Mosaic faith if other followers of God hadn’t pleased the Lord by drawing similar conclusions, even after written Scriptures began to be available in culture. So many believers used what was revealed about God to leap into unusual expectations of God, and this leap wasn't railed as theologically reckless but praised as beautiful.
Because of this, I'm not sure I've always perceived the intended function of the Scriptures accurately.
The Bible tells us that the Scriptures are God-breathed, critical for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness (II Timothy 3:16), and while it assures us that not a jot or tittle will pass away without the text being fulfilled (Matthew 5:18), it doesn’t ever say that God has placed all His truth inside of the text.
In fact, God tells us he intentionally hides things sometimes (Matthew 11:25). Through Paul, he tells we can only see through a glass darkly now (I Corinthians 13:12). The vision John received on Patmos is only partially explained--some of what John sees, he is forbidden to write down (Revelation 10:4). And Jesus openly criticizes scholars who believe that they can find all of God’s truth in the Scriptures while disengaging with him personally (John 5:39).
None of this lessens the value of the Bible.
The Bible is our most faithful plumb line for truth; it is living and active, and its ability to work diagnostically and correctively to bring about redemption is supernatural (Hebrews 4:12). But the Bible doesn’t replace a living God--it works in harmonious union with Him.
So there are two dangers in attempting an Abraham-like faith here, as far as I see it.
Danger One: We’ve talked about this risk in our conservative churches a billion times. It is possible to "remake" God into our own image simply because we don’t like the idea of God saying, requiring, or planning something that feels icky or unreasonable to us. The reality of a divine judgment doesn’t depend on whether we like the idea or not. The morality of eating/spending/having sex doesn’t depend on how we want God to feel about those things. As we discussed in the last post, humans are only able to create arbitrary law and moral codes—we can’t do anything about the deep, universal or moral laws. Whether we approve of truth or not, it exists. Whether we approve of God or not, He exists.
Danger Two: We haven’t talked about this in our conservative churches as often. We may also miss something critical if we never allow exegesis to lead us into true knowledge of a living God who is free to do unconventional or unexpected things. Knowing how to do this well will take some work on the part of conservative scholars because so often we have seen it done poorly.
But start working through the Old Testament and then the New Testament, asking how many opportunities for obedience, how many conclusions about truth (that were eventually confirmed) would have been missed if God’s people had not been willing to operate in an exe-trajectical manner.
These people didn’t eisegete—they weren’t letting selfishness drive them to recreate God or truth. In fact, often what they had to do as a result was difficult or painful. Still, they looked along the flight path of what God had clearly, definitely revealed--and as a result, they believed something of him that couldn't quite be nailed down to a specific verse of the text.
Jesus praised the centurion who looked to him with more faith than all of Isreal.
He praised the Canaanite woman who refused to accept two clear “no’s” from Him. This woman got direct statements from the Son of God telling her that her request was theologically impossible--yet, she didn’t stop with the words themselves--she trusted Christ’s character enough to push past technical religious language to reach what she believed to be true of His heart.
She openly defied his “It is not right,” with a “Yes, it is right.” Jesus wasn’t angered by this.
Look what he says instead, “Then Jesus answered her, ‘O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.” (To read this story, look up Matthew 15:21-28)
Her faith, Abraham’s faith, the faith of scores of other unconventional believers rooted in trust in a free and living God show us what it means to approach the Father exe-trajectically. The concept isn’t entirely safe, but it is good.