Something that strikes me when I spend a lot of time in a given biblical book is the contrast between what I’ve been taught about a book’s/passage’s meaning (from sermons, the classroom, etc.) and what the text actually says.
This contrast is illustrated perfectly in what I was taught in college by one of my favorite preachers at the time, Paul Washer. He was teaching on the Christ-Hymn in Philippians 2:1-11. Specifically, I’m referring to his teachings on the climax of that hymn, vs. 9-11:
Therefore God exalted him (Christ) to the highest place
And gave him the name that is above every name,
That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
In heaven and on earth and under the earth,
And every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
To the glory of God the Father.
Mr. Washer essentially taught that (1) Though the Bible says, ”every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord,” (2) we know that not everyone will willingly bow to Jesus in this life (i.e. will not accept the gospel), so therefore, (3) those who do not believe will be forced to bow by God breaking their knees and forcing them into this submission.
So what’s the problem with Washer’s reading of this passage?
Only this: It doesn’t take what the passage says seriously enough. Here are two reasons why:
- The passage is a hymn. It is poetry. Poetry intentionally overstates its case, uses hyperbole, and exaggerates, etc. in order to universalize its message. By ignoring the genre of Philippians 2:5-11, Washer is forced to take the passage literally, and therefore say something which the passage never says: That God will break the knees of unbelievers and force them into submission. This is highly problematic on an exegetical level and is due to a simple refusal to acknowledge genre (I say “refusal” because I think Washer is too smart for me to say he is ignorant of the genre.)Genre is a literary contract between the writer and the reader. It provides the rules by which a passage is to be read. To ignore the contract, then, is to conform the passage to our pre-established agendas, instead of allowing it to speak on its own terms. This, I believe, is what Washer did with this passage.
- The second reason I don’t think Washer’s interpretation takes what the text says seriously is that the passage itself says nothing about those who do not willfully submit to God. In fact, instead of saying what the text says, Washer adds to the text.This passage is unconcerned with the fate of unbelievers. It is, rather, consumed (absolutely consumed!!) with the humility of God-in-the-flesh, God-on-the-cross. The hymn praises God the Father precisely because he worked to bring “every knee” under his dominion by virtue of a crucified Messiah, not through a conquering Messiah.
- Finally, Washer’s argument goes against the whole movement of the hymn, which, as already has been noted, celebrates a crucified God who became a slave in order to save the world. The glory of Christ is in his cross, not in the mallets he beats people with. This is not to say the Bible doesn’t speak of justice. But, ‘cmon, this hymn does not address eternal damnation of justice; it shows the primary mechanism by which God will bring people to their knees – by laying aside all his claims to sovereignty and power and control, all his rightful claims to violence, in order to be wounded by those who sought their own glory and established it through dominance an violence. That’s what this hymn is about. And that image stands in sharp contrast to Mr. Washer’s comments.
- If you want to argue about what God will do to bring unbelievers into submission, then that’s your prerogative, but choose another passage to do it. This passage is not on the table as an option to discuss that subject. To force the passage to address a subject it does not intend to address is eisegesis driven by pre-established theological or homiletical agendas instead of driven by the author’s intention.
Most of my disagreements with Mr. Washer would simply be matters of interpretation (we disagree on what the text means), but in this case, I’m concerned that he does not take seriously what the text actually says and doesn’t say.
He, and anyone else, is welcome to disagree with me. Just, please, do not club my knees if I remain un-submissive to your interpretation. And whatever you do, don’t club yourself in the knees by appealing to something the passage doesn’t say or isn’t concerned with. This is not only dangerous to our theological conversations, but it’s dangerous to our spiritual growth. After all, the reason I remember this sermon of Paul Washer’s so vividly is because the negative affected it had on me for a long time. What we say about scripture impacts the lives of other people – especially those of us who preach, teach, and write about God.