It has often been said that “the devil is in the details.” However, I actually want to argue today that the devil is in the generalities that lack the details. Details provide clarity. To lack them is to lack clarity and to make what is said into something that can be more easily molded to one’s false beliefs. Without details, we misunderstand what God has said about Himself, His work, and us.
I think the most common trait amongst bad interpretations of Scripture is, therefore, what I would call the hermeneutics of inattentiveness. In other words, a type of interpretation of Scripture that does not pay attention to detail. This is typically on purpose, as details provide context to what is being said in the text. To ignore them is to ignore the context, and therefore, the context can be replaced or the text lifted out of its context can be reinterpreted to support one’s false view. The arrogant are concerned about winning arguments, not whether or not they are exalting God on the throne He has constructed for Himself out of truth. If one thinks about it, the more one cares about God, the more he or she will care about what God has said, the more one cares about what God has said, the more one will pay attention to the details that provide the context of what God has said. Only haters are apathetic toward the context supplied by their opponents.
For instance, in a recent debate with some people on FB concerning the exclusivity of God and His kingdom blessings, the Pharisees were employed as those who were being exclusive. From a 10,000 foot flyover, panning out from the scene and ignoring the details of what is being said, one can generally argue that the Pharisees were excluding people and therefore represent the side of exclusion. Jesus was rebuking them for their views. Ergo, Jesus was arguing for inclusion. Hence, to argue for exclusion is to be a Pharisee and to make the argument for inclusion is to be like Jesus. The Inclusivist pats himself on the back and walks away happy that he holds Jesus’ view and anyone who contradicts him holds the view of those who Jesus condemned.
The problem, of course, is that when pans back into the scene and pays more close attention to the details, he or she can see that Jesus is not rebuking the Pharisees for being exclusive in general, nor is He arguing for inclusion in general. Instead, He is rebuking them for the basis upon which the decisions of exclusion are made. Jesus Himself excludes the Pharisees. He excludes all those who practice lawlessness. He judges all mankind, sending some to life and others into the lake of fire, excluding them from the kingdom forever.
If this is true, what do the details concerning Jesus’ rebuke of the Pharisees tell us about the real argument being made? Well, the details indicate that the Pharisees were excluding on the basis of ritual purity, class, ethnicity, etc. Jesus comes along and rebukes them, not because they are not being inclusive of everyone regardless of beliefs and moral practices, but because beliefs and moral practices are not the basis for their exclusion as God’s basis is.
Hence, when God comes to the people through Christ, His message is, “Repent, because the kingdom of God is now accessible.” It is accessible through repentance of sin, not regardless of whether one repents. It is the kingdom of the God of the Bible, not any god whatsoever. This kingdom has been prepared for those who are His sheep, and they make themselves known both by submitting to the Son as Lord and by their love for the rest of His sheep (i.e., they are known by their exclusive love and excluding and including on the basis of theology and ethics, not ritual practices, ethnicity, or class).
Hence, the problem with the Pharisees is not that they were exclusivists. The problem is that they did not exclude and include people according to the criteria God gave them throughout the Hebrew Bible. In other words, according to the details, He is rebuking them for being the wrong kind of exclusivists rather than for being exclusive in general.
Jesus argues that God is exclusive. He has His own people that He has called out for Himself. Jesus does not pray for those the Father has not given Him, but only for those the Father has given Him. There is a judgment that divides the world, and there is an inclusion and exclusion in that judgment that must be known now and not just when it is too late.
Ironically, this misunderstanding of the basis of exclusion led the Pharisees to misunderstand their mission. They taught people ritual purity rather than repentance from sin. Hence, there was no Spirit in their message because it was the wrong one. Whenever they did make converts, it only made them twice as much children of hell as they were because they were converting the externals.
The hermeneutics of inattentiveness causes the reader to miss the point, construct a rebuke of the Pharisees that looks like the rebuke they are making of their opponents, and comfort themselves that Jesus is on their side. But what is even more dangerous than this is that this type of poor exegesis leads to constructing a completely different God/Jesus that ripples throughout one’s theology, reconstructing Christianity as a whole. An inclusive God means a lesser judgment if one exists at all. This has repercussions in one’s ethics as well. If God loves everyone, includes everyone regardless of their theology or ethics, then theology is probably not that important. Neither is repenting of sin all that urgent. After all, God loves and includes everyone. To argue otherwise is to argue against Jesus and to be a Pharisee.
This hermeneutic essentially allows the person to believe and do whatever he or she wishes. Cults employ it for this very reason. To ignore the details, fly so high over the text that only a very generalized principle can be gleaned without the qualifications those details supply, is really to ignore the Word of God as a whole. It is an immoral act of rebellion against God’s Word under the guise of piously quoting it. Tricksy little Hobbitses are we. Self-deceived and deceiving others. But for those who have been called out of darkness and into His glorious light, God is in the details.