The Argument for Love

I don’t think an argument has ever changed my heart. Sure arguments might change minds, but only love changes hearts. In fact, I think most people would rather be encouraged than yelled at, supported than chastised, and loved than argued with.

Arguments might change minds, but only love changes hearts

It’s not that I don’t love a good argument. I do. My career depends on a good argument. I even have hearings in the courtroom that depend on oral and written argument.

But even the best-reasoned position is markedly less effective when it is delivered poorly. As I’ve advised counsel on rare occasion, “Petulance is rarely a persuasive form of argument.” You could substitute “chastisement” and “berating” or similar words for “petulance” and get the same gist. Love – whether through patience, kindness, listening more than talking, showing respect – works better than all of them.

Exegesis vs. Eisegesis

When I posted a question on Facebook last month I received an email saying I had engaged in eisegesis, i.e., “the process of interpreting a text or portion of text in such a way that the process introduces one’s own presuppositions, agendas, or biases into and onto the text.” (Wikipedia.) Eisegesis is a bad way to try to understand a text.

The better way to understand a text is called exegesis, defined as a “critical explanation of a text or a portion of a text.” ( Exegesis involves putting aside “one’s own presuppositions, agendas, or biases” (the hallmarks of eisegesis) and doing your best to understand what the writer meant. Context, language, intended audience are all tools for exegesis.

In regard to the Facebook question I posed, the email writer said, “What you have perpetuated is eisegesis: imposing his or her interpretation into and onto the text, NOT exegesis.” I felt completely unsettled and confused at the suggestion. I couldn’t see where I’d done anything eisegetical at all. Yet the commenter had seen a question I posed and said it was eisegetic.

My Facebook post concerned this well-known passage:

Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.” (Matthew 16:23.)

I asked whether people thought Jesus was rebuking Peter, or was rebuking Satan in order to protect Peter. If you read the parallel passage in Mark 8:33 the lead-in to Jesus’ words reads “But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter.” So it is clear in that parallel passage that Peter is the one rebuked.

Why did I ask my question at all? It was to get a conversation going about how followers of Christ need to keep God’s ways in mind and not fall into Satan’s ways. But let’s say my question actually constituted getting Scripture wrong. Does that make it eisegesis?

For two reasons, no.

First – as concerns this particular instance – I don’t have an agenda regarding Jesus’ rebuke, at least not in the sense of a preconceived notion that the direct object of the rebuke was Satan and not Peter. Of the many doctrinal stands I take, having an agenda about Jesus rebuking Satan or Peter is not one of them except to say that Jesus certainly delivered a rebuke for interfering with the things of God.

Second – and more generally – sometimes getting Scripture wrong is just a matter of bad exegesis, not an instance of trying to make a passage fit one’s pre-set agenda. In other words, not all bad exegesis is eisegetical. Some of it is just a matter of getting the passage wrong without bringing one’s own agenda into the matter at all.

Love and Exegesis

The email was an attempt to correct errancy, and I appreciate it in that vein. But the way it was written did not invite a response or dialog. I knew I had not been eisegetical merely by posing a provocative question on alternative interpretations, but figured letting the matter fade was the best course. After reading it a couple more times to make sure I wasn’t missing something, I left it unanswered.

The point really, though, is that lecturing is not the way to change most people’s hearts or minds. Sure, you might get at their mind if your argument is presented respectfully. The better course is to present an argument not only respectfully but lovingly. They are not always the same thing.

I hope to always keep in mind that it takes love to change a heart.


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18 Responses to The Argument for Love

  1. “Only love changes hearts.”

    Excellent reminder! 🙂

  2. Anonymous2 says:

    We keep outsiders out by labeling them as outsiders rather than treating them as insiders. When I’ve treated agnostics as believers, it’s amazing how many of them explain to me they truly are believers, and have been at some level, for years.

  3. Jeannie says:

    It doesn’t sound like the email-writer had it right, Tim, but you were probably right in not engaging in an argument about it. It’s always a tough call about what might be the loving thing to do: discuss the matter with the person, just let it go, or what. I think your distinction about what might change the heart vs what might change the mind is really helpful.

    • Tim says:

      I couldn’t come up with a way to respond that didn’t sound defensive, so I figured letting it go was best, Jeannie. But the good thing is it did make me think more of the distinction between exegesis and eisegesis, so silver linings and all that!

  4. A lot to think about here. I tell young people to use your mind not just your emotions — maybe it’s a little of both plus getting wise counsel.

  5. For some reason reading this made me think of 1 Corinthians 8:1-3 “We know that “We all possess knowledge.” But knowledge puffs up while love builds up. Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know. But whoever loves God is known by God.”

    I think that sometimes people try to toss around big words and their knowledge as a sign of superiority. They use their knowledge to puff up their own opinion, but leave love out of it. The point is being right not trying to build up the other person. It can be a difficult thing and I know I’ve probably done it as well, but as in this case, sometimes doing it shows that we maybe don’t know as much as we think we do. Or in the immortal words of The Princess Bride, “You keep using that word, I do not think it means what you think it means.”

    • Tim says:

      That passage from 1 Corinthians fits perfectly with my experience in the post, Jeremy. And you threw in a Princess Bride quote? Bonus!

  6. ezerkenegedo says:

    In what you wrote, it sounded like you were just putting a question out there. If that was the case can it be that you were

    “interpreting a text or portion of text in such a way that the process introduces one’s own presuppositions, agendas, or biases into and onto the text.”

    Sometimes it seems that even questioning long held views on Scripture is unbiblical to some people and there is a quick shut down which is very unhealthy. Sounds like you have an interesting FB life!

    • Tim says:

      Her statements are beyond my understanding. Perhaps I’m not smart enough, who knows.

      • Ruth says:

        You certainly are smart enough, and then some, Tim.
        In not arguing with some one where the point is unclear, you leave potential harm at arms length.
        If discussion, or agreeing to disagree doesn’t happen, then silence might be golden!
        I very foolishly put up a slightly ungracious answer to a post recently, and then realised I didn’t really get the gist of their argument, and copped three or four very condescending, quite nasty comments back.
        Scratched the itch to reply….and didn’t!
        Although in your job, argument, counter-argument and consideration of every point is necessary, squabbles definitely are definitely not the order of the day.
        By the way, that was a very thought provoking question about Jesus and Peter, I liked your scriptural take on it 😊

  7. Bill M says:

    Your comment “lecturing is not the way to change most people’s hearts or minds” reminds me of years ago working with a larger IT group in the medical community. Most of the staff that our IT group worked with were women. I noticed that the ex-military guy that tried to bowl over people with his commanding knowledge just made them roll their eyes. On the other hand we had a Hawaiian fellow, laid back who simply listened well. Even though the the ex-military guy was much more gifted, the Hawaiian fellow was more trusted and requested.

    I discovered one of those valuable ironies, to get more credibility for what you say, listen more.

  8. Pastor Bob says:

    I have got to add:
    ” ” Petulance is rarely a persuasive form of argument. ” ”

    To my trademark debate phrase – “personal insult is the last refuge of one who is weak on facts.”
    — (ad hominem)
    Thank you!

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