I recently read the following comments in The Patriot Post Digest dated July 7, 2006:
“Judge not, lest ye be judged.” It’s notable that this text from the Bible has replaced John 3:16 as Americans’ favorite scriptural quotation–but what does it actually mean? Is this ageless admonition really a call to unmitigated tolerance over discernment between right and wrong? Is it really a biblical nod of the head to the virtues of postmodern morality and multicultural society?
Of course not. As Christ’s imperative against judgment appears in the Gospel accounts, a different picture emerges. With the Pharisees clearly in view, in the Sermon on the Mount account of Matthew 7, and again in Luke 6, “judge not” appears in the context of the proverbial man who perceives the speck that is in his brother’s eye, but not the log that is in his own. The context, then, suggests a warning against hypocrisy, not moral discernment. Indeed, the full imperative of the passage encourages righteous judgment: “first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.”
Then, in John 7:24, taking aim at the Pharisees once again, Jesus makes another extraordinary statement: “Do not judge according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgment.” So, does Jesus really call his followers to “judge not”? Not really. In the vocabulary of theologians, this practice of isolating and thereby misinterpreting a phrase or passage from its context is called isogesis.
Other common examples of isogesis – which we’ll leave to your own exegesis – include the imperative “care for orphans and widows” (James 1) to sanction a social, and thereby governmental, responsibility; “Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man” (I Corinthians 11) as an affirmation of male chauvinism; and “Love keeps no record of wrongs” (I Corinthians 13) as a get-out-of-jail-free card for habitual sin (http://archive.patriotpost.us/pub/06-27_Digest/).
The title of the article in which these comments appeared was “Constitutional isogesis…” The point of the article was that “The same fallacies that affect biblical interpretation also affect our interpretation of the Constitution.” The conclusion of the article was as follows: Just as the problem of biblical and constitutional isogesis is essentially the same, so too is the solution. For centuries, a fundamental guiding principle has directed proper scriptural exegesis: Scripture interprets Scripture. That is to say, the primary lens for understanding a text is the text elsewhere in the Bible – thus, we interpret the Bible through what the Bible says.
The author of the article is a conservative. He would also claim to be a Christian although the Bible would judge him to be a non-Christian. Yet, even non-Christian conservatives know and recognize the improper practice of isogesis (isolating a phrase or passage from its context) and that it results in misinterpretation. They also know and recognize the proper practice of exegesis (that Scripture interprets Scripture) and that the primary lens for understanding a text is the text itself. Especially is this true with the text: “Judge not, that ye be not judged” (Matthew 7:1). There is a judgment that is condemned and there is a judgment that is commanded. The judgment that is condemned is hypocritical judgment (Matthew 7:3). The judgment commanded is righteous judgment (John 7:24).
May we all learn and apply these truths to our lives in every realm, including both the religious and the political.
David B. Watson
Beacon. Bellview Church of Christ. July 21, 2008.