Eisegesis vs. Exegesis


Often in the church, lay people will hear these two words and simply raise an eyebrow about what is meant. After all, they do not have the luxury of attending seminaries that teach these confusing concepts. These concepts, however, dictate how we read the Bible and apply it. The church has done a disservice to people by not teaching them the meaning of these concepts or how to apply these concepts in their daily reading of scripture. Though I cannot fix this with one post, I do want to, hopefully, set us back on the right path. Before this can be done, we must understand what each word means.

Exegesis is the application within interpretation that “provides sound reasons for the choices it makes and positions it adopts.”[1] In short, exegesis explains a portion of the Bible by appealing to the historical, authorial, cultural, linguistic, immediate, and overall context of the passage.

Eisegesis is reading one’s preconceived notions, biases, and understandings into the text. We all bring biases to the text, but eisegesis is when we allow these biases to dictate how we read the text. If we assume, before reading scripture, that Jesus is not God, whenever we come across a passage that indicates Jesus is God, we will do what we can to twist the passage into saying what we want it to say.

 

The Problem of Presuppositions

The problem between the two is the difficulty in determining which path we are taking when interpreting and applying a passage of scripture. Even after we have looked at all the contexts, we can still read our own notion into the scripture and twist the contexts to make it appear as if we are justified. How, then, do we eliminate this?

 

We must understand that, no matter how hard we try, at times we will read our own understanding into the text. We all bring baggage to our interpretation and application, thus we will inevitably read our own experience into an interpretation. For instance, a person from a Western background is going to have a difficult time agreeing with a person from an Eastern background on certain portions of scripture. The reason is we come from completely different cultures that will understand certain concepts and idioms in a different manner. No matter how hard we try, our background will find its way into our interpretation in some cases.

 

There are two main approaches to dealing with the problem of presuppositions (though there are more, I want to focus on the two major approaches):

 

1) Embrace and accept the “reader-response criticism” – this criticism ignores authorial intent and abandons exegesis as “impersonal” and “scientific” and instead relies on the response from the reader to find truth. The reader, not the author, determines what the passage means for the reader. If want John 3:16 to be metaphorical, so long as this appeases my bias, I am justified. The Bible becomes a work of art rather than an absolute guide. This leads to the deconstruction approach of Jacques Derrida. This view, similar to what is stated above, teaches that all texts are eventually inconsistent and will “deconstruct” (undermine) it. It embraces contradictions and allows for the personal application and interpretation to the reader, instead of a universal understanding.

 

Many in the post-modern movement have accepted a form of this interpretation. This is best demonstrated in Emergent writer Peter Rollins when he states, “The text [Bible] is not only full of fractures, tensions and contradictions but informs us that fractures, tensions and contradictions are all we can hope for.”[2] Thus, according to Rollins, the Bible is nothing more than a text full of contradictions that is then left open for the reader to decide what is applicable to him and what is not. This, in McLaren’s view (who accepts the reader-response criticism) should lead to “…a Bible study or sermon that is successful not because everyone agrees on the preacher’s interpretation, but because, when the sermon is over, everyone can’t wait to talk about and read and ponder and discuss it more…”[3] Though inconspicuous, this is a Derrida-like approach to interpretation, as the co-author adequately points out later in the chapter.[4] In other words, the pastor or teacher should not teach universal truth from the Bible, but instead encourage the imagination of the audience so that people will explore the scriptures for themselves and gain their own understanding.

 

The problem with this view is that it allows for any justified reading of scripture. Though this method is useful in discovering tensions in the text, if we leave our reading at the tensions we lose a comprehensive approach to the Bible. If we each understand the Bible differently, and accept this difference, who is to say we can approach the world through one mind or one spirit as the Bible commands us to (Romans 12:16, Philippians 2:2)?

 

Though it might seem fanciful and radical to use such an interpretation method, it ultimately contradicts the reality of human existence. No one holds a conversation with another person using this method. Whenever we are in a conversation, whether subconsciously or consciously, we are trying to discover what the other person means. If my boss tells me to write a ten page report on the company’s income, I do not try to discover what this means to me; instead, I try to discover what my boss meant and how I should apply his intention to my action. If a husband tells his wife that he loves her, the wife does not try to dictate what “love” means to her, but tries to understand what her husband means by “love.” This is our approach to everyday conversation – why, then, is it not our approach to scripture?

 

2) Use the contexts of the passage to challenge our presuppositions – though we can admit that we will all approach scripture with presuppositions, we choose not to simply leave it at this. We use the different contexts of the passage to see what the author was trying to say, what he intended, and what application we can bring out of the passage. One approaches scripture with the idea that there is an intended universal meaning of the text and that we can know this meaning. Though we acknowledge our limits, we also realize that the Holy Spirit helps us in our interpretation of scripture.

 

Exegesis would then seek to test our presuppositions when approaching a passage by discovering the truth in that passage. It assumes that, despite our fallacies, we can “…arrive at the meaning of the text that the biblical writers or editors intended their readers to understand.”[5] This is done by looking at the various Biblical genres, history behind the text, other related passages, the immediate context of the text, the language (Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic) it was composed in, the intended audience, and various other tests. It allows for the negation of our presuppositions in approaching a text.

 

An Example

A good example of eisegesis in a popular understanding is Revelation 3:15-16. This famous text speaks of how the church at Laodecia was neither hot nor cold for the Lord, but instead was lukewarm, and therefore was about to be spit out by the Lord. Many pastors and laypeople have taught that Christ is saying, “I’d rather you be on fire for me (hot) or completely against me (cold) than to be caught in between (lukewarm).” This has been a popular understanding and accepted interpretation. However, it is one of the best examples of eisegesis.

 

The first error in reading this passage is many people will read it prima facie. This is a Latin term which means “at face value” or more literal “at first glance.” In interpretation, it refers to our initial perception of a text. When people read this passage in Revelation, their initial reaction, based on their pre-understanding, is that “hot” and “cold” must refer to being on fire for Christ, or being against Christ. This is because in our culture we have used these words for such idioms. To be “cold” to something means to be disinterested or even against that thing. We think of the “cold shoulder,” or “cold speech,” or other similar idioms and figures of speech. We then take this pre-understanding and apply it to the reading in this passage.

 

The second error is ignoring the historical context of the passage. Laodicea is not a concept or a mythical church; it is a real church that existed in a real city. Notice in the passage how they are attacked for being affluent and are called poor, naked, and blind. This makes little sense until we look at the historical city of Laodicea. Laodicea was a very affluent city because of its famous textile industry. Likewise, it held a famous medical clinic that would develop an oily substance to help with the eyes. Thus, Jesus uses these three things in developing imagery for them and explains how, though they have gained these things physically, they are poor, naked, and blind spiritually.

 

Taking this further, we know that Laodicea lacked cool water. Instead, they had to use an Aqueduct to pipe in water from a neighboring city (Colosse). By the time the water got to Laodicea, it was lukewarm and therefore had many parasites. The people would have to boil their water before drinking it, otherwise they would get sick. Thus, cold water was viewed as refreshing and drinkable, while hot water was viewed as purifying. When we look at the historical context, we see that Christ is saying that Laodicea is neither hot nor cold, but instead lukewarm. What He means by this is that the church in Laodicea is neither refreshing to the general populace (via servant hood, helping the poor, etc) or purifying to the general populace (via sharing the Gospel). He wishes they would at least be one of them, but they are neither, they are indifferent to both. All they care about is amassing wealth and because of this, Jesus says they are a parasite and a disease. He draws an illustration to what would occur when someone drank the lukewarm water – they got sick and would throw up violently. Thus, Christ is saying the church in Laodicea makes Him sick.

 

The final error committed is ignoring the broader context of the Bible. The popular interpretation of the passage is that hot means we’re on fire for God and cold means we’re against God. Jesus says in the passage, “I wish that you were cold or hot.” Many pastors have gone on to say this means Jesus wishes you were either on fire for Jesus, or completely against Jesus, rather than being lukewarm. Is this something, though, that is present in the rest of the Bible? Is Jesus really saying that He’d rather us live in sin than to be lukewarm? This, it appears, would contradict 1 John 1:9-10, which states we will always sin and that we lie if we say we have no sin. In other words, the popular idea would contradict the broader context of scripture.

 

Application

This, of course, is just an example of how eisegesis can cause us to lose out on the greater meaning of a passage. Eisegesis generally occurs in the application of a passage, but also occurs when trying to discover the theology within a passage as well. As shown in this essay, the way to deal with the theology of a passage in interpretation is to look at the various contexts and challenge our presuppositions. I would add that we should never rely on our prima facie reading of a text to justify our interpretation. Anytime someone interprets the Bible and says, “Well it says plainly” or “it’s obvious from just reading,” a red flag should go up. Though there are passages that appear obvious, we should never take this obvious nature for granted. We should always explore what the text means, this way we can try our hardest to avoid eisegesis.

 

In application of a passage, there are certain rules that should be followed so we do not misapply a passage of scripture[6]:

1) Determine what the intended application was to the original audience – discovering what the author originally intended can often give a better understanding of how the passage can be applied to today.

2) Evaluate how specific the intended application was – is the command so specific to that time frame that the application cannot be carried out today? Abraham was told to sacrifice his son Isaac – does this mean that I should do the same thing?

3) Is the command timeless or is it limited by different cultures – there are certain principles that cross the cultural bounds (such as God is sovereign), but others that are limited to the culture (such as greeting each other with a holy kiss).

4) Find an appropriate application that will resemble the broader principle – as above, when a text can no longer be applied in its literal meaning (such as a holy kiss), we should still apply the principle. The principle behind greeting each other a holy kiss is to give a physical manifestation of openness. In our American culture, this can be accomplished by a hug or a handshake. Thus, even when the literal application of the intended audience is no longer culturally applicable, we should still seek out the broader principle presented.

 

Conclusion

It is easy for people to want to accept their initial reading of scripture as “guided by the Holy Spirit.” The reason is humans are naturally lazy and will seek out the easiest explanation for anything. It is difficult to discover the original meaning of a text and can take days to cover just two verses in scripture. Difficulty, however, does not mean we should avoid the practice. We should never accept our first instinct when reading a passage, but instead should seek out the proper context. Eisegesis will always lead to a misunderstanding of a passage and cause us to miss out on the true meaning – we should always seek a proper exegetical approach to the scriptures.

 

 


[1] Carson, D.A. Exegetical Fallacies. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996), 16.

[2] Rollins, Peter. How (Not) to Speak of God. (Brewster: Paraclete Press, 2005), 13.

[3] McLaren, Brian and Campolo, Tony. Adventures in Missing the Point: How a Culture-Controlled Church Neutered the Gospel. (Grand Rapids : Zondervan, 2003), 78

[4] Ibid. 83

[5] William Klien, Blomberg, Craig, and Hubbard, Rober Jr, Introduction to Biblical Interpretation (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2004), 153.

[6] This is a summarized version from concepts taken from Introduction to Biblical Interpretation. 482-503

 

 

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One thought on “Eisegesis vs. Exegesis

  1. Hey Joel,

    I’m sitting in a coffee shop reading this post, thinking to myself, “I haven’t pushed Joel’s buttons in a long time.” Here goes, and this is just thinking out loud (well, not really aloud, you know what I mean).

    If I understand the concept of eisegesis correctly, it is approaching scripture with preconceptions, simply put it is interpreting mostly by deduction. If you disagree with this let me know.

    Here is where my imagination is taking me…

    If a believer is to study the bible faithfully, in an exegetical fashion, he would inevitably come up with his own preconceptions (ie. systematic theology). If this is true, what would happen in the long run is that he who began studying the bible inductively & exegetically will inevitably end up studying the bible eisegetically, or deductively if you may. An example of this is the use of TULIP, the Armenian 5 points, even Molinist assumptions.

    Let me know what you think…

    I was dreaming last night and I heard God telling me that he wants you to come visit me down here in Postmodernville. =)

    Life is Beautiful

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