I receive a lot more email since launching this blog. Some is favorable affording opportunity to help others reconcile their faith and sexuality and move on to grow toward Christian maturity. Some is less favorable. The excerpt above is part of an email I recently received from someone who tried to convince me that homosexuality and homosexual relationships are biblically and morally wrong. (Been there, done that, got the tee shirt, and have written about it here at length.) He got upset, however, when we applied the common-sense rules of biblical exegesis to certain passages of Scripture and some long-held and cherished doctrines of his became challenged. Since the question of how to responsibly interpret the Bible is a critical one, I thought some basic guidelines might be helpful.
Though the word might sound a bit scary, “exegesis” comes from the Greek verb which means “to draw out”. Simply put, exegesis is about drawing out from the text the true meaning of a Bible passage. Or phrased a bit differently, it means getting out of the text what it originally meant to the author and to the original intended audience, without reading into the text the many traditional interpretations that may have grown up around it.
Exegesis then is an investigation. The question we always have to be asking is: What’s going on here? The reader today must somehow try to enter the world of the biblical writer and seek to understand what the writer was saying. If we fail to pay attention to the world in which the Bible was written, we will simply read biblical texts, infuse them with meaning from our social and symbolic world and conclude that the Bible speaks directly to us.
In contrast to this, what many do instead is what some theologians refer to as “frontloading”, that is to say, they read their own personal, political or ideological beliefs back into the Bible, instead of reading out from the Bible what the original writers were saying. This process of reading one’s own ideas into interpretation of the Bible is called “eisegesis”. EXEgesis and EISEgesis are conflicting approaches to interpreting the Bible. Why?
— Exegesis is reading out from the Bible what the original writers were saying.
— Eisegesis is reading one’s own ideas or prejudices back into the Bible.
— Exegesis is about getting out of the text what is truly there in the first place.
— Eisegesis is about putting into the text something never intended by the author.
— Exegesis is drawing out the true meaning of a Bible passage.
— Eisegesis is at best unwise, and at worst extremely dangerous.
But exegesis is not an easy task and is not for the faint in heart. Like most things of value, it requires some work on our part. We also must be mindful of the fact that we are all guilty of eisegesis, to some degree, because we all read the Bible with modern eyes. We all have our own beliefs, worldviews and biases, and letting them influence our interpretation of the Bible is an ever-present danger. So whatever we can do to leave our assumptions behind before we approach the text will only help to not taint what we’re going to come out with. It is respectful of God’s gift to us to go after the author’s intentions and meanings before arriving at our own.
When trying to interpret the Bible we should never begin with the question: What does this mean? The reason is that’s the wrong starting point. You’re really asking, “What does it mean to us today, individually?” and that’s why we end up with scores of different
answers that can be answered by anyone subjectively. If you have 25 people, you can end up with 25 different opinions, resulting in 25 different doctrines, every one of which may be wrong, even though they all sincerely and completely believe they are correct.
Exegesis always asks, “What did it mean?” There’s a vast difference in those questions as starting points. What did this mean to the author and original intended audience? The goal of Biblical exegesis is to explore the meaning of the text which then leads to discovering its significance or relevance. But if we have no idea what the text meant THEN, we’re left to only guess at what it might mean for us NOW. Only sound exegetical techniques will bring out the actual truth. Otherwise, the Bible becomes nonsense with
multiple subjective opinions of what the text means and no objective guide to whether any of them are right. The reason why there are so many wild and utterly wrong interpretations of Scripture is that exegesis has not been applied.
Our ability to do sound exegesis has increased exponentially over the past century. This is because today we actually know more about the Bible than at any previous time in history, including even in later biblical times. Case in point: Up until the early 20th century, we knew very little about the Canaanites. We knew little about their religion, culture or way of life. For the most part, our only witness to these people were the texts in the Old Testament. But in 1929 that changed substantially with the discovery of what is called the “Ras Shamra” texts. (Ras Shamra is a place on the northern coast of Syria, where the remains of the ancient Canaanite city of Ugarit have been unearthed.) From 1929 to the present, literally thousands of texts and materials have been found. The real treasure was not the buildings or jewelry, but large quantities of writings showing how ancient Canaanite city-life worked and revealing a wealth of information that has been invaluable in our understanding of Canaanite religion and culture. The discovery of these texts is considered by many second only to the discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls and they have had a profound effect on biblical studies.
When I advised my email friend why it is so important that we pay attention to the writer’s intent, it was dismissed with, “But the true author of Scripture, though written down by man, is the Holy Spirit.” Certainly, the Bible was guided by the Holy Spirit to be a representative for all who respond to God. However, that does not in any way undermine the absolute interpreting principle that we have to know what the ancient inspired writers thought in order to correctly interpret their words. The Bible is a mingling of divine and human, as was Christ. As soon as we ignore one over the other, we are off into heresy. As Dr. Herman Bavinck, former professor of systematic theology at the Free University of Amsterdam said:
“The Scriptures are the product wholly and entirely of the spirit of God … and at the same time are wholly and entirely the product of the activity of the writers.”
For those reading the Bible with the sincere intent of wanting to know the truth of Scripture, as opposed to merely the presumption of the truth of Scripture, every group will have things to learn and every group will have things to unlearn. But when our beliefs and doctrines — however cherished or long-held they may be — are found to be wrong, we have to be willing to let them go. This will not always be easy.