Theist the Bearded

Reading “Out From” and “Into” Scriptures: The subtle problem of Eisegesis.

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This blog will, at times, be reflective. Not that my spiritual musings are as interesting as anyone else’s, but it maybe helpful to some, and even if only for my own entertainment, to explore how they’ve developed. I’ve talked a little bit about my personal “church history” before, and that leap from one theological camp to another has been challenging. We as people, naturally resist any change or challenge to our deeply held beliefs, but for me, it couldn’t be ignored.

Shifting theological camps is difficult, when I see, or talk to, old acquaintances they immediately assume that we (my wife and I ) left because we were upset or mad about something. I wish it were that petty. Let me be clear that I don’t completely disagree or disavow our old camp, but there are some differences, some subtle and other’s more prominent, that led to our shift. Our shift was honestly a theological one, the problems that we have, are problems that were revealed as we studied scripture, and found that we were no longer a fit for our previous church.

One of these “shifts” revolves around the very way we used to approach scripture. We learned that we had been in the habit of reading into scripture as opposed to reading out from scripture.

The big nerdy term for reading out from scripture is called exegesis. A biblical teacher is charged to exigete scripture. Simply, what we mean by exegesis is to read “out from” scripture, which is to do your best to get to the clear intended meaning of a particular text.

To get to the meaning you ask questions like “Why did the writter write this?”, “Who is he writting too?”, “What problems is he addressing?”. Then they move to a more transcendent line of questioning, “Why did God inspire this person to write this?”, “How does this translate to us today?”, “What sin does this reveal in me?”

The opposite big nerdy term is eisegesis, meaning “read into” the text, that means you take your own ideas and presuppositions and lay them over a text to make your point.

The problem here is that the bible is not really open for this type of interpretation. We should pull meaning out from a text, not force meaning into it.

At large, on a cultural level, bits of scripture have been taken apart and out of context to justify lots of evils, western slavery for example. On the ground, in day to day life, I’ve seen men use the bible to rule over their wives and children, I’ve seen couples divorce using scripture to justify their actions, and to approve of their wandering hearts.

Now the bible does say things about slavery, a man’s role in the home, and divorce, but normally we don’t like what we find. So instead of reading “from” scripture and letting it change us, we read “into” scripture and try to change it.

More liberal churches are infamous for this. They almost completely ignore historical orthodoxy, and believe the bible is up for modern interpretation that suit the individual needs of the people. However, we shifted from a largely conservative church, were, for the most part, historical orthodoxy is upheld, and “reading into” the text is more subtle.

Here’s how it works. The primary motivation for a Christian is the truth. We hear the truth as it is rightly proclaimed then the holy spirit use that information for our transformation. This is how we are first saved and the subsequently how we grow and change.

So first, you hear the gospel and respond through salvation, then sometime later you hear more of the truth and start to see how it affects the different parts of your life. This is why the intended meaning of the text is so important. The more we hear the truth the more we are transformed by it. I find that much of the time people seem to think that Christian character forms instantly, when in reality it happens over the course of your entire life.

The big idea is that we serve the truth, the truth does not serve us. So say you are a pastor, you notice a particular issue in your church, attendance is down, giving is low etc. So you decide to find all the scriptures you can find on a particular subject and throw them at your congregation to convince them to step it up and meet the expectations you see in scripture.

What you say may be in the bible, it may even be truth and fact, but the pastors intent can ruin the intent of the verse. You can easily find a verse about tithing and your congregation may feel compelled/guilted to give because their pastor told them to, but not because they heard the truth, and their hearts were changed by it.

You simply produce a people that are motivated by guilt but are not cheerful or generous in their hearts.

See the bible does tell us to give, but what is missed too often is why we don’t give. We don’t give because in our hearts, we are not generous. We become generous when we hear the truth, and then seek God to restore in us the generous type of hearts that love to give.

Exegesis produces transfomed people because they regularly hear the truth and are challeged to change by it. Eisegesis produces moral people who conform only to meet requirements that make them feel accepted, but there hearts are not necessarily in it. Eisegesis only reads the surface of a text and therefore only deals with the surface of the issue. Exegesis looks deeper for the heart of a text and therefore deals with the heart of a person.

What I’m trying to paint with a very broad brush, is that the act of eisegesis in scriptual interpretation is not necessarily the problem. Its the intent of the one delivering the message that leads us away from finding the meaning “out of a text”, and pushes us toward adding our own ideas “into a text”.

Are you trying to warp the meaning of a text to permit certain sins? Or is it more subtle? If you approach a text with any personal agenda then you’ve already lost. Whether you’re a pastor searching for a way to get your flock to act a certain way, or a teenager trying to figure out how far is too far with your girlfirend, you’re searching scripture not looking for God’s heart in a particular circumstance, but a way to merely serve your own heart’s desires. This, I believe, is the root problem with eisegesis.

It is not your message that needs to be understood. Heck, its not even a “yours and God’s message” together that needs to be understood, it is only God’s message that needs to be understood.

I have a lot of implications that I’m hesitant to discuss. I know that when my eyes and mind were first opened to this idea of reading “from” vs “into” the bible, it was hard to initially wrap my head around. So I’ll leave it here as not to add to much at once.

This is a starting point, and if anyone wants to continue the conversation of the many implications you are free to comment or get ahold of me. I try my best to be clear and choose words carefully, so please read thoroughly before discussing.

Let me try to sum up. The main reason that we jumped theological camps is that we weren’t flourishing, not in a selfish way, but in a consistent growing into maturity way. Looking back, a contributing factor was this idea of reading “into” scripture (eisegesis), vs reading “from” scripture (exegesis).

Truth did get through, and there was a lot to be learned, but it was often muddled with agenda and presumptions that covered the clear message of the text. Which I understand, but what I further understand now is that the truth plus agenda, no matter how good that agenda is, is not as effective at changing people’s hearts as the truth is on its own. The big idea is to simply let the truth have its stay. No modification, just the truth. Once we get to that truth, then we can begin to see cleary how it applies specifically to each of us.

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