Sometimes I’m not so sure that we are really successful at reading the bible. This might be surprising considering the important place that the bible holds in many Christians lives, but I really do think that something less than ideal is going on when we open up our sacred texts. In order to talk about what this something is, I need to make use of two terms that, in my much-less-than-expert opinion, should be a part of every Christian’s lexicon.
Eisegesis, as defined in this article, is something along the lines of this: it is an interpretation of a text that is misinformed by inserting concepts, intentions, or words that are foreign to the text and to the intentions of the author. Exegesis, on the other hand, is the process by which we “draw out” the meaning of a text. This is the goal that we often have in mind when we read the bible. It turns out, however, that this goal is much more difficult to achieve than we might think.
Exegeting the actual meaning of a text is a difficult task precisely because many Christians are unaware that eisegesis can even be a problem when interpreting a biblical text. Disparate interpretations of a biblical text are often construed as testimony to the “living” nature of our sacred texts. Thus, readers are often more concerned about “what the text is saying to me” than about what the text actually means, and as a result, my spiritual brothers and sisters sometimes sit in a room with no clear and/or agreed upon understanding of a text.
(If you’re wondering “what the deal is” with the colors, click here.)
Much of the time, eisegesis is not a bad thing. Indeed, I have seen eisegesis have good consequences for readers. A person may interpret a text as containing some hidden lesson that they can apply to her life, and thus, she may become closer to living like Christ. However, there are other instances where eisegesis improperly influences theology or is part of a process of rationalizing our behavior that is less than Christ-like. This is the eisegesis that I am after.
The following is an attempt to outline the ways we fail to achieve the goal of truly understanding a biblical text. My hope is that we might be more careful not to fall into the (often invisible) eisegetical traps that surround the treasure that is a properly interpreted sacred text. Before I try to remove these eisegetical traps, a few preliminary comments are in order.
For some, it may seem overly dogmatic to declare that there is one proper interpretation for a text and to suggest prescriptions for obtaining that interpretation. I would submit to those persons one plausible premise: that the author of any given text intended to convey a particular message when she wrote down the words on her page. By this I mean that if Paul came down from heaven, for example, he would have something to say about our interpretation of a text. He might say “Hey! That’s not what I meant at all when I wrote those things!” This is what I am after when I seek the proper interpretation of a text: I am looking for the interpretation that the author would approve of if they were in the room with us.
A quick word about how I’ve named these different types of eisegesis. Recall that eisegesis is an improper insertion of something into a text which misinforms our interpretation of that text. The names of each of these eisegeses, then, is simply a description of what type of thing is being improperly inserted into the text. For example, when I refer to “ethical eisegesis” below I mean an eisegesis that inserts our ethical beliefs into a given text. With those preliminary remarks made, I turn now to a more detailed explanation of ethical eisegesis.
As stated above, ethical eisgesis is an improper insertion of our ethical beliefs into a given text. By “ethical beliefs,” I just mean beliefs about what we think is good or right. Ethical eisgesis often occurs when we encounter some prescription in the bible that is very demanding and/or inconsistent with our ethical beliefs. Because the biblical command is so demanding, we have an interest (consciously or otherwise) to interpret the text in a way that allows us to keep our ethical beliefs in place rather than adopting the ethic that the author is prescribing.
Here is an example text that is susceptible to ethical eisegesis:
28And Peter said, “See, we have left our homes and followed you.” 29And he said to them,”Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers[a] or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, 30who will not receive many times more in this time, and in the age to come eternal life.”1
How uncomfortable a text this is! What a radical suggestion! But how do we interpret the text?
It seems like many of us can only bear to think that this is something Christ might be calling us to for about five seconds. At this point, the ethical eisegesis takes over the interpretation. We don’t want to change what we think is right. Our ethics tell us that it is wrong to shrink from the duty of taking care of one’s family. Indeed, the Promise Keepers has been a movement that’s been formed by taking “Christian” ethics and creating categorical imperatives to take care of one’s family. Here, Jesus appears to challenge that imperative outright. He subordinates the duty to the family to a duty to God.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer in The Cost of Discipleship actually provides a good line that we would tell ourselves to “squeak” our way out of looking at this text for what it is: “Of course we are meant to take the call of Jesus with ‘absolute seriousness,’ but after all the true way of obedience would be to continue all the more…with our current families, and serve him there in a spirit of inward detachment [so that inwardly, we can be ‘attached to God’].”2
Bonhoeffer then says something that is worth quoting in its entirety
How is such absurdity possible? What has happened that the word of Jesus can be thus degraded by this trifling…? When orders are issued in other spheres of life there is no doubt whatever of their meaning. If a father sends his child to bed, the boy knows at once what he has to do. But suppose that he has picked up a smattering of pseudo-theology. In that case he would argue…like this: ‘Father tells me to go to bed, but he really means that I am tired, and he does not want me to be tired. I can overcome my tiredness just as well if I go out and play. Therefore though father tells me to go to bed, he really means: ‘Go out and play.’3
We must be introspective, then, when we are reading a text to make sure that we aren’t inserting our ethics into the text to avoid from reaching an uncomfortable conclusion about what Christ may call us to do. Even if we are introspective in this sense, however, there are more ways that we can loose the treasure of a good interpretation.
Here is a rather silly example of doctrinal eisgesis. Suppose that I read the following text:
Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.4
Suppose further that I looked at the word “grace” in the above passage and thought to myself: I heard pastor Bobby-Jo-Bill talking about the doctrine of God’s grace. He defined grace as “the unmerited favor of God.” Now, if I tried to insert this doctrinal definition of grace, then it seems like the correct interpretation of this passage would be lost. We cannot make sense out of how grace can play a role in helping “know how to answer everyone” if grace is “the unmerited favor of God.” If, however, grace is understood as the greek word, “charis,” which in this case appears to mean “that which affords charm…grace of speech,” then a proper understanding of the passage is more forthcoming.5
This silly example may lead one to think that doctrinal eisegesis is a thoroughly trivial matter. However, it can inappropriately influence our very Christologies if we aren’t careful. In the following example, it does not matter for my purposes whether the argument I put forth for my interpretation of the text is correct. (Even though I do think that this interpretation is correct.) Rather, I am only interested in the example insofar as it shows that doctrinal eisegesis can seriously alter our understanding of a text. I ask, then, that for this point, the reader simply temporarily suppose that the particular text is indeed an instance of doctrinal eisgesis to see my main intended point, which, again, is just to show how much of an impact doctrinal eisgesis can have on core theological issues.
Consider Jesus’ statement in John 14:28: “…for the Father is greater than I.” Now, this is certainly at first glance a theologically awkward text. We are often told that Jesus is God, and that this “is” implies a certain kind of ontological equality, that is, an equality regarding the way in which both God and Jesus exist. So, at first glance, this looks like Jesus is flatly contradicting a doctrine that has been very theologically important for the church. Now, there may be a way of looking at context to explain away this statement. (Dr. Carson does so in this book.) However, the way that A.W. Tozer handles the passage is the clearest case of doctrinal eisegesis I have ever found:
How do these words harmonize with the saying of Jesus, “My father is greater than I”? Those old theologians knew, and wrote into the creed, “Equal to His Father…” The unity of the Godhead made it impossible that He should surrender anything of His deity…When He took upon Him the nature of Man, he did not degrade Himself…God can never become less than Himself…6
Some foreign theological notions/doctrines are inserted into this text, and magically, Jesus’ statement that “the Father is greater than I” disappears! Where can we find a verse that says “God can never become less than Himself?” I’m not sure we can find this verse anywhere. It is a theological concept that seems foreign to the scriptures themselves. (In fact, in Philippians 2, we find Paul suggesting precisely what Tozer and his theological friends suggest is impossible: that God can become less than God.)
Regardless, then, of whether Jesus is God or less than God, we can see that doctrinal eisegesis can influence our interpretation of a text. Consider still another way in which we can miss properly exegeting a text.
Whenever we experience an epiphany-like moment during the course of reading or contemplating a text, there’s danger for revelatory eisgesis. As the name implies, revelatory eisgesis occurs when some truth is revealed to us and that truth is inappropriate inserted into a text. This is a particularly tricky form of eisegesis since the experience in which we think we’ve uncovered truth may actually be genuine, that is, we might have actually found truth during that experience. We must, however, refrain from trying to force that truth into a text where it does not belong.
I’ve been guilty of this multiple times, but one example should be sufficient. I had recently been reading this text:
And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic,[a] let him have your cloak as well.
Later that day, I went to a charity-type event. During the event, one of the children asked me if they could have my UCF jacket (because he liked UCF). Since I was trying to live out the radical generosity that Jesus calls us to, I gave him the sweatshirt. The child was shocked at how quickly I parted with the sweatshirt.
It was at that point that I had an epiphany: the readiness with which I offered my possession to the child led that child to question the value of the thing that I gave him. “What a wonderful lesson,” I thought to myself. This is wonderful way to teach a great thing to a child: that the material things that they desire are not valuable, that only the things of the spirit are valuable.
So, a truth was revealed to me in my generous act, but what I did next with this truth is what I am calling revelatory eisgesis. I thought to myself, “So this is why Jesus tells us to give our cloaks to the one who would sue us for our tunic. It is the same reason that I should have given my sweatshirt to the child: to give freely is to make the receiver question the value of the thing they seek. So, the one who sues us would be led to question why he was suing in the first place (since the value of the items he is suing you for is in question).
Sounded like a great interpretation to me, but I later found out that it was dead wrong. Marcus Borg, a biblical scholar and member of the Jesus seminar, properly exegetes the text by highlighting the historical and social context in which the text is written:
The third statement, ‘If anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well,’ imagines a setting in which a person is being sued for his outer garment because of nonpayment of debt…In that world, peasants commonly wore only two garments…The effect of giving up the inner garment as well the outer would, of course, be nakedness. The act would not only startle the creditor, but would also shame him, for nakedness shamed the person who beheld the nakedness.7
I think its clear that this interpretation is more plausible. It is an interpretation that is arrived at by appealing to historical, social, and textual context rather than some epiphany that occurred 2000 years after the text was written.
Cross-textual eisgesis is the last kind of eisegesis that I’ve noticed, and it will likely be the most contraversial kind of the ones that I’ve outlined here. Let me say first that my claim here is not that any interpretation that is formed by an appeal to another biblical text is guilty of eisegesis. Neighboring biblical texts can be very useful in interpreting a text insofar as they provide context and provide clues into the intentions of the author of the text of interest. My claim here is simply that such an appeal (to neighboring texts) cannot be made in all circumstances and that when it can be done, it must be done with care.
Here’s one example of cross-textual eisegesis. Consider these parallel accounts of Jesus’ actions in Jerusalem.
Mark 6: 5And he could do no mighty work there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and healed them.
Matthew 13: 58And he did not do many mighty works there, because of their unbelief.8
The first text is another theologically awkward text. Why? Because it says that Jesus “could not” do something. This is awkward because if Jesus is God and God is omnipotent (i.e., all-powerful), then it looks like we have a contradiction here. If we flip over to the parallel account of this event in Matthew, then we might think we’ve found relief. “Oh,” we might say to ourselves, “Mark must have just meant that Jesus “did not” or “would not” have done any mighty works. If we comfort ourselves this way, we may be committing cross-textual eisegesis.
Why? Because we would have allowed our interpretation of one text to be shaped by our interpretation of another. If you think about it, if we did this in our everyday language, it would stick out like a sore thumb as a problematic practice. Consider, for example, this quick dialogue:
Me: Hey, Mark, how come no miracles happened in Jerusalem?
Mark: Well, Jesus could not perform any miracles because of the people’s unbelief.
Me: That’s weird. What do you mean he could not? Let me go see what Matthew has to say about this. Hey, Matthew, did you hear that question I just asked Mark?
Matthew: Yeah. Listen, no miracles happened in Jerusalem because Jesus refused to do miracles there. He refused because of their unbelief.
Me: Oh, so this is what you meant, Mark! When you said Jesus “could not,” you meant that Jesus “would not.”
Mark: Uh…no. If I wanted to say that Jesus would not, I would have wrote “would not.”
I suspect that this is a controversial rendition of this hypothetical dialogue because it can pose a problem for this more orthodox theologico-hermeneutical principle: the scriptures present a unified picture of who God and Jesus are. I do not wish to attempt here to determine whether this principle belongs in our hermeneutical closets, so to speak. That question demands that we discuss whether the bible presents a monolithic picture of the Divine. (To be frank, this is something that I am not convinced of.) But this post is already long and boring enough, so to enter into that separate question would take this discussion too far afield.
So just suppose that we want to keep our orthodox hermeneutical princple (the scriptures present a unified picture). Applying this to the above dialogue would look like this:
Me: Wait, don’t you two agree on everything about Jesus?
Mark: Actually, we do. I was just kidding about what I said earlier. But listen, Matthew and I were talking and we thought that it was kind of weird that you assumed just now that we agreed on everything about Jesus.
Me: Really? Why is that weird?
Mark: Well, if you want to know if two people agree on something, isn’t that something that you should decide after you’ve interpreted the things that they’ve said?
Me: I guess so.
Mark: Let me put it this way. If you wanted to know if Obama and McCain agreed with each other, you wouldn’t assume that they did from the outset would you?
Me: No, I guess I would look at what they said first.
Mark: Yes. To assume their agreement first seemed kind of backward to Matthew and I because if you assumed, for example, that McCain and Obama agreed with one another from outset, then when Obama said, “Yay for universal healthcare!” and McCain said, “No universal health care!” You would have to say something like: “Oh, what McCain really means when he says ‘No universal healthcare’ is ‘Yay for universal health care!’
Me: Hmm. That does seem kind of backwards.
Mark: So, if you want to know if Matthew and I agree, decide that after you’ve interpreted our own words on their own terms. In other words, don’t go and ask Matthew about my words. Ask me. Look at my context, the way that I use my Greek words, and my larger Christological understanding of Jesus throughout my gospel.
Me: But wait. If I don’t assume that you both agree on everything from the outset, doesn’t that mean that you could contradict one another? And doesn’t that mean that the bible isn’t perfect? And doesn’t that mean that my faith is all for naught?!
Mark: Woah there, guy. No, I don’t think that those things follow from what I suggested earlier. But Matthew and I have to go make disciples. I can direct you to some conversations about the meaning of the bible (here and here). Plus, I think there’ll be a future blog post on this subject. Don’t forget to talk to God and see what he thinks about those conversations. See you in heaven.
Getting the Treasure: Concluding Remarks
What I’ve tried to do here is just outline 4 ways in which we can fail to properly interpret a biblical text. Perhaps one (or all) of these ways is incorrect. I implore the reader to consult the One who knows All regarding what in this post is garbage and what is true.
Again, my hope in writing all of this is that we all can get closer to understanding our sacred texts. I am definitely not perfect in my interpretations of scripture. I have committed these hermeneutical sins in the past (as I’ve pointed out), and I will probably commit them in the future. Perhaps, however, the remarks offered in this post (and the subsequent conversations with the Divine) will enable the reader to be there to point out my future hermeneutical errors.
Postscript Introspective Remarks
The reason I “think this way” regarding hermeneutics has been a gradual process. It began with an attempt to explain the disparity between the Christology that I had been taught and the Christology that I saw in John’s gospel. This explanatory issue was a part of a larger project that I wrote a paper on my junior year which attempted to answer the question “Why do divergent Christian teachings survive?”
Possible non-epistemic reasons I think this way regarding hermeneutics: frustration with interpretations of a certain text that disagreed with my interpretation. I can think of one particular instance where I was very frustrated by what I would now call ethical eisegesis. I was attempting to explain my behavior in terms of a certain biblical text, and that text was, in my mind, misinterpreted by my interlocutor. The result was that my behavior looked silly to my interlocutor. I think, however, that this non-epistemic reason is accompanied by epistemic ones. I just have to be careful that frustration does not drive future hermeneutical endeavors. (This has actually happened before.)
A non-epistemic reason I want to think this way regarding hermeneutics (specifically with respect to cross-textual eisegesis) is that it resolves a lot of problems and apparent contradictions in the bible. I’m a bit tired of spending my time thinking about harmonizing apparently disparate texts. (I spent almost an entire year doing that.)
Although I think there are good epistemic reasons for prioritizing the author’s intentions the way that I do in this post, if I’m honest, I must admit that I have some non-epistemic reasons for wanting this priority to be appropriate. First, if it turns out that this priority is inappropriate, I might have to do some serious reworking of my theology. This, by it self, is not such a terrible conceptual disaster, but given all of the, for lack of a better phrase, “theological flak” I’ve been given for being a heretic, this would be a rather embarrassing transition to have to make.
May I be given the wisdom to see if and how these motivations are improperly influencing my thoughts. May I be given the strength to remove these motivations so that I can focus soley on the Divine, which is Truth.
1. Luke 18:29
2. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, “Single-Minded Obedience,” 80-81.
3. Ibid., 81.
4. Colossians 4:4-6
6. A.W. Tozer, Knowledge of the Holy, 21-22.
7. Marcus Borg, Jesus: Uncovering the Life and Teachings of a Religious Revolutionary, 423.
8. Matthew 13:58 and Mark 6:5