In a previous article we considered God’s desire that his people be proficient in the Scriptures (2 Pet. 3.15-18). Also, the affirmation was made that the goal and importance of knowing the word encompasses both salvation and spiritual maturity (Matt. 28.19-20).
In order to properly apply Scripture to life we must seek the true meaning of the biblical text. This is the concept of exegesis –“rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2.15).
The present article addresses the problem of distorting Scripture by means of pressing meaning into a passage that is not original with the text. This hostile takeover of the text is known as eisegesis.
Pressing Meaning into the Text
Eisegesis is “the mistake of reading meaning into a text rather than deriving meaning from it”. It may also be stated as reading into the text “meaning that one wants to get out of it”. The point is: eisegesis is the exact opposite of a faithful reading of the biblical text (i.e. exegesis).
Eisegesis as a pitfall is regrettable; but, distortion of the Scriptures is clearly condemned (cf. Gal. 1.6-9). Eisegesis may happen accidentally, or it may occur because of a preoccupation to prove a specific case.
Jack P. Lewis makes a valid warning against the temptation to eisegete. While striving to find “a biblical basis for all that is done in work and worship,” one must not hang their own ideas upon “convenient Scripture passages”. To do so, one is attempting to “find” regulations where there simply are none.
The Scriptures declare clearly that “whoever speaks” is to do so “as one who speaks oracles of God” (1 Pet. 4.11). Moreover, one must never make void the word of God by usurping the “oracles of God” with human tradition (cf. Matt. 15.6).
With admonitions like these, there is little wonder why D.R. Dungan once wrote:
The Bible is not a book with which to prove doctrines; it is doctrine itself.
With eisegesis, exhaustive study of the Scriptures is substituted for assuming a doctrine and compelling the Bible to look like it supports it.
Imposing Artificial Readings
Observe some examples of eisegesis. This will highlight both the danger of manipulating Scripture, and the importance of patiently studying the Scriptures in order to be faithful to the text.
We also want to demonstrate that eisegesis is a pitfall all must be aware of. We must never “attempt to infuse a text with meaning derived prior to exegesis”.
By “artificial” we mean to suggest a reading which is manufactured through poor hermeneutical methods, which do not draw out what is in the text itself.
One such method is the use of allegorical interpretation of Scripture. In allegories, one searches for deeper meanings in the text based upon the images in a passage. True, inspired writers have employed allegories to demonstrate a biblical truth (cf. Gal. 4.21-31), yet we must observe that they had to Spirit to guide them in such endeavors.
In post-apostolic times, some in the early church – particularly in Alexandria, Egypt – took it upon themselves to impose the allegorical method of interpretation upon literal passages of Scriptures, and consequently imposed artificial readings upon the text. Such a method of interpreting the Bible has been employed for centuries in the history of Christendom.
A prime example is how Augustine interpreted Scripture. He allegorically interprets the parable of the “Good Samaritan” (Luke 10.30-37) and explains:
Mankind started down the road of life but fell into sin which beat him and left him helpless in the ditch. The law of Moses came and also passed him by. Finally, the good Samaritan, Jesus, bound up his wounds and brought him into the inn of safety – the church.
We agree with Lewis as he rightly observes: “Augustine hung his ideas on the parable; he did not derive them from it”. One must never adjust a passage in order to support an case.
It is dangerous to hold preconceived ideas of what the Bible teaches on a given subject. To state it another way, we must never impose our “theology” over what Scripture actually affirms.
Such a behavior prohibits a person from obeying the truth. How can one obey the truth if it has been obscured?
“Preconception” proved problematic for the Jewish reception of Jesus; observe the following quote:
The Jews were constantly searching the Old Testament writings (cf.: John 5.39), yet most of them neither recognized nor accepted the Messiah because, as Paul later comments, a veil of preconception shrouded their hearts when the Law was read (2 Corinthians 3.14, 15).
They imposed a view upon the Mosaic Law that it was a permanent covenant. Jeremiah was quite clear, though, that a “new” law would supersede the Mosaic system making it “old” (Jer. 31.31-34; Heb. 8.1-13).
If the Jews, who were initially entrusted with the oracles of God were susceptible to preconception (Rom. 3.2; 10.1-4), “how very cautious ought we to be in our approach to, and presentation of, the Holy Bible”.
Exaggeration of Biblical Truth.
In his work, From Scripture to Theology, Charles J. Scalise writes about the danger of this form of eisegesis. Read carefully the lengthy but important quotation:
Instead of Scripture functioning as the rule of doctrine, exaggeration of particular doctrines have sought to become the rule of Scripture. Proponents of a specific view have sought to read their particular opinions into Scripture (eisegesis) rather than letting the Scripture rule their view. Prooftexts have been claimed for an amazing variety of additions to and aberrations of the Christian tradition […] Christians who seek to claim authority for beliefs and actions supported by such scriptural pretexts are making maps where there is no biblical territory.
In the New Testament, for example, John records the washing of the disciples feet in John 13.1-17. Some religious individuals have taken this upon themselves as a religious act of worship both in ancient times and in the present.
The basis upon which this practice is lifted are the words of Jesus, “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet” (13.14, cf. 15). However, the principle behind this action is verse 16, stressing mutual service in humility to each other regardless of position. It is not an institution of a new religious practice; instead, it is an articulation and demonstration of the Christ-like disposition all of his followers are to engender.
In the end, let us remember two things: (1) Eisegesis is a dangerous handling of Scripture, (2) we must not impose an artificial reading upon the text. Neither of these approaches is a genuine way of having a relationship with the Lord on the basis of His Word. May the Lord so help us to be submissive to His Word (Psa. 119.18).
- Matthew S. DeMoss, 2001, Pocket Dictionary for the Study of New Testament Greek (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity), 50.
- Richard N. Soulen, and R. Kendall Soulen, 2001, Handbook of Biblical Criticism 3rd ed. (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox), 52.
- Jack P. Lewis, 1988, Exegesis of Difficult Biblical Passages (Henderson, Tenn.: Hester Publications), 1.
- D. R. Dungan, 1888, Hermeneutics: A Text-Book, 2d ed. (Cincinnati, Oh.: Standard), 39.
- Dungan, Hermeneutics, 39.
- Carroll D. Osburn, 1979, Alternative 5.2: 17. Italics added.
- DeMoss, Pocket Dictionary for the Study of New Testament Greek, 17.
- Lewis, Exegesis of Difficult Biblical Passages, 2-3.
- Lewis, Exegesis of Difficult Biblical Passages, 3.
- Wayne Jackson, 1986, A Study Guide to Greater Bible Knowledge (Stockton, Calif.: Courier Publications), 21. Italics added.
- Jackson, A Study Guide to Greater Bible Knowledge, 21.
- Charles J. Scalise, 1996, From Scripture to Theology: A Canonical Journey into Hermeneutics (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity), 70. Italics added.