A crime has occurred. The investigator arrives on the scene. He sees the body, the weapon and the footprints leading away. This is nothing new. He has seen similar scenes a million times and knows exactly what has happened. Without any further questions he determines exactly what all of this means, exactly how it happened and the identity of the killer.
What is the problem with this? The problem is, there was more investigating to be done of what this specific crime scene was trying to tell him. He already has his conclusions in mind before he has all the information. The biggest problem was either ignorance or arrogance…he assumed that based on past experience that he would be able to figure all this out based on a cursory glance of the scene. If he really wanted to know what happened, he would be asking more questions, finding more evidence and not assuming that he already had the answer. Remember, a lot is on the line here…an innocent man may get convicted and a murderer walk free! It is important that he gets this right. That is eisegesis.
A second investigator arrives on the scene. She doesn’t come to the scene thinking she already knows what happened. She takes each crime scene (text) by its own merits, requiring a careful study of the background of the crime through asking good questions (as any good investigator knows how to do): Who was this person? Who did they know? Who were they talking with moments before the died? Those things are not readily apparent just glancing at the scene/text. It takes work. It takes an investigative spirit. It all starts with humility. There is a humility that comes when you believe that Scripture is God’s Word to humanity and if we are to understand it and faithfully apply it, it is going to take some work. Remember, there is a lot on the line here. In Biblical interpretation that is called exegesis.
What I have laid out here is the background for biblical “Exegesis”, a Greek word that means “to draw out” or “to guide/lead out”. When you read scripture, you are drawing the meaning from the text into your life. Eisegesis, on the other hand, means “to guide/lead in”. The thing that is being lead in are your own presuppositions, preconceived ideas, biases, culture, etc. Eisegesis reads Scripture solely through what those words mean, stripped out of their historical context (point #3 below) and plopped down in front of someone, pointed whichever way they want to point it and do with it what they want to do with it. Here is how Mark Strauss puts it,
“In the same way, every time you read the Bible you are already interpreting it. The only question is whether you will interpret it well or poorly—that is, whether you will hear the text as the author intended it to be heard, or whether you will impose your own ideas onto the text. Exegesis means drawing out the author’s original meaning. “Eisegesis” refers to the opposite: misinterpreting the text by reading into it your own assumptions and meaning.” - Strauss, M. L. How to Read the Bible in Changing Times: Understanding and Applying God’s Word Today, p. 44.
None of us can read Scripture in a vacuum that is able to remove all preconceived ideas and culture from our minds. It is just impossible. But we must be aware of that potential and recognize it when it influences us strongly enough that we might be missing the actual meaning of the text. When we read scripture we should always come to it with a few things in mind:
- Scripture is the Word of God. That means it has authority over us and it is truth.
- Scripture has an absolute meaning and intention by the original author that he wanted his audience to understand.
- In order to get to that meaning you have to understand the context of the passage (audience, occasion/situation, author, etc).
- Because God’s Word is truth and we need that truth to inform our lives, the purpose of Bible study is determining what God’s Word means and applying that to our lives to partner and participate with God in spiritual transformation and renewal.
- We do not come to scripture to bend it to our desires or predetermined ideas. That would undo #1 by giving us authority over scripture rather than the other way around.