Eisegesis, Exegesis, and Hermeneutics

Posted by Worldview Warriors On Monday, December 13, 2010 0 comments

I’ve often heard the question asked, usually to a pastor: “Which version of the Bible is the best?” One pastor I know always said this as his answer: “The one you will read.”

There are lots of ways to interpret the Bible – just ask anyone who’s seen more than one English translation. Given the selection of tens if not hundreds of different English Bibles, obviously there are many interpretations. So which one is right?

In reality, we don’t have the exact, authentic Scriptures that were first written down. People make mistakes, even people who are copying the Scriptures. We think that the Greek and Hebrew texts we have today are pretty close, but we have no way of knowing for sure, since we have no original autographs of Scripture. Scholars have determined that as far as they can tell, the Greek and Hebrew texts we have are pretty close to being original, and we need to take it on faith that they are what God wants us to use.

It can be quite difficult to accurately interpret a particular passage in the Bible, since there are so many unknowns for us today about the original audience and intention of the text. But, we can put forth a very good effort at accurate interpretation if we are willing to do some legwork in learning how to interpret the Bible. I will try and teach you what not to do and what to do.

The way we should never interpret Scripture is by doing what’s called eisegesis. Eisegesis is a fancy word for saying that we put our own meaning into Scripture (‘eise’ meaning ‘into’). We all read Scripture with some sort of bias, just because we are human beings. We all have a particular worldview through which we see the world, including the Bible. The difficult part is not to let our own individual worldview affect our interpretation of Scripture. Any time we apply our own culture to the Biblical text, we are doing eisegesis. Any time we read Scripture and make it mean what we want it to mean, we are doing eisegesis. Any time we pull a phrase or verse out of its context in the Bible, we are doing eisegesis. All of these things lead to inaccurate interpretation.

Instead of eisegesis, we should be doing exegesis. Exegesis is getting the meaning out of Scripture (‘exe’ meaning ‘out of’). When we do proper exegesis, our own individual worldview and thoughts do not affect the meaning of what is written in the text. This is much more difficult than it sounds, because we interpret everything in our world through that lens of our worldview.

To help us out with exegesis, there is a process called hermeneutics. Hermeneutics teaches us how to interpret the Bible in context. There are 4 key questions to ask when practicing hermeneutics:
1. What did the text mean to the Biblical audience?
2. What are the differences between the Biblical audience and us?
3. What is the theological principle in the text?
4. How should Christians today apply the theological principle to our lives?

Step 1 in the hermeneutical process is to determine what the text meant to the Biblical audience. This can be difficult because we may not know much about the people the text was originally written for or what its purpose was. But, here is where context can be very helpful. Look at the passages before and after the text you are studying. Look at the whole chapter of that passage. Look at the entire book of the Bible, and even the Bible as a whole. See where this passage fits into all of these contexts. If we look at the author of that particular Biblical book it may give us a clue as to why that passage is there.

We can also do research with sources outside the Bible to aide us in this step. Biblical dictionaries and commentaries are a great source of this information. Study Bibles also usually provide some insight. But, keep in mind that all of these resources are someone else’s interpretation – and they may or may not have interpreted the passage accurately.

Next in step 2 we need to determine the differences between the Biblical audience and us. Some things to consider are whether the audience was before or after the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. Consider whether the audience was Jews or Gentiles (non-Jews). Consider the place where they lived and the culture they lived in.

It can also be useful in this step to determine the similarities we share with the Biblical audience. For example, all people in all times and places are sinful and in need of a Savior. Consider cultural similarities that may exist.

When we have determined all of these things to the best of our ability, we can move on to discovering the theological principle in the text. The theological principle is a timeless truth that applied to the Biblical audience and still applies to us today. It is not something that applies to both their culture then and our culture now. The theological principle is the main idea in the passage. Be careful that you are not using your own worldview or what you want the passage to mean. Instead, we must look at the text itself to determine this principle. If you cannot read the original Hebrew or Greek, compare various English translations to get a better feel for what the passage is meant to say.

Finally, once we have the theological principle, we must determine how to apply it to our lives today. Learning how it applied to the Biblical audience may help us with this, depending on how similar or different we are to them. Again here it is important to look at the text as objectively as possible. Do not read into the text what you want it to mean or how you would like to apply it (eisegesis), but rather glean the meaning and application out of the text (exegesis). So many people want to jump right to this step while skipping the other three, which definitely leads to eisegesis.

This process of hermeneutics can help us to exegete the meaning of the text as accurately as possible. It takes some effort to accomplish, but the result of having a correct translation of a Biblical passage is priceless.

For more study on this topic, please listen to these links from Do Not Keep Silent:
Hour 1 & Hour 2