In seminary, I learned from Dr. Jon Paulien the difference between exegesis and eisegesis. It’s hard to believe that these were new words to me just over 10 years ago. The difference between these two words is vitally important for anyone who wants to read and interpret the Bible (I’ll just say here without defending it that you can’t read the Bible without interpreting it. Perhaps this is a subject for a separate post). But it is especially important for pastors who read the sacred text week-by-week and lead their congregations in the interpretive exercise of preaching.
Wikipedia says that eisegesis is
the process of misinterpreting a text in such a way that it introduces one’s own ideas, reading into the text. This is best understood when contrasted with exegesis. While exegesis draws out the meaning from the text, eisegesis occurs when a reader reads his/her interpretation into the text. As a result, exegesis tends to be objective when employed effectively while eisegesis is regarded as highly subjective.
Eisegesis can be a trap for pastors. Faced with having to preach a good sermon every week (and not every-so-often), we can sometimes get the process turned around backwards. I have fallen into this trap many times. I know my congregation well – better than anyone else – and I know what I want/need to say to them. But I know that the worship service is a time to open God’s Word with people, not just give my opinions, so I need scriptural authority. We can find ourselves looking for the right text to support what we want to say. The text might be a good fit, or not. But the process is fraught with danger. Dr. Paulien taught us that to get beyond our own defense mechanisms regarding the text – the ways we psychologically shield ourselves from what we don’t want to hear – we needed to take a more objective view. Read in the original languages. Understand the author’s original intent, not just what “I think” it means to me as a self-actualizing, self-referential individual. I learned these lessons well and my sermons (I think) have been consistently better since that time.
I have learned, however, the process of interpretation is infinitely more challenging than this. Interpreting scripture is never a matter of simply discovering the meaning of the text and giving it to a modern group of people. This became so much clearer to me in a recent staff meeting. We are attempting to build what we call a “community of interpreters” at the Hollywood Adventist Church. This means that I am not the only one who preaches. The preacher doesn’t own the text or control the text. If we believe our own rhetoric, the scripture lives in the community. So, we’re helping each other be better interpreters.
In a recent staff meeting we were talking about building contextual bridges in a sermon. We cannot afford to say, “this text speaks directly to our time” (neglecting the original context), nor “this context is completely different than our time” (neglecting the way the text speaks into our contemporary lives). The challenge is rather to build narrative and contextual bridges between worlds. One of our staff members said, “I don’t think I know how to do that very well.” That was the most honest thing he could have said, and he spoke for all of us.
This is an impossible challenge and the stakes are very high. The greatest risk is that the scripture that was meant to subvert our imagination and sow the seeds of God’s reign in the world get used in service of the status quo. This happened, tragically, to the majority of churches in Europe in the 1940s. It happened before that in the United States as “good Christians” bought and sold other human beings as slaves. It has happened countless times before and since. It happens every time the “meaning” of the text is reduced to a bit of self-help advice. If the “powers that be” could co-opt the sacred text in service of their own ends, this would be the ultimate subversion.
This is where I have come to the philosophical limits of what we call exegesis. The very assumptions underlying the process of exegesis – that the text has one meaning and that the interpreter can find a privileged, objective vantage point – are deeply modern. If postmodern philosophy has taught us anything it is that there is no view from nowhere. There is no place to stand and see the world “as it really is.” Many Adventist interpreters have rightly challenged the notion that the Bible is merely an object, to be taken apart by unfaithful interpreters who care nothing for its message. But those same interpreters have often then taken up the tools of the modern Biblical scholars to “prove” that their one interpretation of the text is the right one. Methinks we can’t have it both ways.
What we need is neither a sloppy, careless, idolatrous eisegesis that sets up individuals as their own source of authority and finally tames the native wildness in the text. Nor do we need a captive, idolatrous exegesis, bound by modernistic, rational positivist categories that keep the text in service to the reigning ideology and my individual needs and consumerist desires.
Somehow the text must be freed from both of these snares that it might truly live among a community of people who seek to live in the way of Jesus for the sake of the world. We need what I am calling “faithful eisegesis.” We need Biblical interpreters, pastors, non-professionals who have acquired skill with the text from long practice who will risk alternative readings of the text. How can this be done? How can we avoid the Scylla and Charybdis of Bible interpretation?
I will only offer a few suggestions and then throw the question back to you because we are just learning this ourselves. No clear answers seem apparent. And we will not do our best on every try, but try we must.
First, I suggest that the native home of the Bible is in community. To attempt to remove the text from the community or order to interpret is impossible. It would be like taken an animal out of its habitat and observing it in a laboratory. The scripture was written by a community, for communities. To take the text off to the sterile environment of the academy and subject it to the scalpel of experts does great violence to the text. We need experts – those who have committed their whole lives to understanding ancient languages, history, culture, philosophy. But we need those voices to live in the community with other voices – the voices of the poor, the marginalized, the enslaved, the homeless, the aged, the young, women and men. The text must live along side joblessness and militarism, homelessness and extravagance.
Secondly, we need to ask different questions of the text. Instead of asking the modernist question, “What does this text mean?” we need to ask, “What is this text doing? What kind of mischief would Isaiah/Jeremiah/Mark/Luke/Paul like to do amongst us? Asking this performative question of the text changes the whole conversation. Try it sometime.
Thirdly, we need to revisit some ancient practices of scripture interpretation. For millennia the Jewish people have practiced midrash, resulting in some creative translations known as Targums. The rabbis are not afraid of interpretation as I sense Christians are most of the time. Modern Christian scholars have carried a huge burden of accuracy and precision. If you open your mouth or begin to tap out sentences on your keyboard you must be certain that you are right. But midrash is more creative; even playful. What if an artist worried each time she took up her brush whether her next brush strokes would be “right.” The words almost don’t make sense.
Fourth, the church needs to recover the ancient practice of Bible reading called lectio divina. In our community we refer to this as “dwelling with scripture.” What this means, in our congregation, is that the scripture accompanies us everywhere. When we have a meeting of any kind there is usually a time of “dwelling in scripture.” This is different than a devotional where the purpose is to give a lesson from scripture that can be applied to people’s lives. Dwelling in scripture is about just that – allowing the text to live in our community in imaginative and formative ways that shape a particular kind of life that we are seeking together in a place.
Finally, pastors need to understand better their role as local, contextual theologians.(2) Not only this, but they can learn to see themselves as abbots in a community of interpreters where they are helping their members be contextual theologians in their own right.
Shortly after the staff meeting that I referred to above I was reviewing Peter Rollins’ incredible book, How (Not) to Speak of God and I ran across this statement.
Jesus showed that we must read [the law] with a prejudice towards love. This does not mean that we re-interpret our traditions in any way we want, but rather that we must be committed to living in the tension between exegesis (by which we extract meaning from the text) and eisegesis (by which we read meaning into the text). By acknowledging that all our readings are located in a cultural context and have certain prejudiced, we understand that engaging with the Bible can never mean that we simply extract meaning from it, but also that we read meaning into it. In being faithful to the text we must move away from the naïve attempt to read it from some neutral, heavenly height and we must attempt to read it as one who has been born of God and thus born of love: for that is the prejudice of God. Here the ideal of scripture reading as a type of scientific objectivity is replaced by an approach that creatively interprets with love.(3)
I would simply add that beyond extracting and inserting, reading out of and reading into that the deepest calling of scripture is for the community of interpreters to live into the text. This is faithful eisegesis.
(2) Essential reading on local, contextual theology are Clemens Sedmak, Doing Local Theology: A Guide for Artisans of a New Humanity (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2002) and Robert J. Schreiter, Constructing Local Theologies (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1985).
(3) Peter Rollins, How (Not) to Speak of God (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2006), 59-60.