Eisegesis & Exegesis

It’s been a while since I’ve explored a practice relating to Scripture reading here. As it happens, I’ve also been working on a series of posts on hermeneutics (the interpretation of texts), and so I’ve been thinking a lot about how we approach and interpret our Scriptures. And so this week for my sacred practice I will be exploring a form of intellectual honesty in interpretation: being transparent about the questions and presuppositions I’m bringing to the texts (eisegesis) and what the texts themselves say (exegesis).

Background

Exegesis is the word Biblical scholars use to describe the process of understanding the meaning of a text. It usually involves such things as grammatical and lexical study, explorations of literary genre and historical context, and so on. In seminaries and Bible colleges, the general approach is that exegesis is good and the opposite, eisegesis, essentially reading things into the text, is bad. Certainly, as people of faith, we want to have open eyes and be able to let the Scriptures speak into our lives, especially where they might challenge us and shake up our status quo. And so it is important to be able to make as much space as we can for the texts to say what it is they have to say. Exegesis is therefore of utmost importance.

And yet, one of the helpful truths postmodernism has pointed out is that there is no objective viewpoint from which we ever approach a text. We always look at a text from somewhere. We have perspectives, beliefs, presuppositions, and biases that shape how we read a text. Are we inside the faith community or outside it? Which tradition(s) have shaped us? Which tradition(s) might we be rebelling against? What cultural values are important to us? What experiences have we had that might affect how we interpret the text? What are the questions that excite us? What’s going on in the world around us right now that might impact how we read the text?  All these things (and more) inevitably colour how we read our sacred texts. I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing, provided we are honest about it. In fact, I would argue, that sacred texts only come alive and have meaning for us in how they interact with what we are bringing to them. 

What is it?

There are four steps to this approach to Scripture reading:

  1. Read the text through once.
  2. Ask yourself what it is you’re bringing to the text. The questions above are helpful places to start, but by no means exhaust the possibilities.  Most of this will stay the same from day to day, but some things might change depending on the day or the passage in question.
  3. Once you have done this as best as you can, approach the text and exegete it as honestly as you can, using whatever tools you have at your disposal.
  4. Finally, look at how the two rub up against each other. In what ways do they align? In what ways does the text challenge you? How might you resolve any differences or difficulties? What is the text calling you to do?  

My Week

This was a fun practice for me, and so the week was easy. As I normally do with practices involving reading, I took the first half hour of my morning writing and devotional time for this practice and I found it to be a truly wonderful way to begin the day.

Reflection

To be honest, I initially approached this week’s practice as a kind of academic exercise. It was primarily about intellectual and spiritual honesty for me rather than being about my heart. But I was surprised just how powerful an exercise it turned out to be. By being upfront in my study every morning about the perspective from which I approach the Bible — areas of privilege, areas of marginalization, personal struggles, personal successes, and the questions that excite me and the questions that bore me — I found I really was left more open to the challenge the text was putting to me. For example, being honest about my good postmodern Canadian reaction against hierarchies allowed me better to hear what one passage in 1 Peter was saying about them. Or another day, reflecting on the general food security I’ve enjoyed for most of my life reminded me of what it was like to be worried about where next week’s meals would come from, and this enabled me to approach the discourse about living bread in John with slightly less jaded eyes than I would normally.

Moreover, I found that being honest upfront about the questions I was bringing to the texts freed my reading in two ways: First, it freed me from any ‘eisegesis shame’ I might be feeling about asking questions the text might not readily answer — and freed me to find readings that might at least hint towards them. And, second, by allowing me to claim my questions as my own, it also made me less resistant to the questions and concerns the texts themselves were bringing to me. It felt like a double-blessing many days.

I will say, however, that the process of identifying my own perspectives every day got a bit tiresome and I’m not sure how sustainable it would be in the long run as a daily practice. This practice of eisegesis and exegesis might therefore be more useful as a general approach to Scripture reading than as a daily practice. But either way, it was a useful and helpful exercise, and a valuable tool for the spiritual toolkit.

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