For Instruction, Doctrine, and Morals: Exegesis Not Eisegesis

The work of biblical interpretation must begin with a commitment to the humble yet courageous task of exegesis, matched with an equally daring rejection of eisegesis.

In the former, we submit to both the Divine author and human authors of Scripture. In the latter, we ask Scripture to submit to us, as we subtly, even if unwittingly, vie for a place in the authorship ourselves.

In eisegesis, the will of the reader is imposed upon Scripture. In exegesis the will of Scripture is imposed upon the reader. The former is a reading into the text, the latter a reading out of the text.

An absurd illustration can make the point. A man who takes up the Bible to discover best practices for being influential, so he might excel in 21st century corporate leadership, is engaged in eisegesis. He comes to Scripture to read into it that which he wishes to read out of it. What he wants from the Bible is not determined by the Bible.

On the contrary, exegesis reverently seeks to understand the author’s meaning in humble and courageous submission to the text of Scripture where by faith, under the enablement of the Holy Spirit, we sincerely accept the whole of Scripture as God’s self-revelation to humanity. An exegete is willingly under the text to devotedly keep fellowship with the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ: “But this is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word” (Isa. 66:2). 

Biblical exegesis then requires we bow before Scripture, not that we make Scripture bow before us, either by forcing it to yield our pre-conceived notions, or by our presuming its reliability is undetermined until we have subjected it to our method of study.

More narrowly, in practice, exegesis seeks to understand the immediate literary context of any passage of Scripture within its historical setting. Careful and exact attention is paid to background, the parsing of lexical forms, the analysis of sentence structure, the flow and order of thought, and other features unique to the original Hebrew or Greek, such as word order or Semitic parallelism.

Some have called this yeoman’s work the grammatical-historical method, a somewhat scientific approach which is said to lay claim to all sound exegesis. As a method it is correct and necessary, as far as it goes, but it does not go far enough.

There is always a theological level involved in the exegetical task, not merely a grammatical-historical level. A controlling theological idea is to be brought to bear on the reading of all Scripture which is itself derived from Scripture. Fundamentally, for every Christian, it is the theological commitment that Scripture is the work of a transcendent Divine author who was pleased to reveal himself in the unique voices of several human authors.

This controlling theological idea immediately opens Scripture to us as having “a real and vital wholeness,” a unity which presses itself into the exegetical task. Such exegesis will not abandon the grammatical-historical level, but it will indulge in the rest of Scripture to interpret any given passage (analogia fidei, WCF, 1.9). This will include the overriding motif of promise (OT) and fulfilment (NT), the interpretive light of “typology” and the grand unifying testimony which shines outward from all Scripture - Christ himself (John 5:39).

Now it might disturb us to hear of a controlling theological commitment being brought to the exegetical task. We like to think the grammatical-historical method allows us to be objective exegetes while a theological commitment prior to interpretation must always be the false start of subjectivity.

For example, it is not hard to imagine a non-Christian scholar of New Testament literature claiming the higher ground of objectivity over a believing scholar who holds to Divine authorship, the covenantal unity of scripture, and the Christocentric gravity of scripture.

Instead of laboring to deny this point, the believer ought to concede it. No one is objective in the task of exegesis. No not one. In fact, the Christian should be the last person to defend an objective exegetical method of interpreting Scripture, for we know there is no foundation for truth outside of Scripture by which the legitimacy of Scripture is established. We have come to know what the Bible is by the enabling and persuading ministry of the Holy Spirit.  

If we conclude exegesis is reduced to pure science, then we must allow that someone not part of the new creation may gather as much fruit from the task as one who is born from above. This is not to say believers can be loose about exegetical skills achieved through exegetical training and exegetical experience. It is to say, however, that God’s written word has been given to God’s believing church. 

John Hartley has been pastor of Apple Valley Presbyterian Church since 2010, having previously been a pastor for 10 years in Vermont. He is a Wisconsin native and a graduate of University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee as well as Dallas Theological Seminary. John lives with his wife Jen and their five children.

John Hartley