The Terrible Sin of Eisigesis

If you are not familiar with the term eisigesis, here’s the wiki definition (poorly edited, by the way, yet it at least communicates the basic idea).

Eisigesis means reading into the (Biblical) text; which means that while reading the text, one would understand the text in accordance to his (or her) own presupposition and agendas. Eisigesis is widely used to prove a point rather to search for the truth. On the contrary to eisigesis, exigesis means reading out of the text. That means putting aside all presuppositions, agendas, and ideas, and looking for the truth of the matter, although it might be something we disagree with.

If anyone has a wiki account, that definition could use some serious editing. The idea behind the word eisigesis is best understood in contrast to Biblical exegesis, which is more clearly defined among theologians. Exegesis in the vernacular is letting Scripture set the agenda on how a verse or chapter is interpreted and applied. When a pastor exegetes Scripture, he sets aside his personal agenda as he studies Scripture. He looks at the context of a passage. What was the author talking about in the previous section? How do the previous verses inform the passage in question? Who was it written too? How does their background and culture inform what the author is saying to them? What do the actual Hebrew or Greek words mean? Does the author use those same words any where else in Scripture? Is this passage actually quoted anywhere else in Scripture. And so forth. It is reading OUT OF Scripture.

In contrast, eisigesis is projecting ONTO Scripture. Instead of Scripture speaking out to us, we speak into it. We inform how it is read. Our agendas apart from Scripture inform how we interpret and apply it. And it is a horrible yet common sin. It’s a perversion of Scripture. Scripture is God’s revelation of Himself TO us. We don’t get to project our reflections onto it. IT illuminates US. Not vice versa.

The problem with eisigesis is that when we emphasize things Scripture doesn’t, we minimize the focus on what Scripture really does say is important.

After hearing a few sermon series from Old Testament books that were classic examples of eisigesis, I recognize it easily now. But a negative side effect is that I also tense up now when my pastor wants to preach from any Old Testament passage. During a recent sermon from Jeremiah, I sat listening to my pastor trying to figure out why I trusted the applications he was making for today from Jeremiah 29. Why is it that I can hear instructions from 3000 or so years ago on seeking the welfare of some city in the middle east (and not David’s example of cutting off Philistine foreskins or Nehemiah’s scalping of his enemies) and embrace it for me today?

I have particular baggage on that question after hearing a sermon series from Nehemiah a few years ago that was about the worst example of eisigesis I’ve yet experienced. The preacher projected his life onto the story of Nehemiah and allowed his personal experiences rather than a gospel hermeneutic to decide how he applied it. The results were devastating. Years later, when my pastor announced he was going to preach through Exodus, I immediately tensed. But after going through a few Old Testament series taught through the lens of the gospel and life of Jesus, I have come to understand that the difference is really quite simple. Correct exegesis and application of Old Testament passages will never deny New Testament explanations or commands. When you have to deny New Testament instructions to make Old Testament analogies, you are in problem territory.

In the Nehemiah example, the preacher drew the conclusion that going postal on your spiritual opponent is Biblical because Nehemiah did. But that conclusion ignored the distinction between what Scripture DESCRIBES and PRESCRIBES. Scripture describes a lot of things that we aren’t to do, and sometimes it describes it without commentary. Though the guy in Judges cut up his concubine’s corpse and distributed it among the tribes, we know better than to suggest others do that today. Judges described what happened, and be very certain that everything that the Bible describes it does not also prescribe.

In reference to the description of Nehemiah’s harsh reaction to his opponents, it was a good day when I read what Scripture in 2 Timothy 2:24-26 actually prescribes when dealing with your opponent.

And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will.

Weird stories in the Old Testament are very relevant today. Some simply point to the character of our God. While most of us will never go through the same trials that Joseph did, our God is the same, and what others mean for evil, He uses for our good (Gen. 50:20). That’s His character. Some OT stories point to our need for King Jesus. For instance, the entire book of Judges, which is a compilation of depressing stories summed up with the phrase, “there was no king and everyone did what was right in their own eyes.” We need King Jesus. We need His life lived out before us because apart from His standard of righteousness, the things we come up with as righteous in our own eyes are woefully inadequate and often quite perverse. Then there are the abundance of stories that reveal little glimpses of what King Jesus will look like when He comes. The entire OT sacrificial system does this. The Psalms give us glimpses. Ruth’s story of the kinsman redeemer or Hosea’s pursuit of Gomar all do this as well.

The Bible is the best commentary on itself and the most helpful tool for avoiding personal eisigesis. Once we stop projecting onto the Old Testament, it has so much to project onto us. And it is beautiful and redemptive. I’m very thankful to the godly men (and women) who have pointed me to the cross from Genesis to Malachi.

14 Responses to The Terrible Sin of Eisigesis

  1. April January 15, 2011 at 9:55 pm #

    I know what you mean. My pastor is great and I love him to pieces, but he does this sometimes-particularly in the Old Testament. It makes me shut down and not listen.

  2. Anonymous January 16, 2011 at 4:55 am #

    Yay…I can read it now! Thank you for changing your layout.

  3. Lisa writes... January 16, 2011 at 10:20 pm #

    Amen and amen!

  4. strengthfortoday January 16, 2011 at 11:06 pm #

    This is a good piece, Wendy, and it clarified something I have been mulling over for some time. Eisigesis which parades as Exegesis. Using “the original languages” but then not being true to context and plugging in one's own agenda. Thanks for helping me sort it out.

    Diane

  5. Wendy January 17, 2011 at 1:23 am #

    You're welcome, Diane. 🙂 And just for clarification, my pastor does NOT do this, in case that wasn't clear in my wording of the post.

  6. Staci January 17, 2011 at 9:21 pm #

    Wonderful post, Wendy. Well said.

  7. Debbie January 18, 2011 at 11:52 am #

    Excellent post!

  8. Riegel January 18, 2011 at 2:54 pm #

    Wikipedia can be edited by anyone. If you think the definition needs shoring up you can do it easily by clicking the word [EDIT] found to the right of the heading.

  9. Keri January 20, 2011 at 2:43 am #

    I loved this Wendy, so true.

  10. Tragedy101 January 20, 2011 at 7:18 am #

    I enjoyed this post.

    Just a point though, not all eisigesis is sin or agenda oriented or wrong. A good sermon uses eisigesis of current concepts to explain archaic concepts found in the text which the audience may not understand. It can also be used when a word or phrase could be translated in more than one way.

    Eisigesis should always depend on exegesis rather than the other way round is my caveat.

  11. Emily January 22, 2011 at 3:22 pm #

    I love that I have found this blog. Thanks for the great perspective.

    My primary area of study is the Old Testament and Judaic studies. When we see this part of Scriptures as the preparation for the coming of our Lord, the beauty and majesty of God's plan springs to life.

    Emily
    http://www.lifeonthepagus.com

  12. Wendy January 23, 2011 at 12:48 am #

    I just came across this short read online and thought it was an excellent resource on this topic. Short, sweet, but very helpful.

    http://www.thegospelfirst.com/2011/01/19/a-gospel-centered-reading-of-the-old-testament/

  13. Wendy January 23, 2011 at 12:51 am #

    Oops. Try this.

  14. chroniclesofnatalie February 1, 2011 at 8:39 am #

    Thank you for this post. I've heard this done with historical books in the Old Testament (Nehemiah, actually) and New Testament (Acts). I really appreciate your explanation, because I was having a hard time figuring out why the applications for today didn't seem right.