Our responsibility as Bible readers is to draw out the truth from the page open before us, not to try and make Scripture say whatever we’d like. Today, Barry Cooper highlights the importance of studying God’s Word rightly.
Have you heard that phrase, when you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail?
It’s something we’re all prone to: a cognitive bias which means we can be over-reliant on the same repeated way of seeing the world, and the same repeated way of relating to it, even when that may not be the right approach. It’s actually called “Maslow’s hammer”. The psychologist Abraham Maslow explained it like this: "[It] is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”
This is one way of describing “eisegesis”. Eisegesis is when we approach the Bible as if we were a hammer, which means that we inevitably treat every text as if it were a nail.
Eisegesis literally means “to lead into”, as in “leading our own ideas into the text”. The opposite is “exegesis”, which means “to draw out”. So eisegesis is when we “read something into” a biblical text that may not actually be there. And exegesis is when we try to “draw out” of the text what is actually there.
An example of eisegesis - reading into a biblical text - might be the small group member who, no matter which passage of Scripture you’re reading, always manages somehow to bring the discussion round to their particular hobby horse, whether it be predestination, or God’s love, or human sin, or the need to care for the poor. All these things are in the Bible - but they’re not in every verse. If we think they are, then we’re eisegeting the text instead of exegeting it.
The eighteenth century preacher Charles Simeon put it like this:
My endeavor [he said] is to bring out of Scripture what is there, and not to thrust in what I think might be there. I have a great jealousy on this head: never to speak more or less than I believe to be the mind of the Spirit in the passage I am expounding...So the question is not, how can I make this biblical text say what I want it to say, but how can I read this text so that I myself get out of the way, and allow the biblical text to speak for itself. Will I allow it to challenge my ideas (exegesis), or am I really only interested in confirming them (eisegesis)?
When I was at drama school back in the mid 90s, I remember one of my teachers gently rebuking me with this advice: Barry, you must resist the urge to pull the character to you; instead, go to the character. What he meant was that there are some actors whose performances always look the same. No matter what part they’re playing, the character always has the same voice, the same verbal and physical tics. They always pull the character to themselves, rather than allowing themselves to be pulled to the character.
Some of us read the Bible like that too. We mould the Bible into our own image, rather than allowing it to mould us. It’s as if we’ve already decided what Scripture should and should not say before we open it, and when we do open it, lo and behold, it confirms all our prejudices, blesses our philosophies, and always, always agrees with us. Which, given that this is God’s word and not ours, ought to make us suspicious about our ability to read.
One theologian put it this way: to exegete “is to bring out of the text what is there and expose it to view. The expositor pries open what appears to be closed, makes plain what is obscure, unravels what is knotted and unfolds what is tightly packed. The opposite of exposition is ‘imposition,’ which is to impose on the text what is not there.”
So when we next read the Bible, stop: it is not hammer-time. Not everything’s a nail. Let’s be exegetes, not eisegetes.