Greg and Amy share how a Bible study leader can gently correct study members who fall into the trap of eisegesis.
Question: When proper exegesis was revealed to me, I was astonished I didn’t see it before. I’m hoping to lead a Bible study with close friends who might tend to trend on the side of eisegesis, and I’m wondering if you have any tips on humbly steering the conversation and discussion to properly study the text in context.
Greg: I’m glad to hear that she’s had this revelation, of sorts, about understanding, in some ways, exegesis, which is getting information out of the text, as opposed to eisegesis, which is reading information into the text that’s not there, like, for example, your own ideas that you’re trying to baptize with a proof text that doesn’t teach your own ideas. This is a critical distinction, and it’s great that she’s got this in her mind. People treat the Bible in ways they would never treat anything else that they read—no letter, no advertisement, no news story, nothing in a book—because it’s a spiritual book, so they feel they can just take all kinds of liberties with the text.
Now, there’s a couple of ways you can approach it. You can approach this directly with the Bible study group and say, “Here is what the goal is for our group. Since this is God’s Word, we’re looking to see what God has to say about things. God communicated through sentences and paragraphs in a flow of thought.” And, by the way, when it comes to exegesis, this is the simplest idea to focus in on: flow of thought. I mean, it’s a straightforward concept, and people are aware of that. If somebody asks, “In this moment, what does he mean?” Well, here, he started this way, and he’s going here, and in this moment, things fit this way in the flow of thought. This is absolutely common sense, and like I said, the way we read everything else, but this would be one of the rules. God inspired the Word, so he has a meaning. He has a purpose, and it’s our job to figure out what God means through the writer. So, this is going to be author-centered, and—here’s the next really critical point—you’re looking for the author-inspired message, and you discover that by following the flow of thought.
Now, the principle of following the flow of thought—which is not a principle in some abstract sense; it’s a common sense way of understanding any communicated concept using language—that is going to force the study group to implicitly employ Stand to Reason’s principle that we’ve talked about many times: Never read a Bible verse. If you want to know what a Bible verse means, you have to read more than a verse. You have to read a paragraph, at least, or further. Why do you do that? To get the flow of thought.
So, we’re not going to stick with one verse when we’re trying to do assessments. Of course, sometimes you go back to a verse because that’s your goal. There’s something taught in a verse that’s significant. And we have things come up on the Stand to Reason podcasts where somebody asks about a verse. So, we say, “Okay. We’ll deal with this verse by not reading just this verse, but going larger, discovering the sense that the author had in view by looking at the author’s flow of thought.”
Now, if our friend, Alexis, sets the ground rules at the beginning in a gentle way—she shouldn’t have to be autocratic about it, but rather say, “Here’s what we want to do. We want to find out what God thinks about these things, and he communicated through authors, so that means we are going to be looking at the text from the author’s point of view. That’s what we’re doing here.” If someone has an idea or contribution, she can tell them, “I want those ideas and contributions about this as we discuss. The rule is we want to be able to demonstrate that we got our idea from the flow of thought.” And that ensures that we are getting the author’s idea and, therefore, God’s meaning rather than trying to read our ideas into it.
So, we’re looking for the author’s intent. It’s author-oriented, not reader-oriented, not “What does this mean to me?” This is the wrong question to ask. It doesn’t matter what it means to you. That’s subjectivizing the text. What matters is what it meant to the person who wrote it, and we’re going to accomplish that by trying to construct the flow of thought and see where this particular verse sits in relationship to flow of thought.
I’ll give you one very quick verse that’s a pet peeve verse of mine, and that is Romans 8 where it says, “All those who are led by the Spirit are children of God.” Well, what ends up happening is there’s a conventional, current definition of what that means operating in Christian circles, and that is this is nudge, nudge, hint, hint—God giving us a little poke this way and that way—and then we kind of figure out where he’s leading us in personal life decisions. This is not what Paul meant. If you just simply read the verse, or are aware of the verse and hear it quoted in context of this other pattern or way of Christian decision making, well, that’s ”biblical”—that’s what you’re going to think. But when you read it in the flow of thought, you realize there’s nothing of this sort that Paul has in mind. He repeats the phrase in Galatians 5, and both passages mean the same thing: that the Holy Spirit is working to move us out of sin—overcoming the flesh—and into godliness.
Now, there’s an example where, when you read it, if you try to say, “I’m going to set this other thing aside that I have in my mind that is barking at me about the meaning of this verse since it’s quoted so often”—I should say misquoted—“to that purpose, and just read the flow of thought,” it’s very, very clear what Paul has in mind. It has nothing about the Holy Spirit nudging and hinting. Now, whether the Holy Spirit does that has to be established by other verses. Not by this one. That isn’t “being led by the spirit.” If somebody invests that meaning in that passage, they are not using Paul’s meaning. If they’re not using Paul’s meaning, they’re not using God’s meaning, which means they’re distorting, at that point, the Word of God. So, it is a heavy business.
Paul says in 2 Timothy, “Study to show yourself as approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed, handling accurately the Word of God.” So, if we are not handling the Bible accurately, shame on us, and the way to handle it accurately is to understand that we’re trying to get the message of the author, which is God’s message, and we get that by reading in context and following the flow of thought.
Amy: I love the idea of framing the conversation the way you said, Greg. You could start off the whole thing that way, but you could also do it each session, because they will learn by watching how you are handling the text. And so, if you come in there, and you’re giving all of your explanations at the beginning as to how you’re going to do this, that’s very helpful. There’s a pair of books called How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth and How to Read the Bible Book by Book, and you could take your Bible study group through whatever book you’re reading—you could take them through all the principles outlined in these books—at the beginning of your study. This is just starting to change their mindset.
Now, I think you will still have people automatically moving towards putting their own meaning into the text for a while because it takes a while to kind of reorient yourself to how to read the Bible, and when that happens, I think responding is really simple. You can just say, “Well, it sounds like you’re trying to apply this to your life, but we’ll get to that in a minute, but first we have to know what it means. Let’s figure out what God is communicating to his people through these words, and then, once we know the meaning, then we can look at our lives and how that might apply to each of our lives, because there’s one meaning, and there’s many applications. So, let’s start with the meaning, and then we’ll get to the applications at the end.” That’s kind of a nice way of saying you’re not just shutting them down from giving their thoughts about how to apply it to their life. You are telling them, “Yeah. We’ll get to that, but first, let’s get the meaning.”
Greg: You’re just reinforcing this idea that there is a meaning, and, if they go astray a little bit, following the habit that they’re in, rather than being instructed by this new direction that’s being offered, the leader—Alexis, in this case—can simply say, “Can you explain to me how you got that idea from the flow of thought in the text?” Now, that question should be easy to answer. If it’s there, it’s obvious. Well, Paul says this, and he says this, then he says this, therefore this, and this is what follows. But if you can’t do that, then it looks foreign to the text, to the flow thought, and the idea is not Paul’s idea or John’s or Peter’s or Jesus’, as the case may be.