How to Interpret the Bible

The Gutenberg BiblePublic domain

The Gutenberg Bible
Public domain

Don’t believe me! Believe your Bible!  Believe God!

~ Herbert W Armstrong

Sometimes, you have to get back to basics.  I see a lot of people who quote HWA about a lot of esoteric things, but they turn around and seem to forget the very basic things he taught.  For example, I had an email exchange recently with a minister who seemed to have forgotten another HWA quote, “The Bible interprets the Bible.”

Hopefully, this is just a refresher for most of you.  In fact, I may even leave something out, so it’s best to read along and let me know.

Exegesis Vs Eisegesis

Perhaps nothing is more important that to allow the text to read to us.  Far too many have preconceived ideas and read them into the Bible.  The former is called exegesis.  The latter is called eisegesis.  Wikipedia says of “Eisegesis”:

The act [of eisegesis] is often used to “prove” a pre-held point of concern to the reader and to provide him or her with confirmation bias in accordance with his or her pre-held agenda. Eisegesis is best understood when contrasted with exegesis. While exegesis draws out the meaning from a text in accordance with the context and discover-able meaning of its author, eisegesis occurs when a reader imposes his or her interpretation into and onto the text. As a result, exegesis tends to be objective when employed effectively while eisegesis is regarded as highly subjective.

Sometimes, eisegesis can happen simply because the reader wants something to be true.  This, to me, is the most difficult to really understand.  After all, God is the One speaking to us through His written word!  To purposefully twist the text to your own preconceived notions is literally what politicians and criminals (assuming there is a difference) do to the law all the time.  Some of them do it to ethical areas as well.  When someone claims to be a Christian and does it, however, it pretty much is taking from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil with the same awareness that Adam and Eve had.

Most of the time, people engage in eisegesis because they believe what their parent/pastor/teacher/professor says what it means and do not stop to question it.  Even if questions are asked of them, most simply trust in and go along with what they have always been taught in spite of evidence to the contrary.

It should be noted that these are not without faith.  The problem is that they place their faith in a man and not in God’s word.

Of course, that man may well be HWA, and too many have done so, thus making an idol of him even over what God says.

How to Engage in Exegesis

So, some guidelines must be set up to ensure that one is sticking to exegesis rather than eisegesis.  I call them “guidelines” and not “rules” for a simple reason.  These can be and have been abused in some cases in order to engage in eisegesis but still try to kid everyone (including the person engaged in it) that it really is exegesis.  I will try to give examples here and there of such abuses.

However, when these are engaged in in the proper order and given the proper weight, it will be difficult to go astray.  Each of these will be covered separately:

  1. Ask God for help.  Amazingly, this one seems to be severely lacking in most other interpretive guidelines I have seen.
  2. Stick to the standard definitions unless there is a compelling cause.
  3. Context, context and context.  There is context within the passage itself, within the book it is written, within the Bible as a whole and within its cultural and historical backdrop.
  4. Pay attention to whom is being addressed.  This is an important principle.  This is also a road with two ditches, and people have fallen off on either side with regularity.
  5. Understanding the Bible literally doesn’t mean all passages are to be literally interpreted.  When is a symbol not a symbol?  When is a cigar just a cigar?
  6. Use the smell test.  Is it logical, reasonable and not contradictory to other Scripture?
  7. The principle of perspicuity: The plain things are the main things, and the main things are the plain things.  Even after following all of these, there will be some things that you and I don’t understand or even get wrong.  How we react to those things and how we treat each other as a result will be part of Christ’s judgment for or against us.

These guidelines should keep the Bible student on the straight and narrow road, rather than in a ditch on the side of the road.

However, what discussion on Bible interpretation can be complete without discussing the hardness of men’s hearts?  An excellent example of cooking on the Sabbath not only illustrates these principles at work, but also how hard-heartedness leads to misunderstanding.

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