Q&R with Brad: “Is reading the Bible through the Gospel ‘eisegesis'”?

Question:

From Brad Jersak, “Gospel Before Translation (3/3)”:

  • “What I’m saying is that your criteria for judging a translation is not your linguistic ability or your academic credentials. It is your personal knowledge of who Jesus is, the nature of God as he revealed it, and the gospel he preached.”

Brad … is that not getting a little close to eisegesis?

My personal growth is so much dependent on my openness to God revealing things to me about Himself and myself, that are sometimes very challenging of my well-formed, and dysfunctional, personal theology.

Response:

What a good question.

So… no and yes, depending on what you mean by eisegesis. Eisegesis wrongly defined is “making the Bible say whatever you want it to say.” If that were what eisegesis actually meant, then I think it’s an obvious error.

But to be technical, eisegesis is defined as “the process of interpreting a text in such a way as to introduce one’s own presuppositions, agendas or biases. It is commonly referred to as reading into the text.”

Even that definition exposes the problem of reading “one’s own” bias into the text. In modernist hermeneutics, we learned never to do that, as if we could come to the text with no theological presuppositions or assumptions. As if we could interpret it “according to the letter” through the science of hermeneutics and without the illumination of the Spirit or the lens of the Emmaus Road. I am very skeptical that such a path to interpretation is even possible, much less biblical or spiritual.

We all wear the interpretive lenses of our family of origin, our educational system and training, our race and gender, our national culture or regional subculture, our religious heritage and our personal temperament and history, including our wounds. These factors color everything we read and perhaps the Bible most of all. And while that presents a challenge, it’s not really a *bad thing* as long as you are mindful of it. Typically, the critics of eisegesis are modernists who deceive themselves with their imaginary objectivity.

The more I read how NT authors interpreted the Hebrew Scriptures and how the early Christians instructed disciples of Christ how to read the Bible, the more I regard warnings about subjective reading as a modernist invention that Paul rejects in passages such as 1 Cor. 2 and 2 Cor. 3, where he denies that one can rightly interpret Scripture apart from the Spirit and that to do so is reading the Bible as the “letter that kills”–i.e. as “biblical literalists” in the tradition of Jesus’ opponents.

So, of course, we should not just read *our own* personal biases back into the text as a way to avoid undergoing its transforming challenges. That’s where your question hits the nail on the head.

And yet the NT makes it very clear that we MUST bring a precommitment to our interpretation of the text–namely, the gospel. The authors (and Christ himself) show us that we have no business interpreting any part of the Bible without reference to Christ and the gospel because that is our hermeneutical key. On the Emmaus Road, Christ said,

  • 25 “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” 27 And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.

How does a Christ-follower interpret “Moses and the Prophets and all the Scriptures”? By asking how they prefigure Christ and his Gospel. Part of the point of my series on the “Gospel Before Translation” was to show how even (and all) translation is an interpretive process and to do so without the Gospel lens may lead to mistranslation. Again, translators who pretend they are reading with sterile objectivity are more likely to commit eisegesis, as I think the verses I sampled made obvious.

The solution is to admit we have preconceptions, identify them as best we can and then choose the Jesus Way or Emmaus Way as our pathway into the text. Do we read *our own* bias into the text? YES. Should we? NO. But we should and must read the gospel into the text AND from the text or we risk reducing our scriptures to a dead letter.

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