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Reading the Bible: Part 2 PDF Print E-mail
Written by Peter Johnston   
Thursday, 26 February 2009 22:30

Reading Bible

Earlier in February I wrote a post about Reading the Bible following a conversation with someone in the church. I mentioned in that post that the subject is vast and could spill over into many blog posts. And so it has...

At the end of that post I talked about how I believe it is impossible, despite our best intentions, to come to read a text from the Bible completely objectively. So in this post I want to flesh out how it is okay to come to the Bible subjectively, and indeed to note that this is what Jesus himself did with the Scriptures he knew. [There's more...]

Exegesis and Eisegesis

To begin with, a couple of technical terms: exegesis and eisegesis. What do these mean? You know that part of the sermon when I or whoever else is preaching spends some time looking at the particular text from the Bible, exploring what this passage has to say to us? That is the practise of exegesis. We are looking together at the passage from the Bible and trying to draw from it something for our own lives. Normally when we do that, we are trying to do that as objectively as possible, so as to let God's Word speak to us through the Scripture passage.

This process, inevitably, involves interpretation of the passage. The exegete (the person doing the exegesis) is trying to understand the message so as to draw meaning from it. Good exegetes give us wonderful sermons or write commentaries (in Scotland still Willie Barclay's spring to mind) that help us explore the Bible texts, understand them, and let their teaching impact our lives.

However, I still contend that it is impossible to do this entirely objectively. And indeed, when you read different commentaries on a passage you quickly get to know the "voice" of the author of the commentary as his or her own knowledge, background, politics, theology, and so on affect their exegesis.

So what is eisegesis? It is the opposite of exegesis. It is the process of drawing our own understanding into the text, letting our own thoughts and ideas influence our reading of the Bible. As such, eisegesis is often derided as not allowing the Bible to speak for itself. I can understand that concern. However, there is a large part of me that wonders if this give and take, this to and fro, this drawing from and drawing into the text we are reading isn't actually going on all the time, even if we are not always aware of it.

Some people will hold up their hands in horror and say that if you let any subjectivity (i.e. let your own thoughts) influence your reading of the Bible then you are on a slippery slope to relativism where you can make the Bible say anything you want. That is not true.

If one admits, as I believe one must, that we do all bring our own subjective experiences and understanding to our reading of the Bible, then we have to also admit there are many readings of the Bible. In other words, there are many different ways in which the Bible speaks to its readers. It is like gathering a group of friends to walk around an art gallery. You all gather around one painting and after a few minutes of quiet contemplation the conversation starts. Quickly you find that everyone there has seen something different in the painting. Their interpretations of the picture are all different.

In a similar way one can understand our approach to the Bible. Does this mean that anything goes? If you admit there are countless different ways to read the Bible then what is true?

An infinity of readings or a transfinity of readings?

I am indebted to the author Peter Rollins for highlighting the difference between an infinity of readings and a transfinity of readings. What is the difference? Infinity refers to the countless series of numbers from 1 to infinity - an endless horizon. Transfinity, on the other hand, refers to the infinite series of numbers between two integers. It might refer to all the numbers between 1 and 2, for instance. 1.1, 1.2, 1.432, 1.654765, etc. This too is an infinite series of numbers, but they all lie between 1 and 2.

Prodigal Son by RembrandtRollins suggests it is the same for our reading of the Bible. So, for example, there may be a transfinite number of readings of the Parable of the Prodigal Son - countless ways to explore that story, to get something from it, but there are limits to our interpretation. None of the readings could legitimately say that the story was about the unforgiving hatred of the Father, for instance.

While we can acknowledge the range of different readings of the Bible that fellow readers may have, and in humility acknowledge that there may be insight to learn from listening to their interpretations just as we share our own reading with them, we also recognise that there are also limits to those interpretations.

The Interpretive Lens of Love

So what about Jesus? I said at the start of the post that Jesus himself subjectively interpreted the Scriptures. How so?

Let's take the examples of Jesus healing on the Sabbath. Here is Luke 6: 6-11.

On another Sabbath day, a man with a deformed right hand was in the synagogue while Jesus was teaching. The teachers of religious law and the Pharisees watched Jesus closely. If he healed the man’s hand, they planned to accuse him of working on the Sabbath.

But Jesus knew their thoughts. He said to the man with the deformed hand, “Come and stand in front of everyone.” So the man came forward. Then Jesus said to his critics, “I have a question for you. Does the law permit good deeds on the Sabbath, or is it a day for doing evil? Is this a day to save life or to destroy it?”

He looked around at them one by one and then said to the man, “Hold out your hand.” So the man held out his hand, and it was restored! At this, the enemies of Jesus were wild with rage and began to discuss what to do with him.

The teachers of the law and Pharisees had the answers, or so they thought. They had their own reading of the Scriptures, their own interpretation, and they tried to enforce it upon others saying that it was God's law. They had no room for listening to anyone else, for they knew they were right.

Then comes Jesus. Love incarnate. Everything he does is suffused with love. He doesn't see things the way the law teachers and Pharisees do because everything he does is done through love.

Where the law teachers and Pharisees want to use the law to bludgeon people into thinking the same way they do, Jesus sees and acts through eyes of love. And it was through love that he healed. His reading of the law is shaped by his Father's love being lived out in his life. Rather than being tied to the reading of Scripture of the teachers of the law and Pharisees, in love Jesus reads it a different way.

The challenge for us, self-centred as we so often are, is to so open our own lives to God's love that we too will automatically read the Bible through the lens of love. If we read a passage and our reading of it leads us to an action that would be hurtful to others, then perhaps we need to rethink and look again with the lens of love. That is the challenge Jesus gave the teachers of the law and Pharisees. Tragically they were so wrapped up in thinking their interpretation was right that they were willing to kill Jesus for disturbing their sense of self-satisfaction.

In the past radical reinterpretations of Scripture were undertaken, often painfully, in order to come to terms with reading the Bible through the lens of love. Probably the most famous of these shifts would be as a result of the anti-slavery campaigns of the nineteenth centuries. Many people vehemently opposed the abolitionists and did so on the seeming firm ground of their reading of Scripture. It took courageous evangelicals like Wilberforce and Wesley to defend a different reading of the Bible, through the lens of love for their shackled brothers and sisters, reading it the way Jesus might do, to give the space for others to do the same. And in so doing, God's love made a difference and transformed lives.

For that is surely our ultimate desire when reading the Bible: that our lives will be transformed so that we live out that love and allow it to shape our understanding and our actions. Jesus shows us that we are to enter into a conversation with the Scripture, a conversation that is directed by love. When we forget that last part, it can go terribly wrong.

A story from Anthony de Mello's The Song of the Bird to end with:

The commander of the occupation troops said to the mayor of the mountain village, 'We know you are hiding a traitor. Unless you give him up to us, we shall harass you and your people by every means in our power.'

The village was, indeed, hiding a man who seemed good and innocent and was loved by all. But what could the mayor do now that the welfare of the village was at stake? Days of discussion in the village council led to no conclusion. So the mayor finally took the matter up with the priest. Priest and mayor finally came up with a text that said 'It is better that one man die to save the nation.'

So the major handed over the innocent man, whose screams echoed throughout the village as he was tortured and put to death.

Twenty years later a prophet came to that village, went right up to the mayor and said, 'How could you have done this? That man was sent by God to be the saviour of this country. And you handed him over to be tortured and killed.'

'But where did I go wrong?' pleaded the major. 'The priest and I looked at the scriptures and did what they commanded.'

'That's where you went wrong,' said the prophet. 'You should have also looked into his eyes.'

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