Reading and studying the Bible is one of the most important things we can do. If we don’t spend quality time studying the Scriptures, we won’t know who God is or how He expects us to live. We will be vulnerable to false teachings and cults. We won’t be equipped and capable of the work God calls us to do.
- “All Scripture is inspired by God and beneficial for teaching, for rebuke, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man or woman of God may be fully capable, equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17 NASB)
But did you know there is more than one way to study and interpret the Bible? Five different people can read the same verse and have five interpretations of what that verse means. It all boils down to two things: exegesis and hermeneutics.
What is hermeneutics?
Hermeneutics means the science of interpreting the Bible. Correctly interpreting the Bible is incredibly important for understanding God’s nature and what we should believe and do. Hermeneutics are the principles or rules we use to analyze and understand a passage of Scripture.
What is exegesis and eisegesis?
Exegesis means how we interpret a specific text in the Bible. It literally means “drawing out.” Exegesis means applying the principles of hermeneutics to certain verses or chapters to draw out the correct meaning and application.
For instance, one key principle that the Reformation introduced to hermeneutics was taking the Bible literally. Before this, most folks took an allegorical approach to the Bible. For example, they weren’t so concerned about the literal account of creation as they were in a supposed hidden spiritual meaning that they felt was more important.
Exegesis considers several factors. For instance, who was the human author of that passage, who was he writing to, and what was going on? Now, of course, we know all Scripture is inspired or God-breathed. However, the Holy Spirit inspired those human writers to address certain doctrines, questions, issues, and problems. So, we need to understand what the background was. We need to know what the human writer meant and the context when writing it. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t apply to our situations today – but it does affect how we apply it.
Eisegesis means interpreting a passage in the Bible according to one’s preconceived ideas. It’s subjective and can cloud the meaning of verses that ought to be quite straightforward. As Barry Cooper of Ligonier Ministries says,
“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)?”[i]
Which comes first, hermeneutics or exegesis?
In a sense, hermeneutics come first. You’ve got to have sound principles or rules of interpretation. You need that to understand the meaning of specific texts of Scripture.
On the other hand, exegesis comes first because it’s the first two steps in the hermeneutic process. The hermeneutic process asks and answers four questions:
- What does the passage say?
- What does the passage mean?
- How do I know that’s what it really means? (Do other Scriptures confirm this meaning?)
- Why is this important? How do I apply it?
How do hermeneutics and exegesis work together?
Exegesis means drawing the meaning out of the Bible passage. But hermeneutics gives one the tools to interpret that meaning. It provides the rules of interpretation. So, they go hand in hand.
Types of biblical hermeneutics
- The Historical-Grammatical Method is used by Reformed and Evangelical believers to draw out the true meaning of Scripture. It gives attention to the grammar of the text and its historical context.
Historical context means asking questions. Who wrote this? Why? Who was his audience? What cultural issues were at play?
The Grammatical part involves word studies – digging into what a word normally means and the different meanings it might have. It also means looking at the syntax or how words and phrases are arranged in a specific order within a sentence. Moreover, it includes literary construction or comparing similar ideas in other verses.
The Historical-Grammatical Method interprets Bible passages literally unless they are very obviously using metaphor, symbolism, or figures of speech (often used in the Psalms, other poetic books, and parts of the prophetic books).
- The Allegorical Method was common in Judaism and the pre-Reformation church. It searches for obscure, deep meaning, even in straightforward Bible passages. An example might be when Abraham settled down between Ai and Bethel in Genesis 13. One pastor said this was an allegory because Ai means “ruin” and Bethel means “house of God.” He said it represented our struggle between the spirit and the flesh.
The allegorical method looks for hidden secrets in obvious teachings, often exchanging the obvious meaning for the obscure. This can lead to disregarding what the Bible really has to say. For instance, the Unity Church claims its devotion to the Bible yet denies the Trinity, Jesus’ deity, the atonement, sin, and the devil. They do all this by allegorizing the Bible.
- Typology. The allegorical method is, in a sense, at play in what is called “typology.” It relates events in the Old Testament that foreshadow the New Testament. For instance, Jonah being in the belly of the fish for three days was a “type” of Jesus being in the grave for three days. Jesus introduced this analogy himself:
- “Jesus replied, ‘A wicked and adulterous generation demands a sign, but none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.’” (Matthew 12:39-40)
As the New Testament makes clear, some Old Testament stories and people really did foreshadow future events and people. For instance, the tabernacle and sacrificial system were a “type” of Jesus’ sacrifice and His entrance into the “Most Holy Place” (Hebrews 9). The New Testament is full of “types” from the Old Testament.
However, some Christians try to turn everything in the Old Testament into a “type.” And even if they are a type, the stories and people themselves, at face value, have important lessons that should not be forgotten.
- Moral Interpretation also comes out of the allegorical method. It searches for ethical lessons in various teachings and Biblical stories. For instance, when Moses gave the dietary laws, he told people not to eat pigs, vultures, bats, lizards, and so on (Leviticus 11). A moral interpretation is that each of these “unclean” animals represents a type of ungodly person one should avoid.
- The Historical-Critical Method or Higher Criticism is a method of interpretation used in churches with liberal theology. If “science” seemingly contradicts Scripture, it trumps the Bible. This method rejects the Bible or tries to allegorize it. For instance, the seven days of creation are explained away as seven “eras” lasting hundreds of thousands of years. Or the idea that God created the world is rejected altogether. This method questions or outright denies the inspiration and authority of the Bible. The interpreter is judging Scripture and deciding if it is relevant today.
What does the process of exegesis involve?
- We must allow the Bible to judge us, not judge whether the Bible is accurate or not. We must approach the Bible thoroughly convinced that it is authoritative for today (even when it doesn’t say what we want it to say).
- We must read verses in context. You might assume the wrong meaning if you are just reading one isolated verse. What are the verses before and after saying? How do they relate to that verse? It involves reading the entire chapter and often the chapters immediately before and after.
- We must ask pertinent questions in the process of drawing out the meaning of the passage.
- What is the genre of this passage? (History? Poetic? Doctrinal teaching?)
- How was the passage understood by those who read it when it was first written?
- What was the human author, under the Spirit’s inspiration, teaching? Was he correcting false teachings? Was he dealing with moral issues? Was he revealing essential truths about God’s character? Salvation? Sanctification?
- We must consider the author’s specific words and how he constructed sentences. How does he build up an understanding of an important doctrine by approaching it in different ways? How does this passage compare to other similar passages?
- You can compare various translations and do word studies when considering specific words. If you’re reading the Bible online at a site like Bible Hub[ii], you can click on the verse number. That takes you to a screen that lists that verse in over 20 other versions. It also has similar verses in the right column. At the top of the page, you can click on “interlin,” which will pull up the verse in Greek or Hebrew over each English word. If you click on the number over that, it will pull up a word study with different meanings. It will also give you a list of times that word is used in the Bible.
- We must remember that Scripture interprets Scripture. Suppose one verse or passage is difficult to understand. In that case, we should compare it to other passages dealing with the same issue. This will shed light on difficult passages.
- Finally, we must remember that interpreting Scripture is not merely an academic exercise. We must apply what we read to our lives, morality, and understanding of who God is and who we are. We must do the things it tells us to do.
Does the Bible have contradictions?
There are areas where it appears a contradiction exists, yet there are also explanations. For instance, the apostles Peter and Paul seemed to contradict each other on the matter of faith versus works (Ephesians 2:8-9 vs James 2:14-17). Yet Peter said about Paul:
- “. . . our beloved brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom God gave him. He writes this way in all his letters, speaking in them about such matters. Some parts of his letters are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction.” (2 Peter 3:15-16)
Notice that Peter commends Paul’s writings, admits they might be hard to understand, yet calls them “the Scriptures.” Peter didn’t consider Paul’s writings to be merely human but divinely inspired. Peter knew that Paul’s teaching on faith and works did not contradict his own Spirit-inspired teaching. Instead, it was explaining a different dimension of the two. (See 2 Peter 3:17)
Many so-called contradictions are merely different perspectives. For instance, the details about the resurrection differ in each of the four gospels. But if four people all saw the same thing (or got the information from someone else), they would not report it exactly the same. That doesn’t mean the event didn’t happen, but people talked about different aspects of the event.
The dangers of interpreting the Bible to fit your needs.
We need to consider the whole counsel of God. If we hang everything on one verse (that might be taken out of context), we’re ignoring all the other things the Bible has to say about the topic. We’re not getting the whole picture. And that might lead us down a path of misplaced priorities and eventually disillusionment when God doesn’t do what we think He’s supposed to do.
Let’s take, for instance, the “prosperity gospel,” which essentially teaches that it’s God’s will for all believers to be wealthy. Now, the Bible never says that it is sinful to be rich. And it does say that wealth is a reward for those who reverence God and obey Him (Psalm 112:1-3). However, we must consider other Scripture, such as that the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. It causes some believers to wander away from the truth (1 Timothy 6:10). When we study everything the Bible has to say about wealth and priorities, we can come to a well-rounded conclusion.
Example of hermeneutics
An example of hermeneutics is applying the “rules” of hermeneutics (in this case, the Historical-Grammatical Method) to a topic. Let’s take, for example, the issue above on prosperity.
- First, you want to ensure you’re taking verses in context. This might involve reading the whole chapter or at least the section dealing with the topic.
- You want to compare these verses with other verses on the same topic. Your print Bible may have a concordance in the back that will help you. If you’re reading online, your Bible app probably has multiple search options to compare the topic. You can type in keywords like “money,” “wealth,” “riches,” etc. When you go to other verses, remember to read those in context, not just the isolated verse.
- Make sure you understand the content and know the definitions of words that are used. This may mean doing word studies, as explained above.
- Consider the verses in light of the culture and history of the times in which they were written. Checking out some commentaries can be helpful. If you’re using an online Bible app, most have commentaries you can link to on the topic.
- Don’t base everything on one obscure verse. Let Scripture explain Scripture.
- Know the Author – in this case, God. What does His character tell you about the topic? What does the example of Jesus tell you about prosperity?
- The last step is to ask yourself, “Why is this important? How do I apply it?”
Example of exegesis
Exegesis uses the process of hermeneutics to draw out the meaning of a specific verse or passage. Let’s say that you’re reading 1 Peter 2, and you come to verse 4, which says,
- “And coming to Him as to a living stone, rejected by men, but choice and precious in the sight of God,”
So, you may be a little confused. What in the world is a “living stone?” This is where reading in context comes in handy. When you read verse 5, it tells you that you are also a “living stone” building up a spiritual house. Verse 6 quotes a passage from Isaiah 28:16 (you can know that if your print Bible has cross-references or if you use the app on your online Bible). As you continue to read through verse 10, it gives more information on how Christ, as the cornerstone, and you and the other believers (living stones) are building up a spiritual house.
“Well, what is a spiritual house?” you might ask yourself. By cross-referencing (or just typing “spiritual house” into your Bible app’s search engine), you find that Paul echoes Peter in Ephesians 2:19-22:
- “So then you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God’s household, having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole building, being fitted together, is growing into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit.”
By this time, it’s pretty clear that the “spiritual house” is the church. By reading the verse in context and looking at similar passages, you can get a fuller understanding.
The importance of handling God’s Word accurately
When we put the right tools into place to correctly interpret God’s Word, we allow it to guide our lives more consistently. Handling God’s Word accurately keeps us from coming to the wrong conclusion. It protects us from false teaching.
Using good hermeneutics and exegesis opens up new windows that help you better understand what you’re reading and apply it to your life. Most of us quickly become disinterested if what we’re reading seems obscure or hard to understand. But the principles of hermeneutics and exegesis will help open your eyes to what God wants to teach you through His Word. It makes you eager to study His Word and learn new truths.