Principles of Bible Reading: From Text to Application
As a Bible teacher, I feel very strongly that, as much as possible, I need to be radically text-centered. I strive to work from a text (preferably a moderately substantial one rather than a single verse) towards application. I start my lessons translating my text and just trying to understand it on its own terms. Then I work outwards to wider and wider contexts within the Bible. It is only after this that I consider contemporary application. I move from text to application, never the reverse. This is not really a principle of Bible teaching, per se. Rather, it is a principle of close Bible reading, of hermeneutics, so it includes Bible teaching, but it also pertains to one’s personal Bible study. I call this principle “from text to application”, and it breaks down into three sub-principles:
- Read “from” rather than “into”;
- Let the text dictate the topic;
- Think more broadly about “application”.
Read “From” Rather Than “Into”
An idea that every first-year seminarian learns in his or her basic hermeneutics class is the difference between exegesis and eisegesis (properly pronounced “ACE-uh-jee-sis” not “ICE-uh-jee-sis” – the “ei” is a Greek diphthong, not a German one). “Exegesis” comes from Greek ek/ex, which means “out from”, and hegeomai, which means “to lead”, so the word “exegesis” describes the way we bring out a meaning from a text. By contrast, the “eis” part of “eisegesis” comes from the Greek preposition eis, which means “into”. “Eisegesis” is a word that was constructed to be the opposite of exegesis and to describe the (formerly) inferior practice of reading ones own ideas into a text.
The problems associated with reading into the Bible should be obvious. It is possible to read the Bible selectively so as to support virtually any position. Whatever your perspective on homosexuality, it is clear that both sides of the issue can find support for their side in the Bible. At least one of these sides is guilty of reading the Bible selectively (and it may very well be both sides that are doing this). This is what is called “confirmation bias”. Most recently we’ve been hearing about it in relation to politics (see Luke Wisley’s recent post on the subject), but this is a more general human problem. It’s part of our sin sickness, our fear-motivated compulsion to retreat inward into our safe areas in order to protect ourselves. We must make every effort to avoid “confirmation bias” in our study and teaching of the Bible.
– Our goal is to understand what the text says, not what we say through the text –
In actuality, the process of Bible interpretation is more complicated than a simple “either reading into the text or drawing out from the text”. Every time we come to the Bible, we bring our own personalities and experiences with us, and this is okay. What we bring to a text is an important part of how a text produces meaning. This is part of the reason why different people pull different things out of the same passage, and also why the Bible can be so differently applicable at different stages in ones life. But even acknowledging the dynamic interplay of reader and text in producing meaning, it is possible and recommended that the text occupy a place of priority, that our goal be to understand what the text says, not what we say through the text.
Let the Text Dictate the Topic
Even if we are careful to prioritize the text in our reading of it – to read “out from” it more than “into” it – it is still possible to read the Bible in a self-confirming way – to be guilty of a confirmation bias – by our choice of texts and topics. What I find is that we Bible teachers too easily fall into the trap of selecting texts to teach from that support our particular favorite themes or pet peeves. Our Bible interpretation of each text may be sound, but we nevertheless find ourselves repeating a rather narrow range of subjects that reflect our own point of view in life. What we say may be correct, as far as it goes, but we aren’t challenging ourselves (let alone our congregations/students) to consider the broader perspective on life that the Bible actually possesses.
If we let the Bible dictate to us not only how we talk about our favorite few topics, but even what topics we talk about, the Bible is freed to become a true guide to life. It will force us to deal with uncomfortable ideas, or ideas that we had not considered were important but actually are. When we impose topics on the Bible, we deal with the Bible as a repository of answers rather than as a guide to good questions. We presume to know what questions need to be asked, when that is precisely where our human wisdom is most impoverished. But as a Bible teacher my first job is to engage the Bible in a self-transforming way, to proactively put myself in a position where the Bible reads me and humbles me by revealing to me all my jagged edges and shortcomings. My teaching must flow from my poverty, not my abundance. I must empty myself so that the Spirit can fill me up through the Bible. Not everyone can do this. That’s why we need Bible teachers.
– As a Bible teacher my first job is to engage the Bible in a self-transforming way –
But how do we let the Bible dictate our topics? How do we let it not only give us answers but also ask the questions? My recommendation for Bible teachers is to find some kind of external control to dictate what texts are being taught. This can be a lectionary, or schedule of readings (even if you do not belong to a church tradition that uses a lectionary, you can find schedules of readings online). Otherwise, intentionally choosing to teach through a book of the Bible that is not your favorite or particular area of expertise can help you break out of the rut of your own pet peeves. Some of my most intense periods of spiritual growth (and some of my best lessons, in my opinion) have come about as a result of having my readings dictated to me.
Think More Broadly About “Application”
The third part of moving from text to application is thinking more broadly about what “application” means. The contemporary American Church’s emphasis on so-called “practical application” is problematic. Not every biblical text has an easy application, and not every text needs to have an easy application (Matt Emerson wrote a great post earlier this year on this subject). This is actually just another example of us presuming to know all the questions. We presume that the purpose of Bible study on any given day is to discover another “practical” principle to guide our day-to-day lives, meaning our daily interactions and conversations with our family or coworkers. The Bible does have a lot to say about our behavior (our ethics), but has even more to say about who God is, who we are, and our relationship to him. Ethics are really a by-product of deeper theological thinking. They are an important by-product (James says, “faith without works is dead”), but they are, nevertheless, a by-product.
This is an area where the American Church is failing to resist the noticeable trend in our culture of people becoming more and more foolish. It’s not that we have less knowledge. Arguably, the average person today has access to more knowledge than ever before in human history. But we are also far more focused on the immediate, having far less of a capacity for delayed gratification. When I consider the Bible relevant only when it gives me a one-, two-, or three-step action plan for my life today, I am not giving full consideration to the real power of the Bible.
The real power of the Bible to transform our lives takes place over a much longer period of time, and it is both conscious and subconscious in its effects. When we immerse ourselves in the world of the Bible and in its particular subjects and ways of talking about those subjects, when we even let our speech patterns be shaped by biblical speech patterns, it is then that the Bible has its full effect in transforming our thinking to its very core. A biblical text shouldn’t have to be reducible to an ethical “action point” to be considered relevant. There is nothing more relevant than, in Matt Emerson’s words, “point[ing] us to the Son by the illumining power of the Spirit so that we might know the Father.”
– A biblical text shouldn’t have to be reducible to an ethical “action point” to be considered relevant –
So, the principle of “from text to application” involves proactive humility and a capacity for delayed gratification. As Bible teachers, I think we need to be stretching our students through our teaching and leading them to resist the dangerous trends in our culture of confirmation bias and a decreasing capacity for higher level thinking. We can do this by consciously moving in our study and teaching from text to application.