Biases are unavoidable. Everyone has them. For better or worse, they are a part of human thinking formed by how the brain processes information through categorization. Shaped by culture, education, experience, history, or any number of other factors, they can, and, often times, do have a direct impact then on how the individual sees and understands the world around them.
Though some of these biases can be explicit, many of them are implicit, laying just beneath the surface. Because of this they can be seen in any number of different places, including how Scripture is interacted with. In fact, it is the biases of the individual that can provide one of the greater stumbling blocks in reading Scriptures, as one imposes their own partialities and preconceived notions on the text, finding that it permeates not only how they interpret the content, prejudicing how they read it, but also determines what they decide is relevant or not. This, in turn, prevents them from fully appreciating the Word of God, and allows from them to find what they conclude to either be in error or to utterly dismiss entire passages based on what they want to believe.
What needs to be remembered is the fact that Scripture is about God. Thus, it is important for the reader to leave their biases behind, to recognize them and step back from them in order to rightly handle the Word of God. This, though, is not necessarily the easiest task. As said, these biases can be firmly engrained. They can work their way through in ways one little expects or sees, creating a biblical and theological perspective that has ventured far beyond the meaning the Holy Spirit intended when He divinely inspired the authors.
The question then becomes how does one read Scripture without biases?
In order to do this, there are a few rules which should be remembered when one opens the pages of the Bible. These, in turn, help them to focus themselves on what is actually being said, and what it actually means rather than what they think or what they may want it to mean.
Scriptura sacra sui ipsius interpres
As stated previously, the Bible was not written in a vacuum. It is not simply a collection of books which stand alone. Genesis, for example, does not exist separately from Isaiah, and Isaiah does not occur independently of what the reader finds in the Gospels. What is read in the earlier has a direct impact on later books, and those later books have specific implications on how one understands the earlier books. With this in mind Scripture has to be read in a holistic way. The reader is called to learn and interpret the text in light of the entire Word of God progressively revealed.
What this means is that the reader themselves is not the interpreter. Rather, as the expression goes, Scriptura sacra sui ipsius interpres, “sacred Scripture is its own interpreter.”
This is a principle which is affirmed by the Word of God itself. For example, it is Jesus who states, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.” (Jn 5:39-40) Here he clearly states that for one to search the search the Scriptures is to find testimony of Him, witness of Him. This only occurs if one goes through the Bible and reads it through the lens of the unity that it holds, recognizing that it works in harmony.
In this sense, what then the reader comes to is the realization that the Bible provides its own interpretation for itself. This is not because of some particular insight by the human author, some level of brilliance or the ability to see the future that they may have. It is because the ultimate author is the Holy Spirit. God-breathed, that is, inspired by God, (2 Tim. 3:16-17), the Spirit weaves together the entirety of the Scriptures in a beauty symmetry whereby only God himself can provide the absolute meaning of it through the lens of the text itself.
What this means then is that the interpretation that one may provide cannot contradict the meaning of that passage, or another passage which is found, nor can the meaning that is drawn correct what one may believe is somehow incorrect. Passages are not and cannot be seen as standing diametrically opposed to each other, because “God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind. Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it?” (Num. 23:19) He is not a God of confusion. (1 Cor. 14:33)
This means that the individual does not simply read the Scriptures, they have to study them, rigorously inquiring of them the meaning that they hold. In this they recognize that the more difficult to understand passages are usually clarified by those which offer a simpler meaning. Yet, even when it doesn’t, God provides understanding (2 Tim. 2:7) because He desires for people to know Him, to be in relationship with Him, and this involves rightly handling His Word in a manner that shows oneself to be approved. (2 Tim. 2:15).
Exegesis verses Eisegesis
Rightly handling the Word of Truth also recognizes that there is a proper way to study Scriptures. This means realizing that there are two fundamental different ways in which one may approach their handling of the Bible. This is the difference between exegesis and eisegesis.
Exegesis is derived from the Greek Word ἐξήγησις. In Ancient Greek it is translated as “interpretation”, and is drawn from the words ἐξηγέομαι, which is comprised of ἐξ, which means “out”, and ἡγέομαι, which means “I lead”, Thus, one can consider it, in a literal sense, as meaning “to lead out of” when one considers a question of interpretation. This is significant because what it points to is a read who does not come to the text of with their own conclusions or their own biases. Rather, considering the original context they seek to ascertain the actual intent of the passages, believing that the Scriptures will reveal their own meaning and purpose.
Eisegesis, on the other hand, is from the Ancient Greek εἰς, which is translated as “into.” Accordingly, the reader or interpreter comes to the text with a specific understanding derived from their own worldview or personal experiences and ideas. They, in turn, read into the text their own partialities. Biases are unavoidable here, as cultural considerations which would be completely foreign to the original author, audience and intent of the passage are imposed on the text itself.
The difference between the two are significant. On one hand exegesis seeks to understands from as neutral of a position as possible, recognizing that the text will present its own evidence, pointing to its own meaning. The reader will then analyze the text in order derive its proper meaning from it free of their own preconceived notions. Eisegesis, on the other hand, will look at it from a different perspective altogether. They are not necessarily seeking to understand the text for what the text says. Rather, they have a certain leaning, or a certain understanding that is framed by the outside world, whether it is cultural, societal, experiential, educational, etc. The goal is then to fit the text into their own specific worldview in order to affirm what they already believe or negate something which they disagree with.
There are several dangers with eisegesis, not the least of which is the fact that the individual is imposing their will on the Word of God. This, in turn, allows for any number of false thoughts and heterodox teachings to permeate one’s faith, as the subjective thought of man seeks to dominate the objective truth of God. It has been through eisegesis by which any number of heresies have woven themselves into the lives of the Christian, drawing them further into their own biases and further away from what God actually teaches.
Yet, if the Christian seeks to take the words of the apostle Paul seriously as he writes, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17) then they must realize a very fundamental point. This is namely that the application of Scripture is intrinsically tied to the interpretation of Scripture. To imitate Christ as the believer is called to do, one must begin by properly understanding the text in its actual context according to its actual meaning. They must practice exegesis, allowing the Word of God to lead out of the words found within those pages.
Descriptive versus Prescriptive
This then leads to the final point. This is, namely, understanding the difference between the descriptive and the prescriptive in Scripture. This has, at times, proven to be problematic at times when it comes to a matter of interpreting Scripture as passages which are clearly descriptive are taken as prescriptive, and vice versa. So, then what is the difference and why does it matter?
To put it simply, descriptive is, as it sounds, is a verse or a passage which is used to describe. It is used to explain a person, place, thing, or event. Prescriptive, on the other hand, is a verse or a passage which is used to teach. Whereas the descriptive used to depict or portray something that has happened in the course of history, the prescriptive is used to say how something should, or ought to happen in the life of the believer.
As an example, in recent debates about abortion, Genesis 2:7 has often been used to state that life does not begin until the first breath, because Adam does not become a living being until God breathes the breath of life into his nostrils. Ignoring the essential problem that Scriptures state that Adam lived when God breathed into his nostrils, the inherent problem with interpreting this passage as saying life does not begin until the first breath is that it ignores the fact that it is describing an event that happened, not how all life would come into being after. Note, for example, that the verse says man was formed from the dust of the ground. This is seen in the fact that Adam was unique in how he was created, just as Eve in Genesis 2:21-22.
Another example of descriptive would be a particular passage which reflected an instruction that would be for a specific time, place or person. This instruction would not necessarily be one that individuals would continue to follow because it is not a relevant command to them. Paul telling Timothy that he should stop drinking only water and drink a little wine (1 Tim. 5:23) is descriptive. It is a command for his protégé only based on the issues that he has with his stomach and frequent ailments.
An example of a prescriptive would be Christ’s Great Commission. (Matt. 28:18-20) This not only describes the events of the Saviors ascension, but also reflects with a directive which is given which is intended to direct the life of the believer. They are to go forth into every nation preaching and teaching, making disciples, and baptizing in the name of the Triune God even as they instruct to observe all which He has commanded.
One of the reasons why the Epistles are often times dismissed as simply being the work of Paul, or individuals will say they listen to Christ, but they don’t listen to Paul. Christ, who preached in a largely Jewish context, did not mention some of the more difficult concepts in post-modern culture that Paul, who preached in a more Gentile context, would mention. These prescriptive texts run contrary to the cultural zeitgeist, and so it is easier to try and ignore them then have to address them from a biblical framework or scriptural worldview.
For as complicated as one can make it, often times the difference between descriptive and prescriptive is not that terribly difficult to understand. As a rule, one needs to simply consider if the text is considered neutral, neither positive or negative. When this is the case, it is generally descriptive. On the other hand, if it is a command or an imperative, when it very specifically offers guidance, it can be seen as prescriptive.
More than this removing one’s bias and understanding the context becomes essential to determining if the text itself is prescriptive or descriptive. The more one reflects on the intent of the author and how the original audience would comprehend the meaning the closer they get to recognizing the nature of the passage in question. This, in turn, helps the reader to decide if the text itself is simply describing something, or if it is offering instruction to them.
Bias can be one of the greater stumbling blocks when it comes to reading Scriptures, and can be incredibly difficult to overcome, and it is not easy for someone to overcome. This is in no small part due to the fact that one doesn’t always recognize their own biases. Hiding just beneath the surface it clouds their understanding and their interpretation even as they believe they are reading the text properly without actually understanding that they are imposing their own meaning on it.
If they do see it, or recognize it they can, likewise, easily dismiss it as not being a factor, or something of concern. This, in turn, can lead them down a dark and dangerous path of heterodoxy and potential heresy, guiding them away from God rather than nearer to Him.
This is why the individual studying the Scriptures must put in the work to truly understand what the Bible actually says rather than what they perhaps want it to say. They must carefully examine themselves, reflecting on their own wants, or desires, the cultural zeitgeist which has helped to shape their thoughts, setting them aside so they can draw the true value, meaning and purpose from God’s Word. It isn’t about reading their own meaning into the words, but, rather, allowing for the Bible, through its own self-revelation, to lead them to the proper meaning.
In turn, what the reader finds is a deeper, fuller relationship with Christ, as they grow in their faith and how it should be applied in their life. Lord, grant this unto us all.