After twenty years practicing law, I left the profession to attend seminary and become a pastor. When new friends hear of that career path, there’s an immediate twinkle in their eyes. I know what’s coming. A joke follows questioning how a lawyer can become a minister. Truth is, there isn’t much difference between the two professions. People still come looking for the loopholes.
Perhaps there is nothing more emblematic of that than the contemporary debate over marriage equality. Those who support the right of same-sex couples to marry focus on the law and the construction of the constitution. Those who oppose same-sex marriage work to conflate the law with their interpretation of the Bible.
Having grappled with difficult moral and social issues both as a lawyer and as a theologian, it occurs to me that the great difference is that the law has, over the years, created well-defined rules of engagement placing limits on legal debates. The law imposes strict rules on who is allowed to interpret it using recognized boundaries on statutory construction, evidence, and constitutional interpretation. Lawyers often try to move those lines to the left or the right but they know they exist. They realize that if they want to move the lines, they have to craft an argument that passes the straight face test.
Biblical interpretation has few, if any, such rules or boundaries. In order to become qualified to interpret the law, one must go to an accredited law school for three years and then pass a demanding bar examination. In order to interpret scripture, one need only offer his or her interpretation. While some denominations require their ministers to meet certain educational qualifications, a growing number do not. Thus in many faith communities, if you can read the Bible, your are allowed to teach it.
This is not without significant consequence. People who attend religious services don’t only sit in the pews. They agree in some measure to grant authority to the person at the pulpit. If the denomination has no strict rules for ordination, they may be granting authority over their spiritual lives to someone of questionable qualification. Yet we know that no matter what a preacher says, some are going to believe it and repeat it.
The “ah ha” moment for me came early in seminary when we were taught the difference between “exegesis” (exe-Jesus) and “eisegesis (ice-e-Jesus).” Basically, the latter is a process by which readers look to the Bible to prove what they already believe. Divided into hundreds of numbered verses, the Bible is ready made for those wanting to employ it that way. A verse can be found to support nearly any argument one seeks to propound. That is eisegesis. It requires little knowledge or analysis of the historical or cultural context of the original author or understanding of the language in which the text was initially written.
Exegesis is different. It’s why seminary is a multiple year, post-graduate experience during which some learn Hebrew and Greek and all spend countless hours studying not only the scripture but also the commentaries of learned theologians over centuries.
Just as understanding the law requires more than simply reading the words of a statute or the constitution, Biblical interpretation demands that teachers and learners to go deeper. Exegesis is a process that opens our minds to the Holy Spirit and the continuing revelations of God. Eisegesis, on the other hand, limits our interpretation of scripture to our own notions and prejudices.
One requires only the ability to read. The other demands we take the time to listen to God.