Eisegesis is a fifty-cent word to describe the way the Scriptures are abused when we take our own ideas and read them into the Bible. Eisegesis was the foundation of my Evangelical understanding of John chapter 6. As a lifelong Protestant, I had been taught that when Jesus said over and over and over that we must eat His body and drink His blood, or we will have no life in us, He didn’t mean what He actually said. We Evangelicals read one or the other of our two core beliefs into that passage. We believed that everything Jesus ever said or did revolved around the doctrine of sola fide (faith ALONE) or sola Scriptura (the Bible ALONE), so we interpreted “Eat My body” and “Drink My blood” to mean either “‘Eating’ and ‘drinking’ = BELIEVING!” or “Jesus is telling us to ‘feast’ on the Holy Word of God!” depending on who was preaching the sermon. The one thing that was OBVIOUS to us was that Jesus couldn’t have meant for us to take His words literally (as they were taken by everyone, everywhere for ten centuries). By the time the preacher was done, the import of the passage had been explained away quite professionally. An electric shock ran through my body when I finally sat down one day with a Bible and read John 6 with no commentary, no footnotes, and no preacher telling me what the text actually really meant. I was confronted with Jesus’ straightforward insistence that “Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is My flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.” I searched in vain for the part where Jesus explained privately to His disciples that what He actually meant was that the flesh which He would give for the life of the world – which He insisted over and over again that we MUST eat – was the Bible or our faith or some such nonsense. But to Protestants, Jesus simply could not be saying what He appears to be saying here, thus necessitating a kind of magic act on the part of the interpreter, with a lightning-fast substitution of one concept for another. In my mind this conjures up a picture of a corny old-time magician waving his wand over his black top hat and calling out his magical incantation of “EISEGESIS!” – thereby changing the handkerchief which just went into the hat into a big white bunny, and the verses about the Real Presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist into yet another passage supporting sola fide or sola Scriptura. Have stranger things ever happened?
This explains why so many verses which appear at first glance to support Catholic doctrine undergo such a strange change in the hands of Protestant eisegetes. Almost all of these passages are transmogrified into references to “faith” or commentaries on the authority of Scripture. Please don’t misunderstand –according to the Holy Catholic Church, the Bible is without question the inerrant, inspired Word of God. However, the Evangelical doctrine of sola Scriptura does damage to the purpose for which God has given us His Holy Word. According to Evangelicals who promulgate the notion of “the Bible ALONE,” Holy Scripture is the only authority here on Earth to which a Christian ultimately need answer. But since the Bible itself never actually tells us this, nor can the doctrine of sola Scriptura actually be found in Scripture, the only way Protestants can maintain this insistence with a straight face is by constantly waving the eisegesis wand, reading “the Bible ALONE” and “the authority of Scripture” back into the text despite whatever the subject actually happens to be.
Magicians generally employ an assistant, and the assistant when Protestants read “the authority of the Bible” into the Bible is named “Assumption.” In order for the trick to be performed successfully, Assumption must first of all demonstrate to the onlookers that whenever the Bible discusses “the word of God,” what is meant are the Holy Scriptures. This obviously confuses the issue, making the role of Scripture seem beefier and more comprehensive than it actually is. Protestants, for example, list Eph 1:13, Phil 2:16, Ps 130:5, Lk 11:28, Deut 8:3, Is 40:8, Ps 107:20, Jn 5:24, 1 Sam 15:23, Rev 19:15, Ps 89:34, Rom 10:17, Ps 138:2, 2 Tim 3:16, and other verses as examples of the Bible’s preeminent importance in the life of the believer. Verses such as Ephesians 1:13 and Philippians 2:16 discuss “the word of truth” and “the word of life,” apt descriptions for the written word of God, but also a good way to describe God’s spoken word – as Jesus said in Luke 11:28, “Blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it.” That “word of God” Jesus was talking about could be the Scripture that was read to you this morning at Mass, or it could be His words preached live and impromptu and never written down for posterity. In other words, when the Bible talks about the “word,” it is not always the written Word (i.e., the Holy Bible) which is necessarily meant. The spoken Word is equally “the word of the Lord.” (For this reason, the Catholic Church rejects the doctrine of “the Bible alone,” embracing instead the doctrine of “the Word of God alone.”) Yet Evangelicals are in the habit of collecting such verses and pressing them into the service of their argument that the written Word, the Bible, occupies a position other than the one Catholics believe it holds. On a Protestant website, for example, you can find verses like Psalm 107:20, “He sent out His word and healed them, and delivered them from their destruction,” under the heading of “The Bible is a Source of Healing and Protection” – evoking visions of a flying leatherbound KJV healing and delivering the Israelites in their distress! In an Evangelical context, the efficacy and significance of the spoken Word of God are virtually ignored, despite the fact that Jesus told His apostles quite clearly that when they preached the Gospel, their words would be His very Word: “He who hears you, hears Me.”
Check out Hebrews 3:12-19 and Hebrews 4:1-3, 11- 13. The author of Hebrews tells us how to those who came out of Egypt, the spoken Word of God was preached. The Israelites disregarded not the Holy Scriptures (which did not as yet exist), but rather the preaching of Moses, the one to whom God gave the authority to lead the children of Israel. They were disobedient to God’s commands given to them through His chosen leader:
Take care, brethren, that there not be in any one of you an evil, unbelieving heart that falls away from the living God. But encourage one another day after day, as long as it is still called “Today,” so that none of you will be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. For we have become partakers of Christ, if we hold fast the beginning of our assurance firm until the end, while it is said, “Today if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts, as when they provoked Me.”
For who provoked Him when they had heard? Indeed, did not all those who came out of Egypt led by Moses? And with whom was He angry for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the wilderness? And to whom did He swear that they would not enter His rest, but to those who were disobedient? So we see that they were not able to enter because of unbelief.
Therefore, let us fear if, while a promise remains of entering His rest, any one of you may seem to have come short of it. For indeed we have had good news preached to us, just as they also; but the word they heard did not profit them, because it was not united by faith in those who heard. For we who have believed enter that rest, just as He has said….
Therefore let us be diligent to enter that rest, so that no one will fall, through following the same example of disobedience. For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are open and laid bare to the eyes of Him with whom we have to do.
According to verse 2, the Israelites had “the good news preached” to them by Moses, just as the Christians to whom the author of Hebrews is writing had the “good news preached” to them by the apostles. The “word of God” which is being extolled in this passage is the oral preaching of God’s servants Moses and the apostles – not to say that the written Word is not equally “living and active,” but to say that Evangelicals very often disregard this detail concerning apostolic preaching or deal with it in a very perfunctory manner. That the Word of God is living and active and powerful is made abundantly clear by the Scriptures which tell us that by the word of the Lord the very heavens were made. Where sola-Scriptura Christians go wrong on this is when they blur the lines between the spoken Word of God, which created the heavens and the earth, and the written Word of God, the Bible, which did not. Verses which clearly refer to the spoken Word which either proceeds from the mouth of God Himself or from the mouth of one of His servants are drafted into the service of the “Bible alone” argument. The apostles preached the very Word of God, and thus the early Christians are admonished in Hebrews 13:7 to “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God.” As a Protestant I envisioned those leaders reading the Bible to their congregation and expounding upon it. The author of Hebrews knew that many in his audience could remember the apostles speaking the Word of God to them. There’s a difference.
Beware the shell game. Protestants have invented a theological concept known as
“the authority of the Scriptures.” It is necessary to play this shell game in order to keep the doctrine of “the Bible ALONE” intact. If it can be shown from the New Testament that authority is vested in some person by God, and that that person must then be obeyed because God gave him authority, then the assertion that the Bible is the ONLY authority for Christians can be shown to be incorrect, the Reformation pillar of sola Scriptura teeters, and Catholicism begins to look a whole lot more plausible. Protestants dwell on the importance of the written Word to the neglect of the spoken Word, because the spoken Word is uttered by an authoritative speaker. This may sound like a minor detail, but he who neglects this detail becomes a mark for thimbleriggers.
The Reformers, in their desire to answer to an authority other than the one God established, that is to say, other than the Holy Catholic Church, conned their followers by substituting the supposed “authority of Scripture” for the authority of the leaders of the Church. Thus John Calvin read Ephesians 2:19-22:
So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, 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 corner stone, 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.
And saw fit to compose the following commentary:
But such wranglers are neatly refuted by just one word of the apostle. He testifies that the church is “built upon the foundation of the prophets and apostles” [Eph. 2:20]. If the teaching of the prophets and apostles is the foundation, this must have had authority before the church began to exist. Groundless, too, is their subtle objection that, although the church took its beginning here, the writings to be attributed to the prophets and apostles nevertheless remain in doubt until decided by the church. For if the Christian church was from the beginning founded upon the writings of the prophets and the preaching of the apostles, wherever this doctrine is found, the acceptance of it-without which the church itself would never have existed-must certainly have preceded the church. It is utterly vain, then, to pretend that the power of judging Scripture so lies with the church that its certainty depends upon churchly assent. Thus, while the church receives and gives its seal of approval to the Scriptures, it does not thereby render authentic what is otherwise doubtful or controversial. But because the church recognizes Scripture to be the truth of its own God, as a pious duty it unhesitatingly venerates Scripture.
Now you see it – now you don’t, as the Reformer takes the text of Ephesians 2:20, carefully places it under his exegetical shell, and then “Presto! Change-o!” delivers to the reader not a Church “built upon the foundation of the prophets and apostles” as the verse reads, but rather, as Calvin put it, a church built upon “the teaching of the prophets and apostles.” Flimflam!
The teachING (i.e., the Scriptures) is now, according to the Protestant interpretation, “the foundation,” not the teachERS, the apostles themselves.
And Protestants are dazzled by the smoke and mirrors. As a Protestant blogger writes concerning this very bait-and-switch passage perpetrated by Calvin: “Thank God the Scriptures undergird the church’s practice, and govern all. Thank God for Paul, who wrote clearly, instructing us to search the Scriptures and study them in order to seek authenticity in a man’s teaching – even his. Thanks be to God for the inestimable gift to us of His Holy Word.” Amen to that last part, but where exactly does the Bible teach that it “undergirds the church’s practice and governs all”? Where? When the Judaizers disturbed the peace of the Church with their insistence that new Christians must be circumcised, the leaders of the Council of Jerusalem did not turn to the authority of the Bible. They turned to the authority vested in them by Jesus Christ, and they made the decision that Gentiles did not have to be circumcised in order to enter the Church. Baptism is the new circumcision! as St. Paul later wrote. Had the Council relied on “the authority of the Bible,” all Christians males would to this day have to be circumcised, since the Bible at that time consisted of the Old Testament, and the Old Testament mandates this! The announcement of the Council’s decision began not with “The Bible says” but rather with “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…” (Acts 15:28). The first Christians devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching (Acts 2:42) because the apostles taught with authority. St. John insisted in his first letter that “We are from God, and whoever knows God listens to us; but whoever is not from God does not listen to us.” (1 Jn 4:6) – St. John, as an apostle, could say that! All this boils down to that pivotal declaration in St. Paul’s first letter to the Bishop of Ephesus, Timothy, that the Church is the pillar and foundation of the truth. The majority of Protestants have no idea that that phrase is even in the Bible, for they have been taught to read diligently around that passage. I read around it for 45 years.
Protestants are, however, by virtue of their adherence to the concept of “the authority of the Scriptures” incapable of reading their Bible any other way. Take this entry on a Protestant website as an example. The writer is commenting on Jude 27. Note what, according to the writer, Jude is supposedly warning against:
Some 1,500 years later, Jude records a strong warning about such men who come into the church as false teachers, arrogating to themselves the authority of God and His Word: “Woe to them! For they walked in the way of Cain and abandoned themselves for the sake of gain to Balaam’s error and perished in Korah’s rebellion”. The characteristics of false teachers within the church include pride, selfishness, jealousy, greed, lust for power, and disregard for the will of God. Just like Korah, today’s false teachers disregard God’s plan and are insubordinate to God’s appointed authorities. Their end will be the same as Korah’s. Thus the warning: “Woe to them!”
Now read the passage in question, Jude 3-23
Beloved, while I was making every effort to write you about our common salvation, I felt the necessity to write to you appealing that you contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints. For certain persons have crept in unnoticed, those who were long beforehand marked out for this condemnation, ungodly persons who turn the grace of our God into licentiousness and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.
Now I desire to remind you, though you know all things once for all, that the Lord, after saving a people out of the land of Egypt, subsequently destroyed those who did not believe. And angels who did not keep their own domain, but abandoned their proper abode, He has kept in eternal bonds under darkness for the judgment of the great day, just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the cities around them, since they in the same way as these indulged in gross immorality and went after strange flesh, are exhibited as an example in undergoing the punishment of eternal fire.
Yet in the same way these men, also by dreaming, defile the flesh, and reject authority, and revile angelic majesties. But Michael the archangel, when he disputed with the devil and argued about the body of Moses, did not dare pronounce against him a railing judgment, but said, “The Lord rebuke you!” But these men revile the things which they do not understand; and the things which they know by instinct, like unreasoning animals, by these things they are destroyed. Woe to them! For they have gone the way of Cain, and for pay they have rushed headlong into the error of Balaam, and perished in the rebellion of Korah. These are the men who are hidden reefs in your love feasts when they feast with you without fear, caring for themselves; clouds without water, carried along by winds; autumn trees without fruit, doubly dead, uprooted; wild waves of the sea, casting up their own shame like foam; wandering stars, for whom the black darkness has been reserved forever.
It was also about these men that Enoch, in the seventh generation from Adam, prophesied, saying, “Behold, the Lord came with many thousands of His holy ones, to execute judgment upon all, and to convict all the ungodly of all their ungodly deeds which they have done in an ungodly way, and of all the harsh things which ungodly sinners have spoken against Him.” These are grumblers, finding fault, following after their own lusts; they speak arrogantly, flattering people for the sake of gaining an advantage.
But you, beloved, ought to remember the words that were spoken beforehand by the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ, that they were saying to you, “In the last time there will be mockers, following after their own ungodly lusts.” These are the ones who cause divisions, worldly-minded, devoid of the Spirit.
Remember the Protestant writer’s contention: “Jude records a strong warning about such men who come into the church as false teachers, arrogating to themselves the authority of God and His Word.” See the part about God’s word in verses 3-23? Me either. True, the text says that these men “reject authority” but every one of the examples of the authorities they reject are human or spiritual beings, nothing about the supposed “authority of the word of God.” While noting that modern-day false teachers “are insubordinate to God’s appointed authorities,” (which, in his Protestant context, would mean the pastor of whatever Protestant church the false teacher attends) the writer still somehow sees the Bible in a passage where no mention of it is made; he has been conditioned to understand it thus.
The Bible never teaches the concept of an authoritative Bible. People have authority. Angels have authority. To the Lord Jesus Christ all authority has been given in Heaven and on earth, and He has vested His authority, not in a Book, but in His apostles and by extension in their successors.
A book, even an inspired, inerrant Book which is the very word of God, cannot possess authority, nor can it “teach” us. The fiction of “the authority of the word of God” was an invention of the Reformers who, like all good magicians, urged their onlookers with the misdirection “Pay close attention!” whenever they needed to distract them lest they note the sleight of hand. Attention needed to be shifted away from what the Reformers were actually doing – refusing to obey the legitimate authority of Jesus’ Church – to the manmade doctrine of “the authority of the word of God.” In the Bible all authority lies with God Himself. And in the Bible, we see God delegating His authority to people in order that they might be His representatives. Their authority was very real; St. Paul, for example, exhorts his disciple St. Titus, bishop of Crete: Rebuke with all authority! Leaders like Titus and Timothy and their successors on down to the present day derive their authority, not from the word of God, as Protestants would have it, but from God Himself. Thus, when the leaders of the 16th-century Church told Luther that he must cease and desist from teaching error, it wasn’t simply a matter of their opinion versus Luther’s – it was a matter of their authority as successors to the apostles versus his (nonexistent) authority. Period.
Assumption is an invaluable assistant in the Protestant magic act. Ask her to stand aside, and the audience becomes restless, sensing that the magician does indeed have something up his sleeve. The theme of apostolic authority, as well as the continuing authority of the successors to the apostles, runs clearly through the New Testament, there for all the world to see (Mt 18:17, Lk 10:16, Mt 28:19-20, Acts 1:8, Acts 2:42, Acts 15, Acts 16:4, Titus 2:1, Titus 2: 15, 1 Tim 1:3, 2 Tim 1:13-14, 2:2, 4:2, 1 Jn 4:6) – until you enter the sideshow of the Reformation. At that point, certain truths are made to vanish, replaced by novel doctrines unheard of before the 16th century, to the acclaim of an audience that has no idea it is being bamboozled. Beware when you see the authority of the Church that Jesus established being used as a prop in this sad act, because…
Now you see it – now you don’t!
On the memorial of St. Mary Magdalene
Deo omnis gloria!
Photo credits: A magician at Taunton Carnival by Boliston