There are three common methods for Bible study: Devotional, Topical, and Expository. Jehovah’s Witnesses are encouraged to read the daily text every day. This is a good example of devotional study. The student is presented with a daily tidbit of knowledge. Topical study examines the Scriptures based on a topic; for example, the condition of the dead. The book, What Does the Bible Really Teach, is a good example of topical Bible study. With the expository method, the student approaches the passage with no preconceived notion and let’s the Bible reveal itself. While organized religions commonly use the topical method for Bible study, use of the expository method is fairly rare.
Topical Study and Eisegesis
The reason that topical Bible study is so extensively used by organized religions, is that it is an efficient and effective way of instructing students about core doctrinal beliefs. The Bible is not organized topically, so extracting Scriptures that are relevant to a particular subject requires examining various portions of Scripture. Extracting all relevant Scriptures and organizing them under a topic can assist the student to grasp Bible truths in a short time. However there is a very significant downside to topical Bible study. This downside is so significant that it is our feeling that topical Bible study should be used with great care and never as the sole method of study.
The downside we speak of is the use of eisegesis. This word describes the method of study where we read into a Bible verse that which we want to see. For example, if I believe that women should be seen and not heard in the congregation, I might use 1 Corinthians 14:35. Read on its own, that would seem to be conclusive. If I made a topic about the proper role of women in the congregation, I could select that verse if I wanted to make the case that women are not allowed to teach in the congregation. However, there is another method of Bible study that would paint a very different picture.
Expository Study and Exegesis
With expository study, the student does not read a few verses or even a whole chapter, but the whole passage, even if it spans several chapters. At times the full picture only emerges after one reads the entire Bible book. (See The Role of Women for an example of this.)
The expository method takes into account the history and culture at the time of the writing. It also looks at the writer and his audience and their immediate circumstances. It considers all things in the harmony of all Scripture and does not ignore any text that might assist in arriving at a balanced conclusion.
It employs exegesis as a methodology. The Greek etymology of the term means “leading out of”; the idea being that we don’t put into the Bible what we think it means (eisegesis), but rather we let it say what it means, or literally, we let the Bible lead us out (exegesis) to understanding.
A person who engages in expository study tries to empty his mind of preconceptions and pet theories. He will not succeed if he wants the truth to be a certain way. For example, I may have worked out this whole image of what life will be like living in a paradise earth in youthful perfection after Armageddon. However, if I examine the Bible’s hope for Christians with that preconceived vision in my head, it will color all my conclusions. The truth that I learn may not be what I want it to be, but that will not change it from being the truth.
Wanting the Truth or Our Truth
“…according to their wish, this fact escapes their notice…” (2 Peter 3:5)
This excerpt highlights an important truth about the human condition: We believe what we want to believe.
The only way we can avoid being misled by our own wants is to want truth – cold, hard, objective truth – above all other things. Or to put it in a more Christian context: The only way we can avoid deceiving ourselves is to want Jehovah’s viewpoint above everyone else’s, including our own. Our salvation depends on our learning to love the truth. (2Th 2:10)
Recognizing False Reasoning
Eisegesis is the technique commonly employed by those who would enslave us again under the rule of man by misinterpreting and misapplying God’s word for their own glory. Such men speak of their own originality. They seek not the glory of God nor His Christ.
“He that speaks of his own originality is seeking his own glory; but he that seeks the glory of him that sent him, this one is true, and there is no unrighteousness in him.” (John 7:18)
The trouble is that it is not always easy to recognize when a teacher is speaking of his own originality. From my time on this forum, I have recognized some common indicators—call them red flags—that typify an argument founded on personal interpretation.
Red Flag #1: Not being willing to acknowledge the viewpoint of another.
For example: Person A who believes in the Trinity might put forward John 10:30 as proof that God and Jesus are one in substance or form. He might see this as a clear and unambiguous statement proving his point. However, Person B might quote John 17:21 to show that John 10:30 could be referring to oneness of mind or of purpose. Person B isn’t promoting John 17:21 as proof that there isn’t a Trinity. He’s using it only to show that John 10:30 can be read in at least two ways, and that this ambiguity means it cannot be taken as hard proof. If Person A is using exegesis as a methodology, then his desire it to learn what the Bible actually teaches. He will therefore acknowledge that Person B has a point. However, if he is speaking of his own originality, then he is more interested in making the Bible appear to support his ideas. If the latter is the case, Person A will invariably fail to acknowledge even the possibility that his proof text might be ambiguous.
Red Flag #2: Ignoring contrary evidence.
If you scan the many discussion topics on the Discuss the Truth forum, you will find that the participants often engage in a lively but respectful give-and-take. It becomes evident that all are merely interested in discerning what the Bible is actually saying about the matter. However, on occasion there are those who will use the forum as a platform to promote their own ideas. How can we differentiate the one from the other?
One method is to observe how the individual deals with evidence put forward by others that contradicts his belief. Does he deal with it forthrightly, or does he ignore it? If he ignores it in his first response, and if asked again to address it, chooses instead to introduce other ideas and Scriptures, or go off on tangents so as to deflect the attention away from the Scriptures he is ignoring, the red flag has appeared. Then, if still pushed further to deal with this inconvenient Scriptural evidence, he engages in personal attacks or plays the victim, all the while avoiding the issue, the red flag is waving furiously.
There are a number of examples of this behavior on both forums over the years. I have seen the pattern over and over.
Red Flag #3: Utilizing Logical Fallacies
Another way we can identify someone who is speaking of his own originality, is to recognize the use of logical fallacies in an argument. A truth seeker, one who is looking for what the Bible actually says on any subject, has no need to engage in the use of fallacies of any kind. Their use in any argument is a big red flag. It is worthwhile for the sincere Bible student to familiarize himself or herself with these techniques used to deceive the gullible. (A fairly extensive list can be found here.)