Exegesis and eisegesis are two conflicting approaches in Bible study. Exegesis is the exposition or explanation of a text based on a careful, objective analysis. The word exegesis literally means “to lead out of.” That means that the interpreter is led to his conclusions by following the text.
The opposite approach to Scripture is eisegesis, which is the interpretation of a passage based on a subjective, non-analytical reading. The word eisegesis literally means “to lead into,” which means the interpreter injects his own ideas into the text, making it mean whatever he wants.
Obviously, only exegesis does justice to the text. Eisegesis is a mishandling of the text and often leads to a misinterpretation. Exegesis is concerned with discovering the true meaning of the text, respecting its grammar, syntax, and setting. Eisegesis is concerned only with making a point, even at the expense of the meaning of words.
In recent weeks, in a ‘bologospheric’ encounter concerning a current issue in the church, I was told that the above passage authorizes, if not commands believers to examine everything going on in the church and expose all of the ‘dirt’ we find using whatever means we have, including the blogosphere.
While the ‘current issue’ being discussed is very real and the need for justice great, it’s not the issue of this little article, nor will it be named. Rather, we need to find out exactly what the above passage really says about testing/proving things. For that, we need to look at the context.
First of all, our ‘out of context’ passage is part of a larger thought beginning in verse 20:
20 Do not despise prophecies, 21 but test everything (prove all things-KJV); hold fast what is good.” (ESV)
Sometimes the chapter and verse numbers men inserted into the text(s) hinder the best understanding of passages in the Bible. This might be one of those times. If we take out the verse numbers, we are left with:
“Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast what is good.”
Note that we are talking specifically about ‘prophecies’ (and not to despise them), then told to test ‘everything’. To what does ‘everything’ refer?
From a couple of good commentaries concerning ‘prophecies’:
“…the prophecies of the Old Testament concerning the first coming of Christ, concerning his person, office, and work, his obedience, sufferings, and death, his resurrection from the dead, ascension and session at God’s right hand…there are many prophecies which regard things to be done, and yet to be done under the Gospel dispensation, …also the predictions of Christ concerning his own sufferings and death, and resurrection from the dead,… the prophecies of private men, such as Agabus, and others, in the apostle’s time… the explanation of Scripture, and the preaching of the word”[i]
“…whether exercised in inspired teaching, or in predicting the future. “Despised” by some as beneath “tongues,” which seemed most miraculous…”[ii]
The above interpretations are just a few of the many similar commentary notes concerning our passage that clearly limit ‘prophesies’ to biblical topics and spiritual matters. Therefore , the ‘everything’ following the ‘but’ is contextually limited to biblical topics and spiritual matters.
But what if we remove the ‘but’? Would that change the interpretation of ‘everything’?
We offer that it probably doesn’t change the intended meaning, and here’s why. The letter was written by Paul to believers in the Thessalonian church, sometime after he and Silas had spent some time there, in order to encourage them to spiritual growth/sanctification, address some eschatological issues, and how to properly respond to ‘prophesies’.
Also, if we look at the post-resurrection NT letters and writings for other examples of ‘testing’/’proving’ things, they seem to always concern biblically discerning the truthfulness and trustworthiness of what we are being taught by spiritual leaders. Perhaps the best example is the account of Berean believers examining the teachings of the Apostle Paul under the light of Scripture that was available to them (See Acts 17). A secondary purpose of examining what we are being taught is being able to identify wolves hanging out in the sheep pens.
Whatever ‘test everything’ means, it is NOT a directive to believers to air the ‘dirty laundry of the church’ in the public square. Our chief role in the public square is to present the crucified and resurrected Christ as the atoning sacrifice for the sins of men. As for ‘doing our laundry’, we have sufficient guidance for that also within the pages of Scripture. That however, is a discussion all its own.
[i] John Gill’s Exposition of the Bible Commentary
[ii] Commentary, Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible, Jamison, Fausset and Brown