Studying the Bible until it hurts

bible studyWhen comparing ancient manuscripts of the Bible and trying to reconcile the differences between those manuscripts, one rule of thumb is that the hardest reading is often the original one. That is, one can see why a scribe would “correct” a text that says something difficult, but it’s less likely that they would take a simple statement and make it harder.

To some degree, I think the same applies to biblical interpretation. Not that we should seek obscure meanings or secret codes within the text. What I’m saying is that I trust someone’s conclusions more when I realize those conclusions aren’t necessarily what the person wants them to be.

It’s a bit like some news I heard the other day. A study found that a certain medication greatly reduces the risk of heart disease. The study was funded by the company that makes that medication. That makes me less likely to accept their findings as valid.

Years ago, when speaking about a now-defunct publication, one of my friends said, “It’s like they’re saying, ‘Yay, the Bible finally says what we always wanted it to say.'”

I often hear someone say, “Here’s a great study about this topic.” Usually what they mean is that the study agrees with their position. Rarely are they enamored of the methodology; they like the outcome.

We need to be willing to study the Bible until it hurts. We need to follow Jesus not because he makes us feel warm and fuzzy inside, but because he challenges us to re-examine every aspect of our life. We need to dig into the Bible until what we read makes us think, “Surely it can’t mean that.”

I’m pointing the finger at everyone else, but especially at me. It’s time for some painful Bible study.

The innovation that is the printed Bible

BibleThere was an article that made the rounds the last few weeks, talking about the importance of preachers carrying a traditionally-bound Bible into the pulpit instead of using an electronic version. Several of the arguments centered around the need for people to study out of a “normal” Bible.

I tend to disagree. I think we face some problems in the church because we’ve come to see the Bible in this format as normal. We kind of picture Paul whipping out his Leather study Bible and saying to the people in Troas, “Let’s turn to Romans chapter 8.”

The Mormons believe that Joseph Smith received the complete book of Mormon (and other works) and had divine guidance in translating the material. It’s a book written as a book and designed to be read as a book.

The Bible isn’t like that. It wasn’t written as one book; it was written as dozens of books. It wasn’t written to be read per se; it was written to be heard. The presupposition wasn’t that each church member would have his own copy to study from; it was assumed that the church would gather, hear Scripture read aloud, and discuss the meaning of the text.

What happens when we assume that the Bible has always been around in the form that it’s been in?

  • We assume that we can interpret Matthew based on Acts and Ephesians (to choose some books at random). We’re much safer in using Old Testament books to help us understand Matthew. We can’t assume that Matthew expected his readers to have access to other New Testament writings nor did he necessarily think they had received all the teachings contained in those books.
  • We let chapter and verse numbering get in the way, as well as headings that have been included in most printed Bibles. These study aids can be a great help, but they can get in the way at times, interrupting the natural flow of a biblical writer’s arguments.
  • We make individual Bible study the norm rather than group Bible study. I’m definitely in favor of personal Bible study; I do a radio program in Spanish called “Read The Bible,” seeking to help people read and study the Word of God. But I think we’ve forgotten that the Bible was designed to be a community book, shared and interpreted by the body of Christ.
  • We forget to hear the Word. Reading leads us to nitpick over jots and tittles; we need to be sure that we hear the Bible in a broader way.

What do you think?

photo courtesy of

Frameworks and outcomes in Bible study

I’m not sure that I know how to build off of yesterday’s post and explain what’s going through my mind. I’ll try.

When we go out to teach people about the Bible, we are also teaching them a philosophical approach to the Bible. Part of conversion has to do with them accepting our theoretical framework.

People who present commands, examples and necessary inference as a hermeneutic framework need to find people who accept that framework. When they do, they have a much better chance of convincing them via their syllogisms. If not, people won’t be moved to change their lives based on arguments they don’t understand or don’t agree with.

Once you find such people, you can then continue to shape them using arguments based on the same framework. In the same way, any challenge to that approach to the Bible is a major threat, for it removes the way these teachers know how to instruct and motivate. If I accept that 1 Corinthians 16 is not laying out the universal mechanism for churches to take weekly collection, then how am I going to get people to give money to the church, if I only know how to work off of the commands, examples, inferences framework?

Going way back to the discussion that started all of this (instrumental music), it’s easy to see why our approach to the Bible is so important. If we can’t agree on the process, it’s going to be hard to agree on the outcomes.

Basic Bible study principles

So what would be the basic concepts you would want to teach someone about Bible study? Let’s say that someone who has been a Christian a year or so comes and says, “I want to learn to study the Bible better.” Besides offering resources, what are some of the concepts that you would think they would need to learn?

I’ll throw out a few to get things started:

  • Context. That’s the biggie for me. The whole idea of context: literary, historical, cultural… all the different kinds that you can think of.
  • Big picture thinking. I often tell new learners that one way to remember this is to think about how we cite a passage. John 3:16, for example. To study that passage, start with John, then think about chapter 3, then look at verse 16. That’s overly simplistic, I know, but it gets the point across. We start with the big picture and work down. Along the same line, people need to think in terms of the whole biblical story.
  • Basic history. We need to know the basic flow of the history told within the pages of the Bible and have an idea where a certain passage fits within that timeline (both in terms of what is told and also in terms of when the book was probably written).
  • The concept of the Bible as a translated book. Even when a study of the original languages may not be practical, an awareness that there are original languages behind what we are reading is very important. We mustn’t get too hung up on individual words and prepositional phrases. We should spend time reading in multiple versions, to get an idea of what things might be translated in different ways.
  • Focus on themes. What does the Bible itself emphasize? It’s amazing how often this one gets overlooked. What things are said time and again? Rather than straining out gnats, we need to make sure we’re not swallowing camels. (Matthew 23:24)
  • Genre. We can’t overlook the differences in the various literary styles we find in the Bible. Reading a symbolic passage literally does not lead you to the truth. Reading narrative as legal code does not help you discern God’s will. We need to learn to recognize different genres and understand the basic concepts for reading each.

Those are some basic ideas. There are lots more. Which ones would you want to emphasize? Which of these do you think are not important for beginners?

photo by Billy Alexander

Theology is practical

Guy made an important point in the comments yesterday, when he noted:

These kinds of lessons can give the impression that basic Christian doctrine just has no connection with real life–the incarnation, resurrection, ascension–these are just oddities that have nothing to do with the ethical choices i make every day.

Bingo! It’s interesting to read Paul’s letters and see that he found theology to be very practical. When discussing the second coming in Thessalonians, he spends more time talking about how to live in light of Jesus’ return than he does talking about the return itself. When addressing the strife in the Philippian church, Paul uses the cross as key to resolving the conflict.

We need to think about what the Bible presents and why. Why is there so much narrative? Why aren’t there longer sections of “practical” teaching? At the same time, why aren’t there longer sections of pure theological reflection? The “practical” teaching is supposed to found in the theology, and the point of the theology is practical teaching. Instead of saying, “Let me tell you what to do” or “Let me discuss the nature of God,” the Bible says, “Let me tell you a story.”

Rather than boiling the Bible down to bullet points, I think we need to teach people how to hear God’s voice in the Bible. How to know more about living from hearing a story. How to let the image of what we are supposed to be shape the way we live. Rather than changing the Bible to fit the audience, I think we need to change the audience to be more in line with the Bible.

And that takes time. It gets back to what we talked about last week as far as process. Maybe one of the biggest things we need is the acceptance that maturity and growth take time. Reaching the point to where the teachings of the Bible really shape and guide our lives take time.

That’s not an easy lesson to hear in our Western world.

photo by Gracey Stinson