Category: How to study the Bible Written by Jim Denison
Biblical authority is of little practical good in our lives unless it leads to biblical study. We may believe that Scripture is divinely inspired, that it stands up to every test and critique from a skeptical world. But if we do not put its truths into practice in our lives, our beliefs don't affect our lives. And the purpose of God's word is to change those who read it, molding us in the image of Jesus (Romans 8:29).
So, how can you meet God in his word? How can you study the Bible for yourself? In this session we'll look at preparations necessary for effective Bible study. In the next session we'll discover guidelines which apply to every passage in Scripture. Finally, we'll explore principles which relate to specific sections of God's word.
We will focus now on what is known as "general hermeneutics." Hermes was the messenger god; "hermeneutics" is therefore the study of a message or principles of interpretation. Biblical hermeneutics is that field of study which identifies necessary rules and guidelines for Bible study.
Before we can use such principles, however, we must first make three personal commitments. Because the Bible is God's word, not the product of human knowledge and study, we must be ready spiritually to hear what it says to us.
First, you must know the Author of this book personally. Paul warned the Corinthians, "The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned" (1 Corinthians 2:14).
Second, be willing to work hard. Paul challenged his young apprentice in the ministry to "Devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching" (1 Timothy 4:13). "Devote yourself" translates a Greek term which requires previous, private preparations. Like any area of intellectual investigation, understanding and applying the Scriptures requires personal work. The more you invest, the greater the return.
Ministry students sometimes tell me they want to pastor a "New Testament church." I always ask them which one. I'd enjoy pastoring in Antioch, not so much in Corinth. According to Paul, one of the Corinthian problems was their immaturity: "Brothers, I could not address you as spiritual but as worldly--mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. You are still worldly" (1 Corinthians 3:1-3). Milk is food digested by a mother and made palatable for her child. Unfortunately, the Corinthians wanted their spiritual truth the same way--digested by someone else.
Many Christians suffer from the Corinthian desire to let others study Scripture for them. That's what we pay a pastor for, they say. I've not been to seminary; I don't have time to study the Bible; so I'll listen to my minister or Sunday school teacher. I'll let the professionals do it. But the Bible is meant for every believer. You are privileged and responsible to interpret God's word for yourself.
Third, obey what you discover. The Bible is not meant to inform our minds so much as it intends to change our lives. Jesus said, "If any one chooses to do God's will, he will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own" (John 7:17). Obedience leads to relationship. Faith is required. We must position ourselves to receive what God wants to give by grace. The Israelites had to step into the flooded Jordan River before God would stop its flow (Joshua 3:15-16).
Decide before you open God's word that you will obey what you find there. Write your Father a blank check of obedience. He will not reveal his will as an option to consider, but as an ordinance to follow. If you will not do what he says, you'll not understand what he says. No father can lead a child who is unwilling to follow.
My high school geometry class acquainted me with the concept of "axioms." These are unprovable presuppositions, guiding beliefs which are basic to the study of mathematics. We cannot prove that parallel lines never intersect, so we accept this principle in the study of geometry. All knowledge is built on such presuppositions. Scientists believe the physical universe to be stable and predictable; otherwise, experiments could never be repeated. If Zeus and his cohort change the composition of water every day, marine biologists are in trouble.
Bible study is built on certain presuppositions as well. Three are especially important to our interpretation of God's word.
First, believe that you can understand Scripture. Luther and the Reformers were adamant that the Bible can be understood. God has given us his revelation in such a way that we can discover and apply its truths. We need not depend on creeds, councils, and church tradition. Every believer is his or her own priest before God and his word.
Second, use the New Testament to interpret the Old. Scripture exists to lead us to faith in Jesus (John 20:30-31). The New Testament, which reveals Christ, is therefore our means of interpreting the Old Testament, which prepares the way for him. As he said repeatedly, he fulfills the Scriptures which told the world of his coming.
In other words, we will study Scripture according to the theological doctrine of "progressive revelation." We believe that God reveals himself progressively, building later revelation upon earlier truth. As a mathematics teacher must teach arithmetic before she can teach geometry, and trigonometry before she can discuss calculus, so God reveals himself progressively to us. Upon the foundation of the Law, God spoke through his prophets. They in turn focused on the Messiah, God's personal revelation. The New Testament builds on this revelation in a Person through revelation in words. The New Testament is therefore God's fullest revelation of himself to us, and our means of interpreting his earlier revelation.
This guiding presupposition leads to an important principle, one we will meet again in the next session. Whenever an Old Testament law is renewed in the New Testament, it retains the force of law for Christians today. For instance, by endorsing the Ten Commandments, Jesus made them obligatory for his followers (Matthew 19:16-19).
On the other hand, any Old Testament law not renewed in the New Testament retains the force of principle for Christian living. For instance, the Jewish dietary codes were made non-binding on Gentile converts by the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15:28-29). However, these laws still demonstrate the relevant principle that God cares about our physical health. We will study them to discover principles and truths which apply to our lives as we relate to God through grace.
Third, make the Bible its own commentary. Our third guiding presupposition is that the Scriptures interpret themselves. Because God's word is unified, coherent, and fully inspired, every word is the word of God. And so the best way to study any single passage is to interpret it in light of the rest of the Bible. We will seek to compare Scripture with Scripture, interpreting the part by the whole.
Five important principles emerge from this presupposition:
Interpret unclear passages in light of clear truth. Study the difficult parts of Scripture in light of its clear teachings.
Do not base doctrine on only one text. Consider the "millennium," found explicitly only in Revelation 20:1-6. This is obviously an important subject, but it should not be made a test of orthodoxy. At least seven theories on the subject are held by Bible-believing scholars. No person's belief in biblical authority should be questioned because of his or her theory on the millennium. We should seek to build major doctrines on more extensive biblical texts.
Study brief passages in light of longer texts. Interpret a single verse in light of the larger passage in which it is found, that passage in light of its book, and the book in light of the entire Bible. As you consider the larger counsel of God's word, you will allow Scripture to interpret itself.
Apply doctrine taught in various parts of Scripture to all times and cultures. There are a variety of contexts and circumstances behind the various passages of God's word. Whenever a statement is found in a number of different contexts and is taught by a variety of biblical authors, we may know that it was intended as a timeless statement of truth. If it is taught only by one author in one place, we can know that it was a specific statement for that time and context. It will apply in principle to our lives, but perhaps not in precept. In this sense, it is like an Old Testament law not renewed in the New--it teaches spiritual truth, but not binding obligation.
If two biblical statements appear humanly to contradict, accept both. Divine truth is not bound by human logic, and often must be expressed by two statements which appear to contradict each other. This is known as "antinomy," the acceptance of two principles which seem mutually exclusive but are each independently true.
Who was the writer?
Who wrote the text you will study? What can you learn about his background, circumstances, and experiences? What was happening at the time when he wrote the book you're about to read?
Surely you've shared the frustrating experience of listening to only one side of a telephone conversation. You can understand every word being spoken at your end. But if you don't know the identity of other person in the conversation, you can easily misinterpret what is being said. Knowing the author and his circumstances brings much light to bear on the text at hand.
Who are the recipients?
The second question follows the first: to whom is the author writing? Are they believers or unbelievers? Persecuted or safe? A church, a group of churches, or an individual? What can you know about their circumstances, needs, and issues?
For instance, why does Mark go to such lengths to explain Jewish customs (Mark 7:2-4; 15:42) and translate Aramaic words (3:17; 5:41; etc.)? Because he is writing to Gentiles, most probably in Rome.
Why does Luke employ more medical terminology in his Gospel and Acts than we find anywhere else in Scripture? Because he was a physician (Colossians 4:14). Why does John begin his first letter with the claim, "That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched--this we proclaim concerning the Word of life" (1 John 1:1)? Because every word you just read refutes incipient Gnosticism, a Greek philosophy which separated physical from spiritual and contended that Jesus could not be both divine and human. And this is John's purpose.
What is the author's purpose?
Writing in the ancient world was too hard to do without a compelling purpose. Today we drop a note in the mail or send an e-mail in a moment. Ancient writers paid a high price to produce the biblical books we read today.
As a result, we need to know all we can about the author's intended purpose before we try to interpret his writing. Much of Scripture is "task theology," produced to accomplish a specific task or purpose. If we don't understand the task at hand, we'll miss much of what the writer wants us to know and do.
Often the text will make its purpose clear. Consider Luke's obvious reason for writing his Gospel:
Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught (Luke 1:1-4).
Luke intends to produce an "orderly account" of Jesus' life and work, based on eyewitness records he has investigated and affirmed. He wants his reader to have "certainty" in the things he has been taught. When we read this Gospel, we can expect to find excellent Greek and detailed historical narrative. And that's exactly what we discover.
John also disclosed the express purpose of his Gospel:
Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name (Jn 20:30-31).
John wants to lead his readers to trust Jesus as their Messiah, so that they might find "life in his name." We would expect to find numerous signs and evidences of Jesus' divinity, and examples of the transforming power of his love. And that's exactly what John gives us.
What is the literature?
Scripture contains a wide variety of literary styles within its pages. Unlike most books ancient and modern, it is composed of many different kinds of literature: history, law, poetry, letters, figures of speech, and apocalyptic literature. The way you interpret poetry is not the way you read the newspaper. When Robert Frost claims that "Two roads diverged in a yellow wood," we don't stop and ask for the location on a map. Let's look briefly at the literary categories we find within Scripture.
History is the literature of Genesis, Exodus 1-9, Numbers to Esther, portions of the prophets, Gospels, and Acts. It should be read as factual narrative, seeking truths and principles within the events themselves. We should avoid seeking symbolic or spiritual meaning within historical occurrences.
Law is found primarily in Exodus 20-40, Leviticus. It should be read to discover principles for living today, except where it is renewed in the New Testament and retains the of law for Christian faith and practice.
Poetry is used from Job to the Song of Solomon, and in other places throughout Scripture. It should be read symbolically, without pressing the details for historical accuracy or specific promises. For example, the Psalmist promises, "The Lord watches over you--the Lord is your shade at your right hand; the sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night" (Ps 121:5-6). This poetry deals with God's care for his own, and is obviously not concerned with sunburn or exposure. Interpret poetry in terms of its intended symbols and spiritual meaning.
Letters are found in the Old Testament prophets, and in the New Testament from Romans to Jude and in Revelation 2-3. They should always be read with their immediate audience and concerns in mind. We must not apply a letter's intended meaning to our situation until we are sure of the author's intended application to his audience.
Apocalyptic literature is found in Zechariah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Matthew 24-25, Mark 13, and Revelation. This material is highly visionary, and tends to be symbolic and future-oriented. The method you choose for interpreting these books will largely determine the meanings you find there.
It is vital that we approach the book we are studying in a way which is consistent with its type of literature. Only then can we discover the intended meaning of the text, which is the object of all Bible study. You may be surprised at how much this preliminary work will help you interpret the passage in question. Here you lay the foundation for all effective Bible study.
The preparations suggested by this section are vital to understanding any kind of literature, especially writings which are more than 20 centuries old. It is part of the miracle of God's word that when we make the investment of such preparations, the Scriptures come to life for us as fully as if we were their intended audience. That's because in a very real way, we are.