The process of Bible study.

How To Think With the Bible

Probing, Testing, Asking Questions

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bible study thinking and strategies

Ask Good Questions

Learning the Bible is a quest, and you pursue it by asking questions. So it's important to think how to ask good questions, and pursue them fully.

Don't be afraid to take notes. And don't say, 'enough of this -- I'll just guess'. Trust the process.

Is It Meant For You?

Not everything that's said in the Bible was meant for everyone at all times. For instance, not everyone is called upon to sell all that they own and give it to the poor. Yet, that calling may well be what God wants from you, just as it was for Francis of Assisi and many others throughout the centuries. You're in a different situation than the young rich man Jesus commanded to do it. You have different possibilities, responsibilities, and complications, and the stumbling blocks to your faith may be very different. Remember that there was a crowd present when Jesus challenged the young man. Jesus didn't directly give those poorer people the same challenge, though there was an important challenge for them too. But just as it's wrong to presume that it applies to you, it is also wrong to be sure that it doesn't. The Spirit may well be trying to tell you something related to it. Use methods of discernment to help you find out.

When a word doesn't directly apply to you, it still has an important message, and it's wise to come to grips with it. For instance, even if you aren't one of those who is called to give up all you have, the episode has a lesson which applies to us all: we cannot serve both God and wealth. All of us have to struggle with how that works out in our lives. Just because the specific situation doesn't apply to you doesn't make it any less Scripture. God is still saying something to you, and you ought to get to know what it is.

Q.5) People often quote single verses of Scripture and insist "the Bible says." Is this a proper use of God's Holy Word?

A.) The words of Scripture speak to the Word which became flesh and dwelt among us in Jesus Christ. Scripture, therefore, must be read in the context of God's self-giving love (which is known through Jesus Christ). To read individual passages of Scripture outside the context of the Church's confession that Jesus is Lord is to misunderstand its purpose.

"Authority and the Church: A Working Document", Confessing Christ, January 1998 (from the United Church of Christ tradition)

Bracketing in Bible Study

God doesn't speak objectively or dispassionately. So, why should God's Word be studied objectively or dispassionately? Only one reason is good enough: to better understand it so that our passions, our limitations, or our prejudices don't blind us to what's in Scripture. One way to think of it is this: when writing, a writer might use brackets [ ] or parentheses/clammers ( ) to make an aside or take care of a side track or add a needed reference or make a corrective statement. It's good to 'bracket out' the passion of one's faith briefly, to get it out of the way of what the Spirit is really saying through the Bible passages you're studying. Brackets are useful, but only within the context of making the unbracketed whole easier to understand. While studying what's in Scripture, the bracketed 'objective' look at the passage(s) is to be done within the context of a passionate faith in the Word outside of the brackets, for the sake of making that whole life of faith better and stronger. The more objective view may well include scholarly methods or measures, logical thinking, history, and measuring up the interpretations against other evidence. All good methods soundly pursued are worthy of use, but they are to be done in brackets set within the whole picture.

Think about strategies for how you go at it.

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(... so take a bath...)

The Spirit works hard within us to get us to grasp what God has done and is doing and will do. The moments when God's revelation hits home is sometimes described as a Hmmm... or an Aha... moment. But Hmm... and Aha.... happen regularly to anyone whose brain isn't switched off. Sometimes, though, it's a lot more than that. Reformed writer Gabriel Fackre caught these moments better by calling it a 'eureka experience'. It's got WOW! and POW! to it. It breaks through the smog of life. If you try to use a room fan to clear out a fog bank, it fails because it's too small; you can't cut through the smog with it. But the Spirit's got a hugely powerful light that burns its way right thorough it. It's a potent gift from God.

Brick By Brick

When you keep plugging away at Bible study, the Spirit rewards you for it. You may not notice it, but you are being built up brick by brick as you learn God's Word. What is at first unfamiliar turf eventually becomes familiar. One question leads to another, each tentative answer leads to a wide array of new questions. One lesson builds upon another, and a vision starts taking shape. The big picture comes into view. Each time you go back to a passage of Scripture or read a Bible story again, you understand it better because of all that you've discovered since last time. And you can see more of how you are to live it out in the world around you. It takes a lifetime, and even then it's not complete, because the New World you're being rebuilt for is not complete. One day, it will be. But you'll have to trust that to the Spirit who's building it.
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What Is Biblical Criticism?

There's also something called "biblical criticism", which is a scholarly effort to peel back the layers of work that created the Bible to find what was originally in each layer of writings, and why each layer came about. It is a type of Bible study which can be done by those who don't believe, though what they do with it would be different than that of a believer. One leading example of this is the Documentary Hypothesis, on how the first five books (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) came to be. Such scholarly Bible study can often be very helpful. For one example, it teaches us that while the way the Spirit formed the Scriptures is more focused and intense, there are key ways in which it is like the way the Spirit works among us for other tasks. This helps up read the Spirit better.

Yet sometimes scholarly analysis can pull you away from the reason for reading the Word in the first place. At all times you must keep in mind that scholarly examinations use good and bad scholarly theories. For many centuries it has been observed that the fewer people there are who actually believe the Bible, the more scholarly studies there are about it. (And there have never been more scholarly studies than in recent times.) Søren Kierkegaard (in his *Journals*, #216) suggested that we might gather up all copies of the New Testament in one place, then pray that God would take them all back, because we humans deal so poorly with it. He thought of returning it to God because the only hope for the Scriptures in his time was divine action. But it has always been so, and God has kept taking action for it, within us - thank God.

"The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand, we are obliged to act accordingly."
Søren Kierkegaard, as found in *Provocations*

The Real You Meets God's Real Word

As Christians see it, the purpose of the Divine Witness is to lead us to love God, and lead us into the good news of Christ and His coming Kingdom. It is all fulfilled in Christ -- so says God's Word! This is where all interpretation starts and ends, and is the principle that leads the steps that follow. But we're at neither the start nor the end. The pillar of fire is not before us, nor can we walk up to Jesus and ask him a question. We're in a different time and place and situation, and live in endless complications that were not even dreamt of ere long ago. So we are left with the task of having to figure out what the Spirit is saying to us in that Bible passage. What is the Spirit up to? What is the creative Spirit creating, shaping, or teaching through it? But we are not left alone; God has sent the Spirit to guide us -- God wants us to know. This much all Christians trust, and so all can start from there when reading Scripture.

This means that the Bible is never studied as an objective, unbiased source. It wasn't meant to be. It never claimed to be. Every book in it is meant not to be read as if they were objective. It serves a purpose, and is totally, lovingly, celebratively biased toward that purpose. The most important of all purposes.

Be Honest About How You Learn

When you study the Bible, it is important to remember that:

  1. You are always interpreting. The wisdom of Scripture is never infused directly into the brain or fed into your blood system as if through an intravenous solution. We all put the Word through a filter, and see it from a specific angle.
  2. You will project your own world into the situations of old, with mixed results. Today's world is both like and unlike the different societies of those times, each in a multitude of ways.
  3. You will pick and choose - we all do! There are things we follow, and things we don't. That's good, to some extent, but a disaster in other ways. And, if we do it in a way that's honest with the text, it's also biblical, for that is what the people in the Bible did with earlier holy words whether spoken and written, for better and for worse.
  4. You will try to hone it down to a simplistic, basic meaning(s). That will get you the benefit of having a general guideline or lesson you can apply, but it will leave out the rich tapestry and detail of what Jesus meant by saying, "follow Me". The tapestry fills up the more time you spend with it.
  5. You will use frameworks from outside of Scripture to understand the passages you're reading. Again, those who were living out the written Word before it was written did the same thing to existing earlier Word - they added nationalisms, ideologies, government catchphrases, personal suspicions, even pagan imagery. And again, this can bring insight but more likely raise all sorts of nasty mayhem.

The way to take care of this is to always be aware that these things are what you are doing. And then, take intentional steps to go against the biases this creates. For example, see the passage through a different person in the story. Or, spot the extra-biblical framework as you start to use it, see where it goes, then step back and use a framework that differs based on key words in that passage. Or, slow down to savor the Word in its details. Or, talk to someone else about it, outside of you or your group. And, most importantly, never ever think you have the final answer in finding in it what God wants to teach you. Scripture passages are "multi-valent"; that is, they have different shades of meaning within them, and the Spirit may have a different side to show you tomorrow. Each time you do it, you learn something slightly different.

Study by thinking it through.