Why Study the Bible?
The purpose of learning the Bible is to live by it in the love of its divine Author. Otherwise, why bother? After a while, the Bible starts to become your lens for seeing the world as it is, and for seeing yourself. The objective is to get it so thoroughly into you that you normally think in its terms. Then, the Spirit uses it to reshape you, a relationship with the Spirit through the Bible. And as that happens, it becomes Holy Scripture for you, a part of your relationship with the God of All.
If you were asking yourself, "why should I turn to the Bible?" and it leads you to want to read it, but you don't know how to go about it, that's okay. If it's even a small part of what is claimed, this is no ordinary reading experience. But it needs to be started in a simple way, to get some solid ground under your feet.
Choosing A Good Bible
The first item on your list is to get yourself a good study bible. (You can't study the Bible without a Bible!) English-language translations abound, and you can get lost in an alphabet soup of initials -- NAB, KJV, NASV, TEV, CEV, JB, and so on. For most people, the best choices would be the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) and the New International Version (NIV), because they're easily read yet not dumbed down, and both are available in many editions with plenty of notes. There are still some who insist on the King James Version (KJV), the official English translation from over 500 years ago. Since I often read old forms of English, as an amateur Germanic linguist, it's an easy and fun read for me. Yet, most of the time, I use the NRSV, because I usually read Scripture not to enjoy languages but to have my life transformed. That takes the kind of thorough understanding that comes from reading in the tongue you live in, which is not Elizabethan, Middle, or even 19th-century English. This site uses the NIV, as kindly provided in links from the Bible Gateway.
For those who want to dig into the Word for the first time, a good study bible is a good friend. It has maps, concordances, cross-references, word and name meanings, and basic blurbs on the cultures, religions, and powers of Biblical times. Such information helps to set the context for each era in the Testaments. You can also turn to paraphrases, which restate the writings for a (hopefully) clearer grasp of its meaning. The only one of those I can recommend is Eugene Peterson's The Message, because he's so good and so sound at it. His work will hit home to you after only a short reading, and hits home even to those who have been reading the Scriptures all their lives. But remember that all paraphrases have a viewpoint. You read them to see from that viewpoint, but you must see from other places too.
Ways To Study the Bible
The next matter at hand is how you would go about doing Bible study. I hope not like most of us studied in high school, dreaming of who you were dating Saturday night, or of future glories, or of just lazing around. Each of us needs two basic arenas for Bible study.
The first is to learn by doing your homework -- spending time on your own prayerfully reading the Bible. It can be done book-by-book, or by theme or topic, or based on a daily lectionary (a formal selection of key passages, on which sermons are based). Self-study is intimate, you and the Spirit who speaks through its pages. It's said that the Bible reads you as much as you read it. You start to see yourself through divine eyes. When I self-studied the Bible as a young adult, I did it the same obsessive way I studied school course subjects, by totally immersing myself weekends at a time just on one topic. I would use several study bibles, books, library time, letters, phone calls, articles, praying, making notes on every little matter, meditating and endlessly thinking. I learned a lot, about the Word and about educating myself. But what I soon learned is that to really get a handle on what the Spirit is saying, I needed to be with people and get a life. It's really hard to love people from behind a wall.
That realization leads us into the second arena: Bible study with others, face to face. Most often in church, at a house, or on campus. There is nothing else as good as a small Bible study and fellowship group in teaching us about how to live the faith.
When you study the Bible, start where you are, not where you're "supposed to" be. Maybe you have a lot of doubts and questions. Maybe what keeps getting at you is something from a movie or a song, or what you already know or think you know all about the stories, or a Proverb your grandma taught you. As you get into it, you'll find that you remember more than you think, but not nearly enough. Start where you are, and journey from there one footstep at a time. You're not doing it to pass judgement on Scripture or the people in it or the people who believe what it says. Nor are you doing it to whip yourself for understanding so little of it -- join the club. You were invited into this by the Spirit of the One who made us all, so this is where you belong. There's no reason to enter the Word with shame, guilt, or fear.
The Bible is very well suited to be pondered in private. But it is even better suited for reflection with others. It wasn't made to be used primarily in solitude. You get God's Word spoken to you, but there's also God's Word to all of those who believe in God. That's why it's good to bounce your thoughts off of others, and hearing what others think, taking advantage of Jesus's promise about being where two or three (or more) are gathered. Otherwise, we'd miss too much. Our blind spots, our prejudices, even our being mere limited beings can get in the way. Learning and sharing with others is a way to discern what the Spirit is telling you, because the Spirit is telling them too, and they (or you) might be hearing the Spirit more clearly at the moment. The message also comes through in worship, by listening to what the sermon has to say about it, by noticing what passages are said or sung in hymns and chants, and by taking part in the key moments of the Gospels by the Body and Blood of Christ. Then, there's also the voices of thousands of years of other believers, Jewish and Christian, who have been doing what you're doing, thinking about it, and coming up with penetrating insight and moves of sheer genius. They're not stupid. God got through to many of them. When you dig into the Word with feedback from other voices, you're being open to the voice of the Spirit that speaks through them. Or, you might be the Spirit's voice for those others. You may not know which. So share it! Commit to your Bible study group: "I will be there; I will ask questions; I will share what I have; I will listen."
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 the Bible! 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 a life with 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:
- 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.
- 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, in many ways.
- 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 spoken and written, for better and for worse.
- 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.
- 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 or 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.
A Framework For Bible Study
Christians use so many methods for interpreting the Testaments that I won't even try to count them. (Even when you use no method, you're still using a method -- by which I mean that no interpretation comes out of thin air. There's a way which led to your interpretations.) I'll give you my own way; maybe as you read it, you might recognize what you do. I use other approaches, too, but this is the main one. My questions can start at any point along the way, but sooner or later must face up to all the other parts of the process.
After being honest about how you're learning, the next principle is that no passage of Scripture stands alone -- what the Spirit's telling us through Scripture is unlocked by, tested by, qualified by, and balanced by, the rest of Scripture. This does not force us to treat any part of it as if it were without human failings or error; the only way people of today can really trust the truth of the Holy Library is if they discover it for themselves. No part of it is slighted or ignored -- but no part of it stands on its own.
This is also why I talk less about chapters and verses than about passages or sections. Think about your Bible study passages in context with what surrounds them. Each passage has many contexts: within the immediate story, within the book, in its place with other stories in the rest of the Holy Library, within the message of the Gospel.
More To Bible Study Than Reading
Another principle is to interpret the Bible prayerfully and devotionally. If you're not feeding back to God about it, meditating on it, and doing the things which surrender more and more of your being to God, you won't hear the Spirit even if your mind comes to good factual conclusions on the matter at hand. (This is also why it is so important to fill worship services with biblical passages and language. Its use in worship helps keep our souls open and thankful to the God of the Bible.)
Lessons From Others
Next, learn what others said, and say today, about what a passage of Scripture means. Pay attention to :
- 2000 years of faithful yet sinful Christians, and 3000 years of Jews;
- the circle of believers you have fellowship with in your day-to-day life, including your pastor;
- the billion other Christians alive today;
- non-Christians who have honestly grappled with either the Scriptural passage or the topic at hand. This would include the thoughts of sages, authors, and experts. Even the scriptures of other faiths, when treated in the same non-authoritative manner as sages and authors.
The Spirit may have led them to understandings you'd never have thought of. Or they might not have been influenced by the same political or cultural climate as you. The Spirit worked through Scripture to build and shape the faith community and the people in it. That tells us something about where the Spirit is taking us (and you) today.
Next, God gave you the ability to think for yourself. You can reason, figure things out, research, probe, and question. Use science, history, sociology, physics, and psychology. This is by its nature partly made from logic, and partly from a world view you already have. Use what you've learned over the years. The Spirit can work through your thinking, and change or strengthen it. When Scripture is training the mind, that Scripturally-shaped mind is then set free to more fully understand the Testaments.
Within someone who prepares themselves aright in the other ways above, the Spirit can use their feelings, conscience, and intuitions to help guide them. Gut instinct and powerful emotion are no more (or less) sinful than anything else about you. But they must be shaped and given boundaries through the other checks, or they will tyrannize you. Sometimes it seems like thoughts and feelings are opposing sources that fight against each other. But there are ways they can work together. For instance, allow the Spirit to use the Bible to help you (and your Bible study group) imagine that Scriptural passage being lived out in your world. Or, picture yourself in Scriptural events, through the people who lived those events. Learning the Bible can be both boring and exciting, and both can be good.
This process of sifting through your readings can be like a conversation with God (just like prayer) or a lifelong series of text messages between you and God. Or maybe a weird kind of Q-and-A which sometimes becomes Q-and-Q, where God answers you back with a question. If you're listening for it, it can be great to share your hopes, feelings, or thoughts with God. For me, it sometimes feels like a ping-pong match, where God fires back fast with a lot of spin and twist. It can get pretty intense, and it can sting where the ball hits you. Your part of the process is to pay close attention. It might be a thought that keeps coming to mind, or something that's happening around you as you go through the day, or an opportunity that arrives, or something someone says that throws you back to an earlier Bible reading. In that way, it's an ongoing process that follows you through your daily life. What your reading reveals is to be learned, felt, and acted upon in the light of the wider biblical witness to God's redeeming purpose through Christ.
There are other things (specialized gifts, extraordinary circumstances and such) that aid Bible study, but they would come under these principles.
Within the above framework, humans are not exalted above Scripture, and no part of it is simply ignored or interpreted away or rendered invalid. None of these steps are strictly 'natural'; all have a supra-natural agency, someone beyond nature -- the Spirit -- at work. The trouble level rises as one goes down the list, but there's always the other principles to keep that in check. The wise Christian turns these into a set of habits and patterns, a work ethic that becomes a part of our normal day-to-day way of living and learning. The wise Christian community trains us in these patterns from cradle to grave, and commits itself to live by what the Spirit shows us through the biblical Scriptures. The Bible is as complex as life itself; it contains libraries worth of gray areas and galleries full of multiple facets and sparkling colors.
Learn to Live the Ways Of God
No matter how you turn to God's Word, no matter how much you learn from it, it's all a waste of time if you don't allow what you find there to penetrate your life. If God really is God, the One with full authority over us (or in churchspeak, our 'Lord'), then what God tells us is of the highest importance to us. And that means the Bible before it means anything else. It's not there for you to just know, but for you to believe and live by. Or as John put it near the end of his Gospel:
"Jesus also did many other
signs in the disciples' presence that are not written in this
book. But these have been written that you may believe that
Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that in believing, you
may have life in his Name." (John 20:30-31).
Learning about the Bible, and even learning it thoroughly, is not as crucial as learning from it, and even that is secondary, since its high value comes from our living the way of the God of the Bible. Our task as readers is to surrender ourselves to the Spirit who speaks through it. Bible study serves that task, not the other way around.