Spiritual Resources > the Bible > Bible Study: Listening and Learning.
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. In that way, the Spirit uses it to reshape you. And as that happens, the Bible becomes Scripture for you. It becomes a relationship with the Spirit through the Bible, a part of your relationship with the God of All.
If you were asking yourself, "why should I study 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.
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 study editions. 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 from being an amateur Germanic-family 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. Spirithome.com uses the NIV, as kindly provided in links from the Bible Gateway.
For those who want to dig into the Bible 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 Bible all their lives.
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 self-study -- spending time on your own prayerfully reading the Bible. It can be done book-by-book, or by theme, 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 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 subject. I would use several study bibles, books, library time, letters, phone calls, articles, praying and meditating and endlessly thinking. 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.
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. A good study and fellowship group is like nothing else 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 grandmother 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 it 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 you belong there. There's no cause for shame, guilt, or fear, least of all in Bible study.
Learning the Bible is a quest, and you pursue it by asking questions. So it's important to know how to ask good questions.
Don't be afraid to take notes. And don't say, 'enough of this -- I'll just guess'; trust the process.
The Bible is very well suited for private study. But it is even better suited for study with others. It wasn't made to be used primarily in solitude. It is God's Word spoken to you, but it is also God's Word for 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. Studying and sharing with others is a way you can 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. 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 study the Bible 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." A good supplement to that is Net-based chat study groups.
In A Rut?
Sometimes a study group can get stuck in a rut. You all start thinking alike or quickly pass by subjects that you addressed in the past or came to a hasty conclusion about. Some ideas that can help :
There are, of course, no guarantees. But the Spirit often rewards such diligent acts of courage in the faith.
As Christians see it, the Bible's purpose 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. It serves a purpose, and is totally, lovingly, celebratively biased toward that purpose. The most important of all purposes.
From that point on, Christians use so many methods for interpreting the Bible 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 the interpretations.) I'll give you my own way; maybe as you read it, you might recognize what you do. 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.
The next principle is that Scripture interprets Scripture -- 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 something like that is if they discover it for themselves. No part of the Bible is slighted or ignored -- but no part of it stands on its own.
The Bible is a set of written documents, a library about God's core works among people. That means it works by way of literary forms such as poetry, story, commentary, and testimony. That means it has grammar and format, just like this article does. It covers incidents in history, and thus it is a part of the history of its time as also learned from archaeology and from other writings. If you try to understand Scripture without paying attention to these truths, your understanding will be badly skewed.
There's a current school of thought called 'the narrative method' which comes in here. The 'context' for everything in the Bible is its overall story line or 'meta-narrative'. All parts of the story find their meaning within the course of the overall story. The method isn't without its problems. The story is much greater than the sum of its parts, but you can't really know the story without grasping its parts, especially when the story develops from real life. Each passage, even each word, must have its full due and not be dismissed, even the most disgusting parts, even when it seems to go against the narrative. That said, the 'narrative' methods focus on what's most important about the Bible. The rest of it may be good to know, helpful, and even God's blessing for you, but it is the overall story line that gives us the 'why' for each Bible passage's being there.
Another principle is to interpret the Bible prayerfully and devotionally. If you're not communicating with 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 Bible passages and language. Its use in worship helps keep our souls open and thankful to the God of the Bible.)
Next, study what others said, and say today, about what a set of Bible verses mean. Pay attention to :
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 the Bible 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 as 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 those you study with) imagine that passage of the Bible being lived out in your world. Or, picture yourself in Scriptural events, through the people who lived those events.
This process of sifting through your Bible readings can be like a conversation with God (just like prayer) or a lifelong series of mails 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. It is to be learned, felt, and acted upon in the light of the wider Scriptural 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 the Bible 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.
No matter how you study the Bible, no matter how much you learn from the Bible, 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 the Bible itself thoroughly, is not as crucial as learning from the Bible, and even that is secondary, since its high value comes from us living the way of the God of the Bible. Our task as Bible readers is to surrender ourselves to the Spirit who speaks through it.
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 them the same challenge. 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 else. 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.
5) People often quote single verses of Scripture and insist "the Bible says." Is this a proper use of God's Holy Word?
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 sound methods soundly pursued are worthy of use, but they are to be done in brackets set within the whole picture.
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.
When you keep plugging away at Bible study, the Spirit rewards you for it. You may not notice it, but you are being shaped and built up brick by brick as you learn God's Word. What is unfamiliar turf at first eventually becomes familiar. 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.
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.
Yet sometimes scholarly study can pull you away from the reason for reading the Word. At all times you must keep in mind that scholarly study uses 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 the Bible. 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 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 - thank God.
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|ver.: 26 February 2014
Bible Study. Copyright © 1998-2014 by Robert Longman.