Thursday, January 24, 2008

How Do You Study Scripture?

How we arrive at a theological conclusion can be the most amusing and intriguing study. I have noticed that there are several well used and typical ways in which folks will come to a conclusion on Biblical matters.

So I am going to give you what I think are some of the most common methods currently in use. These would be ways in which the laymen and theologian (serious Biblical scholar) arrive at an answer to the Bible's most challenging subjects.

1. Pastor Said So it Must be True

Their motto would be, "Pastor said it so that settles it". This is probably the most common reason given by those who are the laziest of Bible readers. Rather than give any effort to become a Berean they simply take whatever the pastors says as gospel truth. Of course this is also one reason there is so much church shopping today.

2. The Historical Approach

Another way to arrive at answers to Biblical questions is to take the theologians from history and lump them into groups. The largest group must be right so therefore their conclusions are adopted. Another name for this approach is called the traditional view.

3. My Favorite Expositor View

This approach is similar to #1 except that the pastor of preference is usually found on television or the radio. There can be a number of favorites and they usually teach similar things. You will find an advocate of this view constantly referring to their hero by saying, "This is what so and so believes and teaches", or "I believe what ______ believes".

4. God Spoke to Me

This is probably the most dangerous method of Biblical interpretation because it relies on an emotional feeling rather than scriptural fact. This excuse has been used to rationalize everything from murder and divorce to church splits and cultist heresy. Adherents to this view typically place extreme emphasis upon the spoken and written teaching of a man or woman while using the Bible to justify their behavior.

5. Square Peg in Round Hole

This view sees the reader attempt to make the Bible agree with his or her presuppositions and established beliefs. Often they will go to great lengths to stretch the meaning of certain passages or read into a text a totally different interpretation. This is probably the most common method of Biblical interpretation and many unknowingly are guilty. We could also label this as the Blind Spot Doctrine or as some like to say, legalism.

6. Intellectual Rationalism

Man is a clever creature and it seems the more learning we accumulate the less we esteem the inspired word of God. Proverbs tells us that knowledge can puff up, and pride prohibits us from looking at the Bible in a humble and honest way. This view attempts to make scripture fit with science and rationalism rather than the reverse. Wisdom is using knowledge in its God intended role to properly interpret and apply scripture. God's Word will always agree with true empirical science. This view also attempts to reduce God to a formula. They like to say if A + B = C, then D must be____. This attempt at making logic trump faith reduces doctrine and theology to an intellectual pursuit and is primarily the reason so many seminaries have gone liberal.

7. I Studied the Bible and This is What I Saw

This last method is where we should all start. Simply reading and praying are crucial to our receiving of revelation from God. God is light and as we abide in His presence He grants us insights into His character and person.

There are obviously problems that can arise from using this method only. Even the apostle Paul after 14 years of personal study wanted to make sure his doctrine and beliefs were correct. He went to Jerusalem to seek out the fellowship of the top apostles but found that they added nothing to what He had already received. Furthermore he had to rebuke them on occasion for their return to law keeping.

I have seen many sincere readers begin their search in God's word but end up adopting method #3 - the favorite expositor. There is a lot of pressure to fit into a group and be affirmed by man. This often leads to us compromising our convictions for the sake of acceptance. Those who are extreme in their use of method #3 ultimately become parrots. They can speak wonderful truths and doctrines but do not have the reality of actually experiencing it for themselves. Their knowledge is second hand and this becomes evident in the dryness of their words and actions.


There is nothing wrong with confirming what we believe by checking with wise teachers, pastors, theologians, etc. In fact we should be doing that to make sure we are not holding some strange heretical view. However, be careful that you do not quench the Spirit by putting man's teaching above God's inspired and operative Word. Become like the Bereans who examine the scriptures daily to see if these things be so.

Alright, your turn. Do you have another method of interpretation that I missed? Do you agree? Disagree? How do you study the Bible and arrive at answers to the tough questions?


Caleb Chang said...

Good post Jim. I cannot judge the masses as my own Bible-reading practices are lacking. I can make the typical excuses of schedule, kids, work etc. but it only magnifies my neglect for the best way for me, as a believer, to see God clearly and hear his voice.

One addition I would like to make and it will probably stir the pot a little. First, let me start off my saying that I have benefitted much by reading Eugene Peterson's Message. BUT, because of our (and I generalize) growing laziness in Bible-reading, we tend to use this as our ONLY source. Yes, many KNOW it's a paraphrase, but what happens if I, as a new believer, have no frame of reference, no past experiences, no other expositors that I read to help guide me. It has been brought to light by some of our contemporary "watchmen" (sorry, my poor memory prevents me from referencing names), that The Message seems to be plagued with a lot of New Age terminology and allusions.

I ramble. My point is that when we study the Bible, we shouldn't be lazy - we need to read more than one translation to get a better picture.

I have been blessed by parents who read the Bible DAILY and thoroughly. My dad, who has been doing Hebrew/Greek to Chinese Bible translation for the past 5 years, gave me this advice. When you come to the Bible, you must come as a student and there are many things that you bring to the table when you read: your own experiences of God and how he has worked in your life, your knowledge of the Bible and its contexts, cross references of other passages of the Bible, other expositors views and, of course, God's fresh speaking to you directly.

Usually after Bible reading, if you want to get more clarity or affirmation that what you understand is really what was meant, sit down with your home group, with people you respect, know you and know God and tell them of your findings. Personally, I have found this a great checkpoint. What you have found should register with their spirit.

Jim said...

Hi Caleb, I really appreciate your input here. I agree we need to have what we have seen confirmed by our brothers.

I have also heard that "The Message" contains some new age material. I myself am not much into the paraphrased versions simply because I know the structure of the language is so important. As we both know words have specific meaning and in particular the Bible was written with acute precision. While getting an overview is important so much of scripture is application and this requires a good working knowledge of the meaning of words.

Blessing in Christ,