13 January 2020

How to study your bible.

When I was a kid, I went to a Fundamentalist church. Say what you will about these folks: They’re big on studying the bible. Not all of ’em know how to do it properly—and they definitely didn’t teach me how to do it. (Man alive was I over-dependent on the notes of my Scofield Reference Bible!) But I gotta give ’em credit for making a serious, earnest effort just the same. They really wanted to know what was in there, and rightly believed every Christian should.

Yet even while I was in that church, I discovered I knew way more about the bible than others. Not ’cause I’m a genius or anything, although I do have a really good memory. I knew more simply because I read the bible. I read the commentaries in the bible, plus everything about the bible I could get access to: I studied.

And most Christians honestly don’t. Most humans don’t. As soon as we get out of school—whether high school, university, or grad school—we figure we never, ever have to study again, and don’t. We quit. We’re done. We might make exceptions for something important, like our contractor’s license, but we’re done. Study the bible? Nah. We’ll leave that for experts; pastors can study the bible. When we wanna get something profound out of the scriptures, we only expect to get ’em one of three ways.

  1. Somebody else has to say it. Like a favorite preacher or author, whom we trust to say reliable things. (Trust based on what? Well, that’s another discussion.)
  2. It’s gotta be a clear, obvious statement in the bible. Something anyone could find, like a penny on the sidewalk.
  3. It’s a God-inspired idea which unexpectedly pops into our heads, like a bolt of lightning from a blue sky, as we’re reading the bible. Illumination, some call it.

But study? Go digging out truths from the text? Never gonna happen.

There’s a common but false assumption God’s kingdom, because it runs on grace, arrives by grace: We don’t have to make any effort. Just take the talent God gave us, bury it in a field, and it’ll grow like an acorn into a tree filled with shiny metal discs. Wisdom will just come to us naturally. After all, there’s no shortage of people posting pithy platitudes on Twitter.

Here’s the quandary: Which of these platitudes are true, and which of them are merely clever… but wrong?

’Cause I’ve heard loads of platitudes. So have you. I’ve been a Christian for more than four decades, and listened to sermons every Sunday morning, many Sunday and Saturday and Friday and Wednesday evenings, many mini-sermons by bible study leaders and prayer group leaders and college professors, many sermons in chapel at schools I’ve gone to or taught at, and of course sermons on the radio or podcasts. I have no idea how many Christian books I’ve read, both before and after seminary. Or how many posts on Christian blogs.

There’s a lot of advice out there. Most of it looks like good Christian advice. But it only looks good: Much is junk, is misinformed, is misleading, is foolhardy, is ignorant, is dark Christianity, is heresy, or is hypocrisy disguised under thick Christianese.

And some of it is pure Christianism: It’s pop psychology, godless politics, Mammon worship and social Darwinism, ulterior motives disguised as devout Christianity. It’s totally wrong—but sounds good. Sounds wise, familiar, benevolent… and totally appeals to our bratty inner child, so we repeat it.

How do we know the difference? Well, unless we have the supernatural gift of discernment (which in my experience, the Holy Spirit uses to point out false teachers, not bad theology), we gotta discern stuff the old-fashioned way: We gotta know our bibles. And not just superficially. We gotta study our bibles. We gotta buckle down and do our homework.

But we don’t wanna.

“But I’m not a bible scholar!”

Embracing ignorance is a childish thing to do… and you’ll notice there are a lot of childish people out there. Christians included.

And they’re gonna stay childish. When they refuse to study their bibles, they’re not gonna grow as Christians. They’re not gonna grow the Spirit’s fruit. They’re not gonna become spiritually mature. They’re content to be the least in the kingdom… ’cause hey, they made it into the kingdom! They assume maturity comes with age. Lemme tell you, it so doesn’t. I’ve met many who think Christian senior citizens should automatically become church elders. But some of these seniors have only been Christian a few years, so they know no better than anyone who’s only been Christian a few years. Others, after a lifetime of refusing to grow, have no kindness, no patience, no goodness: They’re old brats.

No, bible study isn’t how we grow the Spirit’s fruit. There are a lot of fruitless know-it-alls. I’ve been one. But one of the traits of a person who is growing the Spirit’s fruit, is they’re gonna want to know God better. And they realize how we get to know God better is by studying the bible he inspired. Study what his prophets and apostles wrote. Study what Christ Jesus taught. Study.

If we wanna grow in Christ, we can’t solely depend on other Christians’ interpretations. It’s just not good enough. It makes us dependent on them for our spiritual growth; not Christ. And when they’re wrong (and they will be; we all are), not only do we stay wrong: We’ll have no clue we’re wrong, for we’ve never learned to tell the difference. It’s why people stay in cults for decades.

Other Christians can, will, and should supplement our knowledge. But each of us needs to step away from the secondhand sources, and go firsthand. All of us have to become bible scholars.

No, it’s not just for pastors and academics. It’s for every Christian. Just like prophecy. If, in order to understand the bible better, we research its original text, the ancient history behind it, the Christian philosophies (there are more than one) about the bible, we count as bible scholars. Doesn’t matter if we’re paid to do it. Doesn’t matter what our day jobs are. (Does to academics, but only because they’re trying to keep their day jobs.)

Doesn’t matter whether you’ve gone to seminary either. I have, but many of my pastors haven’t. And didn’t have to: They do their homework. When they put together sermons, they use many of the same resources I do, and do just fine—better than the vast majority of preachers I’ve heard. A seminary degree definitely helps, but anybody can study the bible once they learn how.

Yes, you’re gonna need to start buying books. Yeah, you’re gonna have to dabble in biblical languages. (Relax; you don’t have to learn the whole language, although you do need to learn enough to know how to use the languae appropriately.) Thanks to the internet, you have access to way more bible study resources than has any generation in history. What used to cost scholars a fortune (and I know, ’cause it cost me a fortune before this stuff went online) anyone can call up on their phone, even in countries which heavily censor the internet. Study is far easier and faster than it’s ever been. Lack of resources and lack of time: No longer an excuse.

It’s not gonna make you popular with the willfully ignorant.

One of the negative side effects of democracy—the correct belief all people are politically equal—is the incorrect belief all people oughta be equal in everything. Like wealth and prosperity: Everyone oughta be equally rich or equally poor. Or like knowledge: If you know more than me, for some reason that’s wrong of you, and you need to be taken down a few notches. What, you think you‘re better than me? You ain’t better.

This is the attitude bible scholars constantly, regularly get from non-scholars. People figure anyone who knows more than they, by default, is a know-it-all. “Knowledge puffs up,” Paul said once, 1Co 8.1 and they take it upon themselves to deflate such people. So expect backlash.

One of our duties as bible scholars, is to explain what the scriptures mean. Which I do. Either here on TXAB, or in one of my church’s small groups, or when people pick my brain one-on-one. And occasionally I butt heads with people who hate my interpretations. They grew up believing otherwise. They didn’t ask my opinion because they want to know something; they just want me to confirm what they already believe.

And when I challenge their beliefs, many go into fight-or-flight mode, and choose fight: They wanna debate. They wanna ruin me: Or ruin me: Get me publicly rebuked, get me fired, get me excommunicated; the only reason they don’t try to get me whacked is because they still think that’s a line you don’t cross. For now. The people who killed St. Stephen didn’t have any such line, and some people wonder if there should even be such a line.

Plenty of Christians claim they appreciate constructive correction. This is a lie. They absolutely hate it. They don’t wanna be wrong. (It’s human nature!) They’ve invested a lot of time and effort in their ideas, and don’t want it to be time wasted. If you don’t believe in miracles, and spent your whole life avoiding charismatics and our churches, it will blow your tiny little mind when God drops an honest-to-Him miracle upon you. You’d barely accept him—much less me.

So they won’t surrender their cherished false beliefs without a fight. Humility ain’t that common. And I blunder into such fights when I least expect it: I’ll state something which I figure is a very simple statement, and just my luck: Someone in the room believes just the opposite, decides she’s right and I’m Satan, and it’s time to do holy war. (Nope, I’m never given the benefit of the doubt: “He made a mistake somewhere.” People jump directly to “He has a demon.” Did it with Christ too, y’know. Jn 10.20) Doesn’t matter if I can point to bible verses: She’s believed this her entire unexamined life, loves this belief, never heard otherwise, and therefore I must be Satan.

Or it’ll blindside me this way: Somebody else will state something, figure I’m the token bible scholar in the room and turn to me for affirmation: “Isn’t that right?” Oh, I hope to God it is. I hate being put on the spot this way. ’Cause sometimes it’s not! And sometimes it’s really not the right time for correction. I once had a pastor single me out and ask “Isn’t that right?” in mid-sermon. He wasn’t. But in our congregation that day was a kid whom I was trying to lead to Jesus, and I didn’t want my pastor’s train of thought derailed by this minor error. So I mumbled something non-committal, corrected him privately later, and he’s the kind of guy who’s so humble he emailed everybody in the church and apologized for his minor mistake. My point though: Learn when to be right, and when to shut up and be right later.

Immature people always attack the messenger. So don’t be surprised when immature Christians do likewise: “I reject your ‘head-knowledge,’ because I’m speaking from ‘heart-knowledge,’ which is true knowledge.” No, that’s truthiness: Stuff you feel is true, and wish were true, but you have no facts and reason to back you up. Certainly no in-context bible verses. By “head-knowledge” these folks mean cold, hard, heartless facts. True, facts oughta be spoken in love and compassion. Ep 4.15 But without love, facts don’t become nothing: I do. 1Co 13.2 Facts are still facts—and truth isn’t in those people.

Christianity isn’t, and never has been, about what we wish were true. Wishful thinking ain’t faith. Christianity is actual truth God revealed through Christ Jesus: True whether we like it or not. As bible scholars, we gotta find it, regardless of what the wider Christian culture likes better, and recasts as truth. That’s why we study the bible: To find truth. The scriptures point to it. We wanna know it. God offers to give it. And a superficial reading of the bible only provides it superficially. You want deeper truth, you get deep.

It takes diligent study. It takes showing God we mean business. It means demonstrating to him we can handle his revelation. It means we study the historical context of the scriptures, study Greek and Hebrew were necessary, and no playing connect-the-dots like a conspiracy theorist, hoping to extract truths about the bible by treating meaningless coincidences like they’re profound revelation. They called this λογομαχέω/logomakhéo, “word-slicing,” back in bible times, and Paul brought it up to Timothy:

2 Timothy 2.14-19 KWL
14 Remind them of these things, objecting (before God) against overanalyzing words.
It profits no one; it’s a catastrophe for listeners.
15 Push yourself to stand before God as worthy:
A worker who doesn’t embarrass himself, who uses the word of truth properly.
16 Stay clear of unholy talk or foolishness,
for it’ll grow more ungodly behavior, 17 and their words will spread like rot on a field.
Yménaios and Fílitos are examples, 18 who went way off center about the truth,
saying the resurrection already happened, overturning certain people’s faith.
19 Still, God’s solid foundation stands, having this seal: “The Lord knows who’s his,” Nu 16.5
and “Get away from wrongness, everyone who names the Lord’s name.” Is 52.11

Steer clear of the temptation to embrace “new facts,” which are often just old heresies in new packaging. Stay away from angry teachers, scholars who are trying to get famous by being extra controversial, preachers who like to get into fights, anyone with iffy fruit. Look for teachers with good character. Read their stuff first.

Finally, how to study a bible.

It’s really not that hard. Here’s a general outline of the steps to take. This’ll get you started.

PICK YOUR BIBLE PASSAGE. If you wanna study an entire book, great. But unless we’re talking a really short book (and sometimes even then; some of John’s shorter letters are awfully deep) it’ll take time. Break it down into segments which are small, manageable, and reasonable. Study ’em one at a time.

Me, I prefer a paragraph at a time. (Meaning original-language paragraphs, not the way different bible translations put ’em into paragraphs. But relax: You don’t need to learn biblical languages. They really help, but they aren’t mandatory.)

Pick the bit you wanna study. Got it? Good.

RESEARCH ITS BACKGROUND. Before you study any book of the bible, or even just a passage of the book, you really oughta know about the whole book: Who wrote it? Why’d the author write it? What’s its point? Who’s it to? What’s it about? What type of literature is it?

When you read a Civil War novel, it really helps when you know a little about the Civil War. Helps more when you know more. Same with Victorian-era novels: Learn a bit about the Victorians. Same with autobiographies: When you read Julius Caesar’s Commentaries, you oughta know about the Roman Republic (and how it’s not the same as the Roman Empire). And same with the bible: Know enough bible history for your book to make sense.

Christians assume, because these books are translated into 21st-century English, we’re reading about people who speak our language and live in our culture. They didn’t. These books were written between 34 and 20 centuries ago, almost entirely in the Middle East, in foreign languages, to foreign cultures, who knew absolutely nothing about us and our way of life. We gotta learn about them.

So… what’s the historical background of the people in the book? How about the historical background of its readers? What’s their popular culture like? What sort of things might they know, or be expected to know?

Yeah, there’s a crazy amount of detail we can study in learning the background. It’s why bible scholars never figure our job is done: We keep learning about biblical history. Historians and archeologists are always discovering new stuff. We try to keep up.

But if you want a brief introduction to any book, get a decent bible commentary on that book. Read its introduction.

READ IT IN AS MANY TRANSLATIONS AS YOU CAN. Look at every way other scholars have rendered this passage into English.

Lots of people skip this step, and stick to their favorite bible translation. Or they think the solution is to get a translation which is as literal as possible, like the NASB or ESV; or stick with the Amplified Bible ’cause they figure it includes every possible translation option. (It doesn’t.) Or they embrace a crazy doctrine that their translation is the only one infallible. No no no. This is the 21st century: There are dozens of translations at your fingertips on the internet. Read as many as you can.

This is not a search for “the best translation.” Nor for a translation which best suits your idea. A lot of Christians make this mistake, and don’t realize what they’re doing is bending the scriptures to suit them. We do just the opposite: Bend ourselves to suit the scriptures.

What we’re doing is looking for the general consensus: In what ways do all the translators agree? What do all the translations have in common? Which ideas are exactly the same, in every version?

Some verses are ridiculously easy to translate. So every translation will agree. Other passages are controversial, so you’ll find half translate it one way, half another. Look at both options. Or there will be three or four or 20 options; compare all of them. Don’t forget the footnotes: Certain bibles include “Some translations have…” followed by another way it could read, and that’s another option to consider. Sometimes there are textual variants.

So… do these differences significantly change the meaning of the verses? Or are they just extra words?—like referring to Jesus as “Christ Jesus” instead of just “Christ” or “Jesus.” Most variants are really nothing more than that.

In doing this, you’re gonna get really familiar with your passage. Good. You need to. Meditate on it too, when you meditate.

You may find different translations split your passage into different sentences and paragraphs. Again, look at the consensus. (And maybe you’ll have to adjust where your passage starts and stops.)

Once you have a good idea of what most translators think the passage means, pick the translation which does the best job. If no single translation does the best job, go ahead and put it together yourself: Pick one sentence from the NIV, one from the NKJV, a clause from the ISV, a word from The Message. Yes, it’s okay to do this, but you need to be able to defend every clause you include: “Most translations use the word ‘propitiation,’ and so did I.” Not “I just liked that word way better.”

LOOK UP ANY SIGNIFICANT WORDS. And here’s where we bust out the Hebrew and Greek: If there’s a significant, theologically-loaded word in your passage, look it up in the original language.

No, don’t look it up in an English-language dictionary. When preachers tell you how the American Heritage Dictionary defines a word in their bible passages, they’re doing it wrong. God help you if they start quoting Webster’s. Which Websters? Any dictionary can call themselves Webster’s. The name isn’t copyrighted, y’know. But all an English dictionary does is say we mean by that word. Not what the bible’s authors meant by it. An original-language dictionary does the job. Again, bible software and bible websites will help you out.

When preachers tell you how Strong’s or Brown Driver Briggs or the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament defines it, then we got a bible scholar. Assuming they’re not misusing the dictionary. The point isn’t to discover secret, unknown-before-now meanings to the bible. It’s so we understand this passage better with these words’ proper meanings.

NOTE HOW IT FITS WITH ITS BOOK. Another common mistake is people study a passage, then immediately interpret it for what it means to them, not for what the author was trying to say to their audience. They don’t care about the author. Nor the intended audience. They wanna get stuff out of it. (Sometimes stuff they can beat others over the head with.) It’s very selfish.

Where’s the verse fit within the big picture of its book? If it’s a gospel, how does the verse point to Jesus or his kingdom? If it’s one of the Prophets, how does it point to God? If it’s a New Testament letter, how does it teach the church to think and behave? If it’s a psalm, how’s it praise God? Those are general concepts: Each book will have its specific agenda, and you need to look at how each verse furthers that book’s agenda.

THEN LEARN FROM IT. Once you understand what your passage means, and what it said to its original audience, then you can look at what lessons you can take from it.

I’ll warn you now: After all the time you put into your study, you might expect to get something really profound out of it. And you usually will. But sometimes it’s really not all that deep. I know; people assume all scripture is weighty, and can inspire thousands of sermons. “God is love” 1Jn 4.8 sure can. But “Abraham lived between Kadesh and Shur” Ge 20.1 not so much.

(Well, yet. If you ever go to Israel, and you’re traveling between Kadesh and Shur, being face-to-face with the physical context of the scriptures might knock you flat. But this’ll only be true after you’ve studied your bible and have the verse in you. If you don’t, it won’t.)

And that’ll do ya.

If you want a more thorough outline on how to study the bible, one of the best books I’ve come across is Gordon Fee’s New Testament Exegesis, a thin little book which’ll show you, in detail, how to take apart a passage from the New Testament. The same principles apply to the Old Testament too. Lots of colleges use it for good reason. Mine didn’t, but my professors obviously read it, ’cause they taught all the same ideas.

And of course I’ll go into more detail in future articles. Stay tuned.