A true reverence for Scripture must include an appropriate, respectful approach to the way we read, study, interpret and apply its teachings. Is there a method to our study, or do we treat the Bible like some kind of horoscope? Do we let the Word of God speak to our minds afresh each new day or do we spend most of our time looking for "proof texts" to support the ideas that we already believe to be true? Do we let the words of scripture speak for themselves or do we do our best to conform the words to our worldview? Are we open to inspirational new ideas as we read, or is the Bible nothing more than a mirror for what we already believe?
Every once in a while it is worth taking the time for a little self-examination of the habits that we have formed, especially when it comes to how we appropriate our beliefs. Stop and think for a moment about some of the most important ideas or concepts, teachings, doctrines or philosophies that you believe to be true. How did you arrive at these convictions? Did you absorb these ideas from the culture (or sub-culture) that you grew up in, or are they a result of years of personal research and thoughtful reflection?
What were your methods of research? How flexible are you about considering alternate solutions? What do you do when a mass of clear evidence challenges a deeply held conviction? Are you open to reviewing new data, or do you close your mind and rigidly hold on to your worldview, perhaps out of a sense of loyalty to the long held traditions of your family, culture or creed. How do you grow and adapt to the fast-paced world swirling around you? How do you relate? How do you keep yourself current, relevant, effective?
The scientific method that most of us learned in grade school takes a good approach. You probably remember it. Make an observation about something in the world or universe. Come up with a tentative description of your observations and call it a hypothesis, which is consistent with the things that you have observed. Many might be tempted to stop here but the scientific method urges us on. The next step is to use our hypothesis to make some predictions and then rigorously test these predictions by conducting a battery of experiments, modifying your hypothesis in the light of the results of your experiments and other observations. When you have repeated this step until there are no longer any discrepancies between your hypothesis and the observations of your experiments, you now have a theory. You can publish your results to other scientists. Some may repeat your experiments to test your theory. Others may come up with a new theory that better explains a certain phenomenon then your theory does which may cause you to re-evaluate your findings in the light of these new propositions.
While all of this might seem like a lot of work, this kind of objective approach provides an environment where all scientists, using the same method, can make collective advancement towards a better understanding of life and the cosmos. Many things about our physical world and universe remain a mystery. Yet, the various fields of modern scientific discovery are making amazing progress! With each passing month, it seems, some new discovery brings us new perspectives.
If secular science works so hard, how much more diligent should we be? In many ways, the fields of philosophy and theology are much more difficult to work in. In most cases it is not possible to use the scientific method. Many of the theories and proposals are not testable by scientific experimentation. The creation event, for example is not something that we can go back in time and observe, or in any sense repeat in the laboratory. It is a proposal that we must accept on the grounds of faith, reason, logic, deduction, acceptance of the inspiration of the Bible, a diligent study of the book of nature, and a personal relationship with the Creator.
Yet, even theologians have a methodology and ways of developing theories. It’s much better than a best guess! There are established systems to their approach. In a way it is kind of like the scientific method.
A reading of scripture can lead one to have thoughts and convictions. As a student observes certain things happening in scripture, she may develop a “hypothesis”. As one carefully examines these hypotheses in the light of all other passages of scripture on the same subject, as one discusses the idea with friends and colleagues, as the proposal is subjected to prayer and meditation, the hypothesis may develop into a teaching. After some discussion and debate with other thinkers in a larger group of believers, these teachings may go through a process of refinement and be adopted as doctrine. If the doctrine receives wide acceptance and stands the test of time it may eventually become dogma, (which, as you might guess, can be very difficult to change!)
Just as science has developed a method of research, so also has the field of theology. Probably the most important thing that a Bible student should learn is how to have an appropriate approach to scripture, how to interpret scripture in a responsible way, and how to apply the message of scripture to the real problems that people face in the 21’st century, in cultures that are very different from the original recipients of the letters of Scripture.
Here are some general guidelines:
1. Every passage of study must be considered not only within its immediate context, but within the larger context of the book in which it is found, the historical context in which it was written, the culture to whom the message was written and the prevailing theories, philosophies and thinking of the time. Many good Bible versions will attempt to help with this by way of an introduction to each book. A good commentary can also provide valuable insights.
2. If you are not able to work within the original language in which the text was written, at least work with a variety of good translations and get some reliable, objective commentaries that deal with the passages of study.
3. Allow the text to speak for itself! It is often extremely difficult to put aside the training of our culture and traditions. Students of the Bible too often approach their study looking for verification and vindication of what they already believe to be true. We come to the text with way too much baggage! We come with blinders on our eyes! We are so often so busy looking for validation of our pet theories that we often totally miss the real meaning of the passage that we are reading. (As an interesting exercise, take a couple of days, totally suspend everything that you believe to be true and read the New Testament in a reliable, modern translation, as if for the first time. Imagine yourself as a brand new Christian, a seeker of truth. Come to the text, with “nothing in your hand” Let the power of the Word wash over you. It is amazing the things that will pop out! )
4. Approach all study with a responsible understanding of the nature of inspiration. How does God communicate Himself to humanity? What kinds of things do we observe happening within the text and how should we take these things into consideration when we work with the text. What is the appropriate way to make applications to the problems we face in our society today?
5. Look for the big ideas, concepts and principles rather than focusing on specific literal applications of the text. The literal reading of many passages often have historical interest, but we need to be very careful how we apply these to our modern day society. Cultures and worldviews have changed so much since the text was written, that appropriate translations from their world to ours are virtually impossible using word translation alone. Principles and concepts often survive translation and cross-cultural jumps. Idioms, poetry, humor, cosmology, and cultural references can easily get lost and cause much confusion! Things that may have been appropriate solutions to problems and questions facing the ancient culture of a pottery-based, agrarian people-group who lived under a system of swift "desert justice", may no longer offer the best approach for us today! (For those who like their life ordered by absolutes, verbatim from scripture, this guideline may be a little difficult, but as we shall see, extremely vital!)
6. Seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit of God in your study and research. The same Spirit that inspired Scripture is ready to help you understand it in a way that will be meaningful to your personal walk with God today.
Of all of the above guidelines, one of the most important is an appropriate understanding of the nature of Inspiration and how it appears to operate in Scripture. Many of the problems that we see in modern day conflicts between religion and other disciplines of study, can be traced back to a simple misunderstanding of the nature of Inspiration and how it appears to work in the Bible.
What is your concept of the way inspiration works? Did God dictate the words of Scripture and His faithful prophets wrote them down "word by word", or did God give His messengers visions, dreams, impressions, thoughts, from which the prophets and poets framed these ideas using their own words? We shall pick up this question in our next article!