Reading the Bible to Discern Its Meaning (Bible Study)
On the Carroll Blog, we are currently in the middle of a five-week conversation about reading the Bible. Last week, we talked about reading the Bible for content acquisition. This week, we are focusing our attention on dedicated study of the Bible.
Sometimes, we read the Bible for doctrinal insight. We may be wondering what a specific passage of Scripture means, or we may be wondering what the Bible says about a particular topic. Either way, we are doing what can be properly labeled “Bible study.”
Disciplined Bible study plays an essential role in our growth as Christians. Jesus himself called us to love God with our minds (Mark 12:30). One way that we can do that is by taking seriously our responsibility to understand the content of Scripture and its implications for how we think and talk about God (i.e., for how we do theology).
People study the Bible in a lot of different ways. A lot of people begin their engagement with the Bible when they have a question for which they want an answer or a problem for which they need a solution. They might use a resource like a concordance or the Thompson® Chain-Reference Bible to help them find all of the places where the Scriptures talk about their issue. Hopefully, as we grow in our relationship with Christ and in our understanding of his teachings, we become curious about what the Bible’s writers thought was important. We begin asking ourselves, “What questions did the prophets and apostles wrestle with, and why are their questions different from my own?”
This transformation in our reasons for studying the Bible necessarily brings about a transformation in the way we study the Bible. We begin to look at the documents of the Bible as literary units designed to tell a story and/or make an argument. We begin to recognize that each book of the Bible must be understood within its own particular literary, cultural, and historical context. No longer are we cherry-picking verses about our favorite topics. Instead, we engage whole units of text, outlining them and looking for connections with other texts (both within and outside of the canon).
Undoubtedly, this process will lead us to a whole new world of biblical riches. It will draw us off of the well-worn paths of easy Bible reading and into the deeper waters of the Bible’s more challenging texts. And, when that happens, we will begin to ask ourselves, “Am I the only one who has found this text confusing? What do other people in my denomination think of it, and how do Christians who are outside of my tradition interpret it?” These questions draw us into critical dialogue with the interpretive traditions within which we are all embedded, and we lend our own voice to the conversation that stretches over the entire history of the church—and beyond.
This kind of serious Bible study requires the disciplined use of tools designed for that purpose. How to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth is a really good resource for those who want to study the Bible effectively. It will help the reader understand how Bible study should be done, what kinds of things that one needs to know in order to do good Bible study, the kinds of tools that are available to help one study the Bible, and how these tools should be used to enhance Bible study. Every Christion should also have a good Bible atlas (I recommend Thomas V. Brisco’s Holman Bible Atlas, but there are other good ones out there) and a good Bible dictionary.
Commentaries can be great resources, but they often contain much more information than the average Christian wants or needs. Furthermore, there are a lot of poorly written and/or poorly researched commentaries out there (this is especially true of the one or two volume commentaries). However, the Interpretation commentary series and the NIV Application Commentary series are both well-done commentaries that are accessible enough to benefit most readers.
There is one other point that I want to make about how we study the Bible, and I have already alluded to it above. When we are doing Bible study well, we do not just study it as individuals. Indeed, our most productive Bible study often takes place when we read the Bible together. Whether it be in a Sunday school class, a sermon-based small group, a Bible Study Fellowship class, or even a sermon, we learn a lot about what the Bible really means when we gather together as God’s people and allow those whom God has gifted with special knowledge and skill to speak into our lives.
When we properly study the Bible, we gain a better understanding of what it teaches about God, about ourselves, about the world, and about God’s redemptive plan. These insights may seem brainy and boring to some, but they stand at the very heart of the Christian gospel. As such, they must be the foundation upon which all of our beliefs are based and the chief criteria by which any course of action is evaluated.
- Why do you study the Bible? What do you hope to accomplish when you read the Bible for theological or moral insight?
- Should every Christian study the Bible, or is this a method of Bible reading that should be reserved for those in positions of spiritual leadership?
- What resources have you found to be most helpful in your own Bible study?