How to Study the Bible (Part 1)

big-beautiful-stack-of-books-231x300How should Christians study the Bible in a responsible way? Christians love God’s Word. It’s His special revelation to us. The 1833 New Hampshire Confession of Faith states the Bible is “a perfect treasure of heavenly instruction.”[1] Another Baptist confession states,

[T]he rule of this knowledge, faith and obedience, concerning the worship and service of God and all other Christian duties, is not the opinions, devices, laws or constitutions of men, but the written word of the everlasting God, contained in the canonical books of the Old and New Testament.[2]

The Bible is important to Christians. We want to know what it teaches, and we want to study it. The problem is that many Christian don’t study the Bible very responsibly. Consider these basic questions, each of which are common flesh-points among conservative Christians:

  1. What natural, innate capacity do men, women, boys and girls have to positively respond to the Gospel? Can you say that, because Jesus commanded people to repent and believe the Gospel (Mk 1:14-15), everybody has the natural capacity to do this?
  2. Why are some men saved, and others not? That is, what is the doctrine of election? The Apostle Peter wrote that all the foreigners scattered around Asia Minor were “elect,” (1 Pet 1:1), so can we conclude “election” is a group or corporate concept?
  3. When God sent His unique Son into the world, did He do so with the deliberate intent of saving only the elect, or all men? Can you really solve this problem by quoting Hebrews 2:9, and calling it a day? Is this a responsible way to handle the text?
  4. Does the Holy Spirit call and draw only certain people to salvation? Or, does the Spirit call everybody to a moral neutral point, so everybody can make their own independent decision to repent and believe the Gospel – and thus be held individually accountable? Jesus said, “I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself,” (Jn 12:32). Does this teach the second option? Have we solved this dilemma?
  5. Can Christians lose their salvation? Peter wrote that certain false teachers actually knew “the way of righteousness” (2 Pet 2:21), but then turned back to their idolatry. Does this settle the matter?

In each of these examples, I took a single text (or a portion of one) completely out of context and used it in a way the author never intended. This is an example of how not to study the Bible. So, how do we study the Bible in a responsible way?

Here is a list I adapted from Millard Erickson, a systematic theology professor.[3] A normal person might not have the time or courage to do everything on this list, but it is an excellent road-map to correct Biblical interpretation:

  1. Pick a Topic for Study
  2. Collect Data
  3. Harmonize the Data (i.e. What Does All the Data Say!?)
  4. What Does the Data Actually Mean?
  5. What Have Christians from the Past Thought About This Topic?
  6. What Do Christians from Different Traditions Say About This Topic?
  7. How Does This Doctrine Apply Today?
  8. Where Does This Doctrine Rank in Importance?

This list probably sounds ridiculous. You have a life. You don’t have time for this. I understand. You don’t have to sit down with this list and your Bible tomorrow morning. But, you should at least know this is the responsible way to interpret the Scriptures.

  • This process could take as little or as long as you wish, but it should be followed.
  • The more time and energy you invest in diligent study, the more informed you’ll be.
  • There are good, simple (and cheap!) tools which can help you along.
  • This isn’t as hard as it might seem.

Throughout this series, I’ll briefly explain each step of the process, and give examples of how it can be done. I’ll recommend good, simple and reliable tools which can help you along the way. Hopefully, it’ll help you in a practical way.

I’ll leave you with this thought:

  • Real Bible study isn’t quick, it isn’t easy, and it isn’t flashy. But, there is nothing better than the settled assurance and conviction you get after studying a particular topic, and actually knowing what you believe and why you believe it.

Notes

[1] 1833 NHCF, Article 1.

[2] “A True Confession” (1596), in William L. Lumpkins, Baptist Confessions of Faith, revised ed. (Valley Forge, PA: Judson, 1969), 84, Article 7. This confession is one of the earliest English-Separatist documents, and it is thoroughly Reformed (to put it mildly!).

[3] Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1998), 62-84. I’ve changed some of his titles, and added a few items to the list.

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