How to Study the Bible (Part 3)

books2Read the series so far.

I’m continuing my little series on Bible study, and I have something truly profound for you this evening. Yes, it’s true. I have something so unique, so original, so earth-shattering and so awesome that your mind may literally explode. Stop reading now, if you’re not 100% certain you’re ready . . .

I am going to tell you the true secret to Bible study. This is the most important step, but most people don’t touch it. They know about it, but they ignore it. They’d rather rely on work from other people, like pastors, theologians or Christian media personalities who generally know nothing.

What is this secret? I’ll tell you. Get ready . . .

Collect Information About the Subject You’re Studying

Yes. Amazing, isn’t it? If you want to know what the Bible really teaches about a particular topic, you collect all the information about that topic.

Say you want to learn all about what, exactly, a congregation ought to be doing. What constitutes a “church?” What building blocks need to be there for a church to actually be a church? I wrote about this briefly, in an introduction to my own study on this very topic. How do you even begin to study this?

You Start Small

The entire Bible is a bit daunting. So, start with a single author. Figure out, for example, what Luke had to say about a church. That’s much more manageable. Get a notepad, a pen, and your Bible. Start reading. Note every passage that speaks to your topic. Finish reading Luke. Rejoice.

Expand Your Scope

You finished Luke. Yay. You win a cookie.

After you finish the cookie, see what Peter had to say about a church. Then John. Then James. Then Jude. Then Paul.

At the end of the day, you have a whole mountain of data to work with. I’ll talk about how to do that in the next installment. For now, let me emphasize this – you’ll never be able to really study the Bible unless you collect and analyze the data yourself.

Don’t Assume Anything

We all have theological assumptions; a particular grid we interpret the Bible through. It’s very easy to ignore, overlook or misinterpret evidence that doesn’t fit neatly into our favored “system.”

I’m a dispensationalist. I don’t agree with a lot of the system, but I agree with the bare essentials of it. But, suppose I come across something that goes against dispensationalism. What should I do? Ignore it, because dispensationalism is always right? Or, make a note of it, because I (and the folks who taught me) could have got it wrong?

I hope you made the second choice.

Don’t be a mindless robot, blindly accepting a pre-packaged set of beliefs and interpretive grids. Most of the time, those grids are biblical, helpful and useful. But, in the finer points, there is always room for improvement and better understanding. There are different perspectives. You can be a mindless robot and ignore competing ideas, or you can keep an open mind and always be willing to let the text of Scripture correct your preconceived notions.

Do you want to believe something because you were told it’s true? Or, would you rather believe it because you looked at all the evidence yourself, and are actually convinced it’s true?

When a Biblical Author Talks About Your Topic, Pay Close Attention

Don’t build a mountain out of a passing comment or phrase that has nothing to do with the subject under discussion. In 1 John 2:2, the Apostle John mentioned that Jesus “is the expiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.”

Nice. That speaks to the extent of Christ’s atonement. Cool. Is that John’s point, in this book, though? Nope. It was a passing comment, a quick reference. Make a note of it, but give priority to passages that directly teach the subject you’re studying.

Which passage speaks about the church more directly; John 13:34-35 or 1 Peter 1:22 – 2:10? Yes, they both have insight about the topic, but which one speaks directly to the topic? That’s the one you should give more weight to.

What Does This Look Like?

Here is an example of some information I’ve gathered about the topic “what is a church.” I took all this from the Book of Acts, following the exact method I just explained to you. Here it is:

marks

This is just a sample; I have a LOT more information. But, you get the idea. This isn’t hard; but it takes time. It takes determination. It takes constructive thought.

Most people will never do this work. I’m not naïve. But, you can do this work. You have time. You need a pad of paper, your Bible, a pen, a few minutes a day, and some prayer. You can do this. It took me several weeks to gather all my data. It might take you less time, or more. It’ll be worth it.

 

 

How to Study the Bible (Part 2)

Read the series so far.

How to Begin

Studying the Bible isn’t hard. I promise. You just need to have a plan. This is how the plan begins – you pick a topic.

Genius, isn’t it!?

What Not To Do

Remember, the Bible isn’t a cookbook of individual verses. The verse numbers are made up. They aren’t there in Greek or Hebrew. Some printer in the 16th century inserted verse numbers in the text during a carriage ride. That’s not a joke. The chapters also aren’t original. Chapter and verse numbers are just a easy way for us to find and reference things in the Bible, but they sometimes stop us from seeing the context.

So, before we go any further, know this:

  • Don’t study the Bible by compiling a bunch of verses from all over the place
  • Don’t study the Bible by looking for a particular word in a concordance
  • Don’t. Do. It. Please. I. Am. Begging. You.
  • Instead, study the Bible by reading passages. More on this later.

Pick a Topic

What do you want to study? Think about it. Be specific with your question. Narrow things down a little bit. A question that is too broad (e.g. “why did Christ come?”) will probably take a while to study. If you whittle your question down a bit (e.g. “what did Christ accomplish for sinners?”), then everything becomes much easier.

Not So Fast!

I suggest you do a few things before you dive right in to gathering data.

Talk to your pastor

Ask your Pastor for his answer. Don’t just bum-rush the poor guy 30 seconds after he finishes his sermon. Schedule a time for a brief chat, and tell him what you want to talk about. Have your talk. Take some notes.

Look at your church’s doctrinal statement

This will give you a lot of food for thought. It will also give you references to didactic (i.e. teaching) passages where your church believes this is all taught. Copy the passages down. Read them. Take notes. Pray. Think. Repeat.

Look at old creeds and confessions

Look at some confessions of faith from the past, to see what other Christians from days gone by have thought about this same question. Yes, there were Christians smarter than us who lived long ago, who already pondered all of this, and already wrote down their thoughts. You can read what they thought, and learn a few things.

I’m a Baptist, so here are three Baptist confessions I’d check out, along with two others:

The 1833 New Hampshire Confession is short, punchy and very, very helpful. It’s a good place to go for a quick baseline read on what conservative Baptists have believed. This confession is the basis for the Southern Baptist Convention’s statement of faith, and the General Association of Regular Baptist Church’s articles of faith, too. It has been a bedrock confession for conservative Baptists in America for nearly two centuries. Take a look at it.

The GARBC’s Articles of Faith are, as I said before, based on the 1833 NHCF. But, it has been updated and expanded. It is clearly premillennial and dispensational. It is the confession which best aligns with my own beliefs.

The 1689 London Baptist Confession is very, very long. This is deep theology, in a lot of detail, with a lot of Scripture passage references. You definitely want to see what this document has to say.

The Belgic Confession was produced by Reformed Christians in the Netherlands. It is also long, very detailed, and full of Scripture references. It is a good reference document. The man who wrote it died as a martyr.

The Second Helvetic Confession was produced by the Swiss Reformed church in the 16th century, and was adopted by a whole host of national churches in Europe during and after the Reformation Era. This is a very thorough, very helpful document.

Remember this – you don’t have to agree with everything you read in these creeds and confessions. Nobody will ever agree on everything. But, you should read the pertinent sections where your question is addressed, and give serious thought to what they say.

Do you still need to look further?

Maybe your question has been answered. Maybe, after:

  • Talking to your Pastor for 30 minutes,
  • Reading your church’s doctrinal statement and reading the passages it cites,
  • then reading some historic creeds and/or confessions about your topic

your questions have all disappeared! After all, you should work smarter, not harder.

Example

You want to know how Adam was originally created. He wasn’t perfect, obviously! But, he also wasn’t like us. So, what was he like?

You meet with your Pastor, and even buy him a coffee because you’re such a nice person. He tells you Adam was not like us. Adam was innocent. He was made “very good.” Unlike us, he was “kind of morally neutral,” and had the free choice to obey God or reject Him. Adam didn’t have a sin nature, and wasn’t drawn or pulled by the temptation to sin like we are. In fact, this is so strange to us that we can’t even imagine what this must have been like!

You go away, energized and ready for more. Your church doctrinal statement reads:

We believe that man was created in the image and likeness of God, but that in Adam’s sin the human race fell, inherited a sinful nature, and became alienated from God; and, that man is depraved, and, of himself, utterly unable to remedy his lost condition (Gen. 1:26-27; Rom. 3:22-23; 5:12; 6:23; Eph. 2:1-3; 4:17-19).

This tells you . . . nothing. Thanks a lot.

Next, you turn to the confessions. The Belgic Confession reads, in part:

We believe that God created man from the dust of the earth and made and formed him in his image and likeness– good, just, and holy; able by his own will to conform in all things to the will of God.

But when he was in honor he did not understand it and did not recognize his excellence. But he subjected himself willingly to sin and consequently to death and the curse, lending his ear to the word of the devil.

For he transgressed the commandment of life, which he had received, and by his sin he separated himself from God, who was his true life, having corrupted his entire nature.

This is good stuff. This suggests Adam was good and holy. Unimpeded by a sin nature, Adam truly has a choice to follow God or listen to Satan and rebel against God. He deliberately decided to sin, and thus ruined himself and all of creation, too.

This is a little different from what you Pastor said, but it’s still in the same ballpark. In this confession, Adam isn’t neutral – he’s inclined to good and to righteousness.

The Second Helvetic Confession reads, in part:

In the beginning, man was made according to the image of God, in righteousness and true holiness, good and upright. But when at the instigation of the serpent and by his own fault he abandoned goodness and righteousness, he became subject to sin, death and various calamities. And what he became by the fall, that is, subject to sin, death and various calamities, so are all those who have descended from him.

This says the same thing. Adam was good and upright, and he had every advantage one could wish for. But, at Satan’s suggestion, he made his own decision to “abandon goodness and righteousness.”

What saith the 1689 London Baptist Confession? I’m glad you asked:

Although God created man upright and perfect, and gave him a righteous law, which had been unto life had he kept it, and threatened death upon the breach thereof, yet he did not long abide in this honor;  Satan using the subtlety of the serpent to subdue Eve, then by her seducing Adam, who, without any compulsion, did willfully transgress the law of their creation, and the command given to them, in eating the forbidden fruit, which God was pleased, according to His wise and holy counsel to permit, having purposed to order it to His own glory.

It says the same thing. What about more modern stuff?

The 1833 New Hampshire Confession of Faith reads:

We believe that man was created in holiness, under the law of his Maker; but by voluntary transgression fell from that holy and happy state; in consequence of which all mankind are now sinners, not by constraint, but choice; being by nature utterly void of that holiness required by the law of God, positively inclined to evil; and therefore under just condemnation to eternal ruin, without defense or excuse.

Same thing. It’s almost as though there’s a pattern here!

The GARBC Articles of Faith read:

We believe that mankind was created in innocence (in the image and likeness of God) under the law of his Maker, but by voluntary transgression Adam fell from his sinless and happy state, and all human beings sinned in him, in consequence of which all human beings are totally depraved, are partakers of Adam’s fallen nature, and are sinners by nature and by conduct, and therefore are under just condemnation without defense or excuse.

I told you this confession is derived from the 1833 NHCF. Notice it’s pretty much the same, but they dropped “holiness” for “innocence.” I think they’re trying to get the idea across that Adam wasn’t “holy” in the sense of “divine.”

I could go on, but you get the idea. Here is your data, so far:

  • Your Pastor says Adam had an innocent, holy nature, and was morally neutral
  • Your church doctrinal statement says nothing.
  • All four confessions you’ve looked at, spanning from 1564 – 2017, agree that Adam was made holy and/or innocent, but made the deliberate decision to rebel against God.
  • If Adam was holy and innocent, then temptation exerted no internal pull, tug or struggle within him. It was an external thing, and the draw for Adam wasn’t that he would gratify himself. The draw was that, by eating from the tree, he would free himself from God’s rule and be like Him. Interesting stuff. Makes you want to go back and re-read Genesis 1-3!
  • You’ve studied the Scripture references your Pastor and the confessions have given you

At this point, you need to ask yourself – do I still have questions? No worries. If you do, we go onto the next step . . . next time!

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.