I love reading the Bible. I love studying the Bible. I love teaching the Bible.
I will admit I am not the best at teaching it. There are others that surpass me, surpass me significantly. Yet, after a sense of God’s call in my life in 2001 to teach the Bible, going to seminary, and now teaching the Bible for fifteen years both as a pastor and in higher education, I know it is one of my deep loves.
In these fifteen years of studying and teaching the Bible, I have encountered some interesting perspectives on studying the Bible – “prodigal thoughts,” if you will. I have embraced some of these myself, but over time I have learned there are better ways in approaching the study of Scripture.
In all, I would highlight two easy mistakes we make in studying the Bible.
1) Our preference for systematic theology.
What is systematic theology?
This is where we create a system of understanding on a particular issue (or doctrine) based upon what we find across the full scope of Scripture. We might also call it the topical approach – studying Scripture according to topics.
This is where we get all of our “-ologies.”
Christology (doctrine of Christ)
Pneumatology (doctrine of the Spirit)
Eccelsiology (doctrine of the church)
Eschatology (doctrine of last things)
Hamartiology (doctrine of sin)
Soteriology (doctrine of salvation)
And so forth.
What we usually do is take all (or most) verses across all sixty-six books of the Bible (the Protestant Bible), put them in a pot, stir them together, and then say, “This is what the Bible says on this topic.”
Now, of course, this doesn’t sound bad. And let me note it isn’t inherently bad. Nor do I think we can avoid systematic theology altogether. But here’s the challenge I see in this practice.
In systematics, the temptation is that, when we come across a passage that doesn’t neatly fit within the system that is being formed, we force it to “submit” to the system we’re already committed to building. This happens as we think through Calvinism and Arminianism (and Open Theism), continuationism and cessationism, theories of atonement, millennial views, and the like.
While we may champion certain hermeneutical principles that make it sound as if we really want to understand the text as it was given, it’s clear we prefer systems that stamp out these unruly passages. At times, we’d rather find an easy way to rope them in than engage in a faithful study of Scripture within the narrative setting of Scripture.
As we systematize our theology, we can also easily fall into the trap of over-harmonizing Scripture. Now, in our study of Scripture, it’s not that we want to try and pit two passages against one another. Though let me say we need to allow the tension to exist between certain verses. Rather, perhaps we should allow one gospel writer to say something different than another. It’s possible we need to give space for both Paul and Luke to offer differing teachings on the work of the Holy Spirit, rather than always forcing Luke into Paul’s theology. It could be that we should guard against conflating gehenna (in the gospels) and the lake of fire (in Revelation).
We prefer systematic theology, but I am quite certain the Bible was not given to us as a systematic textbook. Such a focus can keep us from the faithful study of the Scriptures we have been given by the Spirit through the church.
2) Our preference for applying each and every verse to ourselves.
Here is our usual practice: each and every Christian cracks open their Bible, reads it, and then generally asks, “What does this mean for me?”
It seems the right question to ask.
But what if the passage you’re reading has nothing to do with you or I?
Yet, we have been trained to believe every single verse on every single page of the Bible was written to us and for us. But that’s just not true.
This happens with well-known verses like Jeremiah 29:11. Yet, Jeremiah wasn’t thinking about you and I (or any individual, for that matter). He was thinking about an entire people that were heading into oppressive captivity in Babylon. Read the full chapter. You can get the feel just from vs1:
This is the text of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the surviving elders among the exiles and to the priests, the prophets and all the other people Nebuchadnezzar had carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon.
Another example comes about when we turn to passages like 2 Corinthians 4-5. This is for all Christians, right? Well, the actual detail of the letter itself shouldn’t lead us to believe so. Right from the beginning, Paul has been talking about himself and Timothy, if not also others that were working in his team (see 2 Cor 1:1). Perhaps his words about being ministers of reconciliation (5:11-21) are references to what he, Timothy and team were involved in. It may be that this isn’t everyone’s job, rather it’s given for specific people?
This is why I have the audacity to argue that perhaps Matthew 28:18-20 is not applicable to all Christians. Perhaps all of us are not disciple makers.
Because of our Western Enlightenment heritage, which includes a very strong individualistic worldview, we regularly run to the Scripture asking questions that were not meant to be asked. The ancients were not asking, How can I be just like Noah or Abraham or Paul? The community of God’s people was being instructed together. They weren’t all wondering how they could have a Noah-like, Abraham-like or Paul-like experience. They knew better than that.
Now, I am very much aware of the need to teach Scripture from a practical-pastoral point of view. The spiritual practices of the historic church show us that Christians are to look for God to personally speak to, direct and instruct them as we read and study the Bible. I cover this myself in some courses I teach. So let me say that this is important.
However, let me note our preference. It is to apply each and every verse to everyone. It’s done almost regardless of the context in which a passage is found. Proper hermeneutics ends up mattering very little. Just give me my manna for today. That’s our ultimatum.
You can see how our western individualism may keep us from properly engaging Scripture.
There are perhaps others I could have covered in this post, and perhaps I shall do so in the near future. But for now, suffice it to say that these are two faults I believe we readily engage in when reading and studying Scripture. Perhaps our systems should take a back seat and it may be that we’re jumping the gun a little too quickly as we look to apply each and every Scripture to our own personal life.
As usual – thanks for writing up your thoughts on these great questions. I sympathise strongly with where you are going.
To systematise of not to systematise?? That is the question!! There seems to be good reasons for answering both yes and no.
I think we need to always be on the lookout for mystery and antinomy (Google Def: a contradiction between two beliefs or conclusions that are, in themselves, simultaneously reasonable) wherever we look across the theological landscape.
Yet we also need to define propositional truth to act as yardsticks to measure, judge and evaluate what we find in the cultural marketplace of ideas. And to teach our people who are still learning the basics. And also to help us see if our own path might be taking a wrong turn. Trying to fit all our propositional truths into the same systematic box is a noble endeavour – but – as you say – when we have to seriously bend some of them to fit – thenwe have to ask whether we have resolved a paradox that was better left as it stood.
Yet, I feel that I should pursue a study of (to use your example) – Calvinism, Arminianism, Open Theism, Molinism, etc – but to the end of finding wisdom, rather than doctrinal accuracy – if such a distinction is valid?
Jonathan, I like the yes and no answer. I swung the pendulum one way because I know our preferences, which has caused great problems in our theological formation. So systematic theology isn’t inherently wrong, nor can it be avoided fully. But it does tend to over-rule a proper study of the Scripture in its own narrative-historical setting. And I believe our systematic preference connects with the second issue I brought up – believing every verse speaks to each one of us individually.
Great thoughts, and I so fully agree with both.
I think #2 occurs because of the way we think of the Bible, as a book written to US, for US to read and glean God’s truth for us. But Jesus never promised us a BOOK to read and find all truth. We have forsaken the REAL teacher for the textbook. Instead of coming to the scriptures, reading a passage and EXPECTING (demanding?) to be taught from it, we should wait for the Spirit to guide US (using the many myriad of ways that scripture can be directed into our life) to a particular passage and THEN we will discover the Spirit teaching us how this passage fits with the truth that HE (she?) wishes to reveal to us. And that truth may only be for us for that time in our life. Because only the Spirit knows what we need and when we need it, being the perfect counselor. I think that is the proper way for scripture to reveal truth.
That, said, there is no harm in “recreational” Bible reading, but being taught from that would likely be the exception rather than the rule.
Ken, I’m a proponent for Scripture. I think the Jewish story shows the importance of it, of which Jesus was part of that story. I think we can and have gone overboard with our expectations regarding Scripture, applying extreme adjectives to the text (i.e., inerrancy). But I’m ok saying God, by the Spirit, gave us Scripture. And I believe Scripture should be read with the historic church, while also remaining humble enough to adjust in history as we are able to discern together (not individually, but together).
What we need is the discernment of the Holy Spirit.