This is the fourth lesson in Mel Lawrenz’ new “How to Study the Bible” series. If you know someone or a group who would like to follow along on this journey through Scripture, they can get more info and sign up to receive these essays via email here.
Before we talk about the methods of studying the Bible, we need to consider our purposes. This is not a theoretical question. It is about checking our motives and shaping our attitudes before we enter into the spectacular and challenging task of hearing the voice of the living God.
One can approach Bible study as a search for facts. Who wrote this passage? Where was the author writing from, and to whom, and for what purpose? When was this written? What is the exact meaning of the language used?
We look at history and geography and language. We need to do this because the only way to thoroughly understand the texts of the Bible is to pay careful attention to the content and circumstances of the texts.
This is a matter of respect. When I get a letter in the mail I first of all look at the return address to see who wrote to me. I can look at the date it was posted and, by the postmark, see where it was mailed from. Then I open the letter and read the contents. If it is a handwritten letter from my mother I will read it carefully and respectfully. If it is a bill, I will read it carefully as well (but with less enthusiasm).
I do not go to the mailbox, open a letter and just start reading the words, wondering how the words will impress me, or if they will make me happy. We must not read Scripture that way either. We read it respecting the author and the context. We use the rules that apply to the use of ordinary language because God’s word comes to us in the diverse and amazing forms of poems and songs, oracles and proverbs, simile and metaphor, gospels and epistles, etc. We read Scripture naturally.
We read a passage in context because that is the way we see its meaning. In the same way that we hope people will take the words we use in speech or writing in context so that they will truly understand our meaning, we read the biblical authors in context in order to get the true meaning. This is to respect them.
And it is to respect God.
That is the other side of the equation. We read Scripture, seeking to understand the facts, but we do not need to stop there. We read Scripture with faith. Many people, of course, are not interested in a faith journey. They are only looking at the facts. Not everyone who studies the Bible believes he or she is listening for the voice of God, and that makes all the difference in the world. It is possible to study the Bible as a purely academic exercise, and obviously many people do. In their view the texts in the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek portions of the Bible are no different than any other ancient texts. (Although many have started to read the Bible with no faith, and have been startled by the light of truth that awakened them to the reality of God.)
We are assuming in this series that we are reading the Bible with faith, not apart from faith. We can and must read Scripture for facts and for faith.
Anselm of Canterbury (c.?1033-1109) said: “I believe in order that I may understand” (Credo ut intelligam). The principle is otherwise known as “faith seeking understanding,” as it was expressed by Augustine of Hippo in the fourth century.
These leading thinkers and many others have said it is when our lives are connected with our Creator, when our minds and hearts are awakened to his power and presence, when we are “believers,” that we will begin to understand the way things really are.
Knowing the Bible is not the ultimate objective. Knowing God is. Really knowing God. And knowing God via the revelation God has given of himself, not our imaginary constructs. Studying Scripture in this way is about both facts and faith.
Mel Lawrenz trains an international network of Christian leaders, ministry pioneers, and thought-leaders. He served as senior pastor of Elmbrook Church in Brookfield, Wisconsin, for ten years and now serves as Elmbrook’s minister at large. He has a Ph.D. in the history of Christian thought and is on the adjunct faculty of Trinity International University. Mel is the author of 18 books, the latest, How to Understand the Bible—A Simple Guide and Spiritual Influence: the Hidden Power Behind Leadership (Zondervan, 2012). See more of Mel’s writing at WordWay.