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Entries in Bible Study (114)


Bring your hammer to the argument

I love it when things I have heard from a lecture pop up again in my reading. In March, at my school's Ministry Leadership Day, our president encouraged preachers and teachers to make their teaching an act of worship by ensuring that our content is the text, not what we bring to it. As I was reading Andy Naselli's How to Understand and Apply the New Testament, that sentiment was echoed:

The main question we should be asking when approaching a text is not "What can I say about this text" or even "What does this text mean for me?" but instead "What does this text say?" And the single best way I know of to answer that question -- especially for New Testament letters -- is to trace the argument.

That task of following the argument is something I have been working to do for the past few years. While I got my feet wet with Precept Ministries' Bible studies, its emphasis on marking individual words, while initially helpful, ultimately did not help me follow the argument of a text. Learning how to do phrasing (Bill Mounce teaches this on his website) was more helpful. In the chapter I am reading, Naselli goes into detail on this topic.

Naselli quotes a letter from C.S. Lewis to a friend shortly after his conversion:

I should rather like to attend your Greek class, for it is a perpetual puzzle to me how New Testament Greek got the reputation of being easy. St. Luke I find particularly difficult. As regards matter -- leaving the question of language -- you will be glad to hear that I am at last beginning to get some small understanding of St. Paul: hitherto an author quite opaque to me. I am speaking now, of course, of the general drift of whole epistles: short passages, treated devotionally, are of course another matter. And yet the distinction is not, for me quite a happy one. Devotion is best raised when we intend something else. At least that is my experience. Sit down to meditate devotionally on a single verse, and nothing happens. Hammer your way through a continued argument, just as you would in a profane writer, and the heart will sometimes sing unbidden.

As an aside, don't you love the way he describes Paul as being "opaque" to him? 

I have found my heart also singing "unbidden" when I have been wrestling with a difficult passage. The malaise of most readers today is that we rush through things. Sometimes, in our efforts to get through a book quickly (so we can contribute to that big number of what we've read by the end of the year) we may miss things. That has carried over to our Bible reading. At least it has for me, and I'm not unique in any way. But to wrestle through an argument in Scripture means we have to slow down. 


Non nobis domine

One of my favourite movies is Kenneth Branagh's Henry V. There is a scene after the battle of Agincourt where the battered and bruised sing in Latin the first verse of Psalm 115: Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to your name give glory. In Latin, it is: Non nobis, Domine, non nobis; sed nomine tuo da gloriam. That moment is one of the best scenes from that movie.

Psalm 115 is a favourite of mine. If you're praying through the Psalms, that opening verse is always a good thing to pray. The verses following talk about the danger of idols. The nations ask, "Where is your God?" The Psalmist goes on to describe the idols of the nations. They are material objects; silver and gold. They have mouths, but don't speak, eyes, but can't see; ears, but can't hear; noses, but can't smell. They are basically useless.

We all have our own idols. We know the typical ones: money, beauty, power. We can turn just about anything into an idol. And many of us find out to our detriment that they are useless things in the end. One of the most persistent idols even among Christians is the idol of recognition. We can excuse our efforts of erecting that idol by saying that we just want to minister to people; we just want to share the gospel; we just want to be a good example to other Christians. We're not seeking recognition; we're just serving God, right? Perhaps. There is a difference between those who are recognized for their service, and for those whose service is a means to get recognized. And the latter are easy to spot. 

If I'm irritated when I don't get recognized, or if I have to remind everyone that I'm the one who did this or that, I may be getting close to wanting the glory for myself. If I'm not willing to be regularly unrecognized, what is my true motive? If someone doesn't tell me "That was a good lesson," or "That was a good point," will I become disgruntled? If no one responds to my Tweets, will I simply start saying more and more to increase my chances of being recognized? How does that attitude affect the service I do for God? What is the motive for my service?

It's part of our nature to desire the recognition that is only due to God. For some, it's more of a weakness. But we all could use a little more of an attitude of Psalm 115:1.


The baggage we bring

I had three brothers, many male cousins, and I had a father who was good to me. I have a husband who is very good to me, respects me, and is not combative or abusive. When I sit in a sermon which talks about Ephesians 5, I don't feel a sense of anxiety or concern. However, there are women whose experience makes their reaction the opposite.

I was bullied by a pack of angry girls in the 8th grade. In my years as a young mother, I was involved with a very toxic friendship with a female friend. I have also had a few really unpleasant experiences with women I have met online. When I am told I "need" my female friends, I squirm. The prospect of a large gathering of women (especially a conference where I may have to spend a few days among them) puts me on guard. Now, if I'm going to stand up and teach women, I'm okay. But to sit among them, open up to them, and "share" sets my heart racing. 

When we come to Christ, we bring our personalities, experiences, and in some instances, baggage, with us. How I react to one thing is not the same as another woman might. I was scanning Twitter last night before bed, and I saw a string of people gushing over a book that I thought was marginal at best. We all react to things differently. 

As someone who has been teaching the Bible to others for over 20 years, it is my goal to become better at bringing out the implications of a text and helping the student to appropriate it into her life. Right now, I'm teaching teens, and that can be a challenge. It can be tempting, because they are teens, to reduce everything to a "do or don't" scenario. 

I've just finished Andreas Köstenberger and Alan Fuhr's book Inductive Bible Study. It is a great book. Though it's not directed with as much effort to women as other Bible study books, it should be read by women (Interestingly, the authors use the pronouns "he" and "she" interchangeably throughout the book). It may not be easy, nor does it have that chummy feel of typical "women's books," but it's filled with insights which will really make an impact. It's worth the effort to read.

In my quest for developing application skills, I love what the authors say. In their next to last chapter, they discuss three phases of application: personal assessment, reflective meditation, and appropriation. Application is intensely personal, and because of that, I'm trying to be more cautious about using my personal experience as a jumpstart to application. As I said, what we bring to our faith -- and, by implication to our reading of Scripture -- is filtered through our experience.

Köstenerger and Fuhr have some very wise words that really made an impact on my thinking:

As the reader submits to the text, she also submits to God. Much of application can be described as an obligation to holiness -- behavior and activities that honor God in the daily routine of life. Yet the term "appropriation" implies a greater work, the act of transformation and the development of Christian character. In this we ought to think of application in broader terms than simply doing what the Bible tells us to do. The study of Scripture results in a holistic transformation of our minds into conformity with Christ. (emphasis mine)

There are some times when simply doing what Scripture says is unavoidable. Flee sin. There is nothing wrong with that application. But as the authors remind, the goal of appropriating Scripture to ourselves is our transformation. We are already one with Christ, but we are in the process of becoming more transformed by the renewing of our minds (Rom 12:2). Scripture study, as we appropriate the word and are taught by the Holy Spirit, is part of that process. It certainly includes actions to do and actions to avoid, but it is all anchored in how the word transforms us. While some personal experiences will be meaningful to some, others will fall flat. I'm beginning to see more and more that as a teacher, my goal is to emphasize this need to be transformed.

The results won't be immediate. Sometimes, we grow slowly. That is another truth I have picked up from this book: Scripture study is a long process. It's work. And it takes a lifetime. If we understand that going into it, I think we will benefit a great deal.


When "scholar" isn't necessarily a compliment

On two occasions this past weekend, I read comments by women who resist the use of commentaries in Bible study. Both women suggested to me that simply studying the Bible for themselves, in context, without relying on commentaries meant that they were relying on the Spirit of God to teach them, not the voices of other people. One of the people, a friend, said to me that she is not the "scholar" that I am, and simply gets more out of Bible study if she just listens to the Spirit.

The last comment reveals two attitudes: first, there is a division between the Christian who is seen as a "scholar" and one who is not; and second, the Spirit is prevented from working through scholarly pursuits. I reject both of those premises, and it frustrates me that such attitudes remain common, and not just among women.

That my friend says I am a scholar is amusing. I've finished half of my MTS; I'm hardly a scholar. And even if I were, that doesn't automatically mean I am out of reach of the Spirit. Listening to the Spirit and intellectual pursuit are not mutually exclusive. I certainly don't think every woman needs to study as much as I do, and yes, there is a danger that Bible study can become mere academic exercise. However, that I love to study does not mean I am in a different class than another Christian who is "doing it on her own." There is an attitude of individualism rearing its head when one takes pride of doing it "on her own."

The idea that commentaries interfere with the Spirit suggests that in order to really engage with the Spirit, one must disengage from her intellect. Yes, the Spirit is our teacher, and yes, he does work mightily through our study of Scripture, but by consulting a commentary, I am not out of the Spirit's reach. A commentary will help me unravel the meaning, and as I understand more of what Scripture means, the Spirit teaches me. The Spirit is not divided up into little compartments within me, out of reach of my intellect. The Spirit affects my whole person, and walking in the Spirit does not necessitate rejecting the expertise of commentators.

As long as many women hold such views, they will prefer books which emphasize experience and emotions. It will be seen as more "spiritual" to study a book which is not too intellectual. I think this is why there are so many such books marketed to women: they're buying them. I'm re-reading Gone With the Wind right now, and one passage comments about how Scarlett O'Hara's mother only pretended to be interested in politics to please her husband, because real women aren't interested in such things. Are "real" Christian women seen as those who disengage from their intellects?

A friend on Facebook shared with me this quotation from Spurgeon. Spurgeon is talking to preachers in this passage, but the principles are applicable to study in general: 

It seems odd, that certain men who talk so much of what the Holy Spirit reveals to themselves, should think so little of what he has revealed to others. My chat this afternoon is not for these great originals, but for you who are content to learn of holy men, taught of God, and mighty in the Scriptures. It has been the fashion of late years to speak against the use of commentaries. If there were any fear that the expositions of Matthew Henry, Gill, Scott, and others, would be exalted into Christian Targums, we would join the chorus of objectors, but the existence or approach of such a danger we do not suspect. The temptations of our times lie rather in empty pretensions to novelty of sentiment, than in a slavish following of accepted guides. A respectable acquaintance with the opinions of the giants of the past, might have saved many an erratic thinker from wild interpretations and outrageous inferences."

--Spurgeon, "Lecture 1," Commenting and Commentaries


How do I become a better Bible teacher?

The short answer to that question is easy: be a student yourself.

Watch/Listen to Good Teachers

I returned to teaching teens this past fall. The first week I taught, I found myself frustrated because I was reminded that teenagers don't react the same way to being taught in the same way that women who are there because they do want to be taught. I had to sit back and think about how I could generate more interest and discussion.

Over the next little while, I watched my theology professor as he led the class and specifically, how he answered questions from us. There was always a true interest in giving the best answer. If you need inspiration, watch others who teach. Listen to sermons online. Listen to podcasts. There are many ways to sit under experienced teachers without attending seminary. Listen to how the teacher opens up the Scriptures; listen carefully. In the winter of 2016, I took hermeneutics, and Dr. Barker, the prof, basically gave a little sermon about a text every class. I learned a lot from just watching him.

Read Good Books

Look for Bible study books. Read more than one, and don't be afraid to read one that takes you deeper than you may want to go. I have written previously about books I would recommend for Bible study, but I would add another which I have just begun: Inductive Bible Study, by Andreas Köstenberger and Richard Alan Fuhr Jr. It goes into much more detail, especially about the process of observation, interpretation, and application. Most of us are very quick to move to interpretation without spending enough time in observation, and observation really should take the longest amount of time in a study. 

Be Humble

Intellectual humility is something I have really come to appreciate this past semester. Dr. Fowler, my theology professor, is 70 years old. Aside from the fact that he has spent a lot more time in school than I have, he has also been a Christian longer than I have and has served longer than I have. Despite his superior credentials, he is a very humble man. Students want to learn when they realize that their teacher is also a pilgrim on the journey. There is no room for arrogance when teaching. Teaching the Bible is an act of service, not an opportunity to draw attention to ourselves. We must remember that at one time, we knew much less than we do now, and that there is still more which we don't know yet.

Teaching is work. Learning the Bible well is work. It may mean that we give up time doing somethiing we enjoy. It may mean shutting ourselves up in study areas and hunkering down. The Bible is an amazing book. It is God's Word. We cannot impart knowledge to others with any degree of success unless we become students ourselves. We cannot teach what we have not learned ourselves.