I graduate from seminary in May. There is a break in the action at the moment, I turned in my thesis Wednesday, and so I finally have some time to write for pleasure. I have been reading about things like predestination, glorifying God, and common grace lately. When I was younger my friends and I had strong, nearly unshakable views on these issues, and yet reading the scholarly debates on these topics now, I realize that we had little idea of what we were talking about. Therefore, I want to write something to help those who are trying to learn the Bible, but aren’t sure how to go about it. I wrote a post with this title last June. Rereading it today, I’m actually quite happy with it, so I will repost it with a few tweaks:
Being 33 years old now, I can’t claim to know much, but I can claim to know something, more than my 20 year old self did at least. In this post I will offer some suggestions to help young people seeking to learn the Bible; how to learn it more accurately and more quickly than those of us who tried to figure it out on our own.
Briefly, let me tell you some of the reasons you should care about understanding the Bible. Firstly, if we love God we want to hear him speak, and the Bible is the primary place we hear him. In the Bible, God tells us who he is, what he is doing, who we are, etc. When we come to the Bible, we come to have our thinking rewired. All of us have a worldview, which comes from our upbringing, culture, and experiences. Understanding the Bible reshapes our assumptions about life and brings them ever closer to a true understanding of God and his creation, provided we read it rightly. From the Bible we learn discernment; we learn to tell the true from the false. This is crucial to the church’s mission as we can’t move forward if we are continually tossed about.
First principle: Humility
When pride comes learning stops. When we are sure we have it all figured out we aren’t open to correction or growth. That’s why I put this principle first. Every time we come to the Bible we have to come to be changed, not simply to have our beliefs confirmed. All of us are wrong in some areas. We all need to grow. When you’re young you think you have it all figured out, but you don’t. You can’t. You haven’t lived long enough yet. That’s ok. You’ve got time. Accept that you need to grow so that you can grow.
Besides pride in self, pride in leaders is another terrible danger. People want heroes. They also want people to tell them what to think; it’s a lot easier than discovering it for yourself. Every group of Christians has a few people they especially look up to, and that is right. The trouble comes when we base our theology solely on these peoples’ theology, and start to read the Bible using the lens of our favorite speakers. Fundamental to being Protestant is that only the Bible has doctrinal authority, not any group of Christian leaders. All teaching about the Bible is subject to the Bible. Your favorite teacher is wrong sometimes. So am I and so are you. That’s ok. But the Bible isn’t wrong and that’s why we test everything by it.
Second principle: Read the Story
One of the primary things I have learned in seminary is to view the Bible as a story with four parts – Creation, Rebellion, Redemption, and Consummation. This is crucial because it ties the whole Bible together and makes the whole Bible relevant. We know that the Bible is mostly narrative, but many Christians are more interested in doctrinal statements and aren’t really sure what to do with all these stories. When you read the Bible as a story, a story that you are in, narrative suddenly makes a lot of sense. Therefore, one of the first books you should read is one on the story. I recommend either Far as the Curse Is Found by Michael Williams or The Drama of Scripture by Craig Bartholomew.
Some people seem to assume that God meant to give us Calvin’s Institutes or Grudem’s Systematic Theology, but tripped, dropping the pages, which we have to resort. I think it’s better to read the Bible as if God meant to give us what we have.
Third principle: Biblical before Systematic Theology
In a systematic theology an author presents doctrines that are important to him and gives a few proof texts to defend his view of each. This is very convenient. If we have a question we don’t need to know the Bible to answer it. We simply look in the index of our systematic theology and read what it says about that topic. What have we skipped? We’ve skipped discernment. We take in the views of a fallible author, and haven’t built up the discernment to be able to tell whether or not his views are correct. There are over 31,000 verses in the Bible. A person can make the Bible say anything by pulling a thought here and a thought there out of context. The question we want to know is what does the Bible actually say, and that is why we learn the Bible first.
Fourth principle: Start simple
When I first wanted to learn the Bible my favorite preacher was a popular Baptist pastor who recommended that Christians read the works of Christians from the past, primarily the 16th – 18th centuries. So I did. I read philosophical works by great men about God’s immutability, omnipresence, and the interaction within the trinity from eternity. What was I skipping? In a sense I was skipping the Bible (and of course discernment). I wasn’t reading the Bible on its own terms I was reading it in the terms of Greek philosophy and the enlightenment. Take, for example, the doctrine of God’s omnipresence. There are only one or two verses in the Bible that say that God is omnipresent. I’m not doubting God is everywhere; I’m simply saying that this isn’t a focus of the Bible. When we spend all our time on minor issues we aren’t spending time on the major ones. Being a bit of a (insert negative word here) in my mid-twenties I would ask the guys in my church who read that stuff what the gospel was. I asked them because I was pretty sure they hadn’t thought about it. Now I wouldn’t do that today, but my point is that you really should study what the Bible says about the gospel before you study topics the Bible only spends a sentence or two on. Avoid putting the puzzle together before you have all the pieces.
Fifth principle: Hermeneutics is the Thing
This day and age people aren’t taught to read books like the Bible. We are taught to take in information without really analyzing it, sort of like watching television but on a page or computer screen. But you should read the Bible very differently than you read a John Grisham novel. That is why learning hermeneutics is so important. Hermeneutics is the science and art of interpretation. When I was 20, many of the guys I knew wanted to learn Greek so they could understand the Bible better, and when young guys today hear that I’m in seminary they often ask me how how hard it is to learn Greek. There is a huge benefit to learning the languages, but many times more important is to learn to understand the meaning of the words you read.
He Gave Us Stories by Richard Pratt is an extremely helpful book to learn to read the narrative passages of the Bible well. I haven’t really looked for a general hermeneutics book yet as that is what most of my classes are about. But I have scanned Prima Scriptura: An Introduction to New Testament Interpretation by N. Clayton Croy and can recommend that, especially as it is only $5.70 used on Amazon right now.
Ask God to help you understand.
Read slowly. Don’t rush through; better to really understand a little than to read a lot and not understand any of it.
Context is king. Focus on whole sections of text instead of smaller bits pulled out of context.
You learn much more by reading opposing views, provided they take the Bible seriously, than reading what you already think.
Get help. For example, if you want to learn the gospels use Craig Blomberg’s Jesus and the Gospels. God gave the church teachers for a reason.
Get a good translation. I recommend the ESV and the NIV.
Avoid taking really strong positions until you’ve been studying for a long time and have read all sides.
First objectives – First, read one the books on the Biblical story recommended above. Second, read a book on hermeneutics and practice what it tells you.