Beginning Bible Study
The Role of Scripture
The Bible is an important, even foundational, document of the Christian faith, informing the entire life of the Church. It is in Scripture that we have the testimony to God’s revelation across 2,000 years of history. Scripture tells us about God, about ourselves as human beings, and about how we as human beings created by God relate to God and each other in the world. In this sense, the Bible provides the basis for much of what the Church thinks and does, what Christians say about God, and how we live in the world as People of God.
Most Protestants believe that this position is that of historic Christianity and that which God reveals in the Bible itself. The Protestant tradition historically, as well as the Catholic tradition since the middle 20th century, has been committed to the study of Scripture in order to help understand who we are and how we are to live in the world as Christians. The academic disciplines of biblical studies have been so highly specialized that no one person can master them all. However, the complexity of academic biblical study does not eliminate the Bible as a source of both spiritual maturity and intellectual discernment any more than the complexity of modern medicine and anatomy prevents us from practicing good health and hygiene through some understanding of our physical bodies. Na´ve Biblicism will serve neither the church nor the Lord of the church in the third millennium, especially as the church becomes an increasingly global community of Faith.
Proper and effective use of the Bible involves both understanding the Scriptures themselves in their own contexts as well as understanding the message of Scripture well enough to bring it to bear on the life of the church, even to translate it into different cultural contexts. That requires knowledge about the Bible as well as knowledge and understanding of its contents. That, in turn, requires learning the tools of biblical study. The pilot must know flying; the physician, medicines and surgery; the attorney, codes and cases; the mechanic, tools and machinery. Likewise the minister must know Scripture, as well as the variety of tools available to aid in the task of interpretation and understanding. And laypersons in the church need to have some understanding of Scripture and its interpretation rather than depend on others to tell them what to believe, what to think about God, and how to act in the world as Christians. Informed by both the content and methods of study of Scripture, and enabled by the leadership of the Holy Spirit, any Christian can be an ambassador for God, proclaiming the hope of reconciliation with God for the entire fallen human race in both words and actions.
In much of evangelical Christianity the study of Scripture is limited to Sunday School and the occasional group setting, as well as hearing sermons. While there are certainly exceptions, these formats do not usually engage the biblical text on the level of in-depth study of the text. More often they tend to be devotional readings of Scripture aimed at spiritual formation or personal piety (see Devotional and Exegetical Reading of Scripture). Those are worthy and valid goals. But on another level they are not the same as engagement with the biblical text on a theological level that aims to interpret the text in terms of its own context and message.
Most college or seminary courses in Bible go far beyond what is encountered in Sunday School and move to the academic or disciplined study of Scripture to hear what it communicates theologically. This is sometimes called "critical" study of the Bible, where "critical" means "careful and judicious evaluation." Most such courses will expose students to perspectives on Scripture that they may not have encountered before. That is quite simply because the critical study of Scripture calls for an engagement with the biblical text and its contents that goes beyond merely reading the text, as valuable as that might be in some contexts. It asks students to learn to read the biblical text in terms of the historical and cultural context out of which it arose, to listen to the Bible in terms of literary forms and other human means of communication, and to try to hear what the biblical writers and communities who preserved the texts were trying to communicate to future generations, to us, about God, about human beings, and about human relationship with God.
Tools and Faith
The study tools used to do that may sometimes use methods and assumptions that seem contrary to dearly held views about Scripture. For example, more academic study may read the Bible in terms of literary conventions and techniques that look for things like metaphor, irony, or hyperbole, or make a distinction between different literary styles such as psalms of lament, Greco-Roman letters, and historical narrative. This may seem irreverent to some who are used to hearing the Bible solely in terms of propositions (statements of absolute Truth) about what to believe or who see the Bible as a book of doctrines or rules. However, students of Scripture who are encountering new ways of viewing the biblical texts need to keep in mind that none of these approaches are hostile to or denigrating of the value and authority of the Bible as Scripture. On the contrary, they are simply tools to use to allow us better to hear and understand the transforming message of Scripture.
The purpose of courses in Bible or the teaching methods used in those courses at Christian liberal arts universities or at seminaries is not to undermine much less attack personal faith. The commitment of most professors in those courses is to the Bible as the living word of God for the Church, and for the vast majority that premise will never in any way be challenged.
Still, declaring the Bible to be the living word of God for the Church is not the same thing as understanding the content of Scripture beyond what can be said about it. Too often people are content to claim things about the Bible, or even to argue about it, rather than investing in the effort to hear what it actually says and allow God to use that testimony in Scripture to transform their lives. Faithful Christian living and ministry in the church, whether by a professional minister or a layperson with a vital Christian faith, requires understanding the methods, the tools, of biblical study that faithful Christians have developed over centuries of study to gain insight into the text, to allow it to become that "living and active word of God" as we comprehend its great truths. It is no less than pride and self-righteousness that leads one to believe that such a wealth of accumulated resources of the community of Faith can be discarded for personal opinions alone.
So, most beginning courses in Bible ask that students begin to learn and understand those ways of reading and understanding Scripture, even if some may at first seem incompatible with faith that some students have experienced to this point. Absolutely no one will be asked to abandon their faith on any level. Instead, they will be asked to approach the study of Scripture with the humility of the student’s prayer, one that we all pray as students of Scripture: "Lord, as I study, help me understand."
Spiritual Growth and Lifetime Learning
Students need to consider a special caution in terms of spiritual growth. Since some of the issues and methods to be considered involve our personal perspectives on Scripture that may have been long held and dearly cherished, or that we have adopted from significant people in our own journey of faith, there is no expectation that they will all be embraced unquestioningly in the span of a single course or semester. And they should not be!
Some of these issues require serious reflection and integration with other perspectives as other courses and other experiences are encountered in the process of education and living. Some will require the actual practice of the methods and examination of the assumptions that lie behind them in the context of ongoing biblical study. Some will need to be verified in the crucible of experience in the actual practice of ongoing biblical study in the life of the church. Some will need to be worked out in personal living as God opens our hearts and minds to understand new truths about him and ourselves. All of that cannot possibly happen within the span of a single course. There will need to be time to process all the information and reflect on its implications, as the Holy Spirit answers our prayer for understanding.
So, professors do not ask that students "believe in" any of the ways of reading Scripture that are presented in classes. However, they usually ask that students strive to understand the issues raised and the methods presented. Then students should give themselves permission to reflect on the issues within the context of other courses in programs of study and in the practice of biblical study in the coming months and years, all within the framework of the prayer "Lord, as I study, help me understand." Some methods may prove helpful. Some may not. But all should be considered as valid tools in the work of the Kingdom whether any one happens to make use of any particular method or not.