Effective Bible Study
I have met so many individuals over the years who choose not to read or study their Bible because they are frustrated from prior efforts and have become intimidated. In some cases they have been told to let some authority figure study it for them, and then let that authority figure tell them what it says, resulting in a "prescribed" belief system.
I want to encourage you and inspire you to believe that you can read and understand your Bible. I hope to help you fall in love with this fascinating collection of writings to the point that you crave it and cannot get enough of it.
Be gracious with yourself as you embark on this adventure. Give yourself a lot of slack! Do not expect to master this overnight. It will take time, effort, perseverance, but if you stay the course, you will get there.
We will begin with four basic assumptions. These are my assumptions, and not necessarily yours. I present them here only so you can know my starting point for what follows.
Assumption 1: The Bible is the inspired Word of God.
I am not looking to debate this concept, or to convince you of it. Neither am I looking to explore the meaning of the term, "inspired." If you are at a point where you cannot accept this assumption, please do not think that disqualifies you to read or study the Bible. But it is important to understand that this is the vantage-point from which I come.
Assumption 2: The Bible is comprised of different genres, or types of literature.
To accurately grasp the writings contained in the Bible, we must first understand that it is not a single work. It is, rather, a collection of writings by multiple individuals spanning several thousand years. We must also accept that there is a meaningful difference between a Psalm and an Epistle, and an Epistle and a historical account. We want to be looking at the Psalms as poems, the Epistles as letters and historical works as records of events over time.
Assumption 3: The Bible is something to be obeyed, not just read and studied.
In stating this assumption, I do not mean to represent the Bible as a rule book banging us over the head. What I mean is that we want to learn to read and study our Bible, and then we want to learn how to apply what we are reading and learning. You know you have truly learned a thing, when you begin to live it out in your daily routine.
Assumption 4: The Bible was not written to us.
I will grant that even though the Word of God was given in a concrete historical context, it is unique literature in that it is the Living Word of God, and therefore relevant throughout all history. But it was not written to us. It was written to "them!" Once we figure out what it meant to them, we can work on what it means for us.
It is important to grasp the principle that a passage of scripture can never mean what it never meant. This is precisely why we wrestle with questions of application. There is a pervasive tendency to skip this vital step in Bible study. We have to wrestle with how to mentally and appropriately move the text from there and then, to here and now. Reading the Bible only to determine meaning for me can lead to all manner of weird conclusions because it lacks controls. The key for us is learning to ask the right questions of the text.
I have hundreds of books in my library. I love books - probably too much. As much as I love books, I am going to say you need only three to get started on your journey to rewarding Bible study.
Tool 1: A Bible you can read
I do not want to get into a full-blown discussion of comparing versions of the Bible here. I can do that elsewhere if it is desired, but with this article, it does not fit our purpose. There are very strong opinions on which translation is the best, and there is a world of ignorance injecting itself into many of those discussions. What I am suggesting here is that you get a standard translation of the Bible that uses contemporary language, and avoid the frustration of trying to read through the archaic language of the King James translation.
Given the trend today to take great liberties with the original texts, I further suggest that you avoid paraphrased works. If you do not know the difference between a paraphrase and a translation, please ask a knowledgeable staff person at your Christian book store.
You would be well-advised to stick with one of the tried and true standards. If you are inclined toward the King James Version, I recommend going with the New King James Version which has updated much of the archaic language, making it far more readable than the older releases of that translation. If you prefer to go with other contemporary translations, you can confidently select the New American Standard Version, the New International Version (I much prefer the pre-1984 edition where "gender neutrality" is injected into the text), the Revised Standard Version or the English Standard Version which is becoming increasingly popular in recent years. You may also find it valuable to have multiple translations laid side-by-side for comparison.
If you have a Bible translation you are happy with, great! If not, and you are going to go buy one, plan to spend some time looking and comparing. Do not rush this step. You want to put time, effort, and money into buying a Bible you will study from for the next 30 to 50 years. My Bible, purchased in 1984, has fallen to pieces and already been rebound once. I plan to use it for another 30 years.
Tool 2: A book of good Bible maps
It is easy to sidestep this tool, believing it to be unnecessary. Let me encourage you not to do so. For reasons we will discuss later, it is important to have good, easy to read maps of the biblical world. You will want maps that are tied to both the Old Testament and the New Testament. Having good maps will make your study come alive!
Tool 3: A book on the history of biblical locations. I do not have a strong recommendation here, since there are so many good options. Just plan to spend some money on this, and avoid the $10.95 paperback. A good history of biblical archeology and geography will be several inches thick.
A Final Word on Tools: I recognize that I have just spent a lot of your money with the tools recommendations above. Weigh that against the eternal importance of what you are trying to do. This is an investment, not an expenditure. This is also why I am urging you not to skimp on this, and to invest time in making your selections. I do not want you to spend your hard-earned finances on something that will not accomplish what you need and want, thus leaving you disappointed and minus some cash.
Have you ever heard someone say, or perhaps said yourself, "You don't have to interpret the Bible. You just have to read it and do what it says." This objection usually stems from the idea that interpreting seems to take the Bible out of the hands of non-scholars. In some cases, this may be a valid protest. I would agree that the single most serious problem most of us have with the Bible is not with a lack of understanding but a lack of obedience to what we already understand. Look at Philippians 2:14, "Do all things without grumbling or complaining." Is there any one of us who does not understand what that is saying? Sometimes we dig so hard that we cover up the plain meaning of the text.
There are two key factors involved in interpretation:
- The reader.
- The text.
You, as a reader, will interpret what you are reading whether or not you wish to do so. We want to make sure you are interpreting appropriately. The aim of good interpretation is not uniqueness. You are not trying to discover what no one else has ever seen in the text. This is often no more than an issue of pride, an attempt to "out-clever" others with a unique insight into the text. Unique interpretations are often (if not usually) misguided interpretations. However, know that a very common understanding of a passage of scripture can seem absolutely unique to someone hearing it for the first time.
So, if we are not looking for unique insights, what is the goal of interpretation? Our number one objective is to get at the plain meaning of the text, and the best tool you have for accomplishing this goal is common sense.
If that is true, then why not just read? It is because every reader is an interpreter. We assume we understand what we read. We also assume that our understanding is the same thing as the writer's, or the Holy Spirit's intent. Nonetheless, we bring to the text everything that we are. Our experiences, our culture, our age, our assumptions, our prejudices. Even the translation we read is necessarily an interpretive work. Some translations are more so than others. So, we come to the Bible as a beginning point without really considering that it is the end result of work someone else has done, and work which necessarily involves interpretation.
Let's look at Romans 13:14 as an example.
NIV "Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature."
The phrase "sinful nature" is one the NIV translational committee caught a lot of heat for using, because it is an interpretive rendering of the Greek term "sarx" which quite literally is "flesh," that stuff hanging from your bones. Now, is Paul really talking about the tissues of the human body, or is he referring to something else? To their credit, later releases of the NIV have modified this verse and others like it to say "flesh" which is the more accurate rendering, and which leaves the interpretation to the reader.
We also need to recognize that plain meanings are not equally plain to all readers. To some readers, it is very plain in 1st Corinthians 14:34-35 that women are to keep silent in the churches. To others, this is not so plain. To some, the Bible plainly teaches that baptism is by immersion. To others, sprinkling is perfectly acceptable. To some the Bible plainly teaches that Baptism is for believers. To others, it is clear that we should baptize infants. To some, the Bible plainly teaches of "eternal security" where once you are saved you are always saved. Others see equally clearly that salvation can be lost.
I bring up such examples, not to stir up controversy, but rather to illustrate that simply reading will not always get us to the plain meaning of a passage of scripture. This is the reader factor.
The other interpretive factor is the text itself. Now, we have already acknowledged that the Bible is the Word of God. As such it has eternal relevance for all humanity. Because it is the Word of God, it is to be obeyed. But because God chose to speak through human words in time and history, every Biblical writing has a historical particularity. With that, it is conditioned by language, time, culture and oral history prior to writing. All of these must be taken into account when engaging our first task, and that task is to understand and ask the question, "What did this mean to the original audience?"
We will wrestle with that in the next section.
We are going to look now at a task known in biblical academia as "exegesis." Do not be put off, or intimidated by highbrow terms like this. Exegesis is simply the careful, systematic study of Scripture in order to discover the original, intended meaning. That is it. And you can do it!
Exegesis is a historical task. You will recall from the first article that I urged you to get a good book on the history behind biblical places and events. Your exegetical work is the reason you need such a book. You have to get yourself to the place that you can hear the biblical writings as the original audience heard them.
Gordon Fee, Professor of New Testament at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary said, "The Holy Spirit cannot be called in to contradict Himself, and He is the one who inspired the original intent. Therefore, His help for us will be in the discovering of that original intent, and in guiding us as we try faithfully to apply that meaning in our own situations."
Do not allow yourself to feel daunted by this task. In fact, you do it already! You have done this any time you said something like, "What Jesus meant by that was..." or "Back in those days they..." We say things like that to explain why we do not build parapets around our houses, or why we employ a handshake rather than a 'holy kiss.' So you already do this, and you need to do it at all times.
It may seem important only to apply exegetical techniques to a passage that displays obvious differences between the Biblical text and our culture, or to a text of which it is difficult to grasp the meaning. I am arguing that exegesis is the first step to reading every Biblical text. Where it becomes a challenge is when we attempt to use exegesis is to explain away a text that we dislike, when we really ought to be obeying it instead of explaining it.
Another challenge with this is the tendency to consult "experts," who are really secondary sources, and who themselves used other secondary sources. We end up with 39th hand information that is light-years from truth and reality.
Take for example: Mark 10:23-25. This is the passage where Jesus said it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. The story has circulated for centuries of camels having to get down on their knees to get through some teeny-tiny gate into Jerusalem. It is absolute hogwash that has been presented as explanatory fact. There was never any such gate in Jerusalem. This buffoonery was started by a Greek churchman named Theophylact in the 11th century, a thousand years after Jesus said this. It is impossible for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, and that is precisely the point. It is impossible for one whose faith and trust is in material wealth to enter the Kingdom. And immediately following, Jesus says, "All things are possible with God."
How, then do we do good exegesis? Read! But read as a means to study, not for reading itself. Read carefully and ask the right kinds of questions. Ask questions of context and questions of content. Let's look at that now.
Context will vary from one work to the next, and sometimes, context varies even inside a work. Consider how context changes as we read a historical account. In some cases we walk through an individual's entire life from birth to the grave.
As you read for context:
- Ask questions of time. When was this written, or when did the events portrayed in this writing take place? If you do not know, find out.
- Ask questions of the author. Who wrote this? What do I know about this person? How would that impact what he wrote?
- As questions of the readers. Who was this written to? How do I know that? What clues lead me to that conclusion? What do I know about these people that would impact how they hear this when it is read to them?
- Ask questions of geography. Where did this take place? What sort of place is this? How does that impact the story?
- Ask questions of topography? What is the lay of the land? Is it high, low, smooth, rough, rocky, fertile, wet, dry?
- Ask questions of politics. This is huge! Who is in power? What is their background? Are they godly or ungodly? How do they use their power?
- Ask questions about the occasion of the writing. This is particularly helpful when reading the epistles. What was going on that would make this letter necessary? Pretend you are listening to one side of a phone conversation. Try to determine what the other person is saying.
- Ask questions about the type of literature. Is it a song/psalm? Is it a letter? Is it prophetic? Is it historical?
Setting context is where your tools will come in handy. A good Bible Dictionary, perhaps the Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, or the New Bible Dictionary by Eerdmans, will help you define your context. Furthermore, whenever the Bible mentions a specific place by name, stop reading right then and there, get your book of maps and find that place. Ephesians was written to Ephesus. Find it. Corinthians was written to Corinth. Find it. Jesus went down from Jerusalem to Samaria. Find Jerusalem and Samaria. Philip met the Ethiopian eunuch on the road to Gaza. Find Ethiopia. Find Gaza.
Do NOT shortcut this step. You are setting the context for what you are reading, and it will serve you well in understanding what you are reading. Since you are serious about your desire to learn, to study and understand this book, get yourself a study notebook and start recording your observations as you study. Make sure this notebook is a loose-leaf so you can add pages over time as you record new observations. A $2.00 three ring binder with a pack of notebook paper will do just fine.
As you are defining the context, read literature outside the Bible that gives you insight into the history surrounding the events about which you are reading. Make sure you select literature that does not do interpretive work for you, but rather lays out nothing more than the history. "Just the facts, ma'am." This is what happened.
Here is what setting the context does for you:
- Does it help your understanding of the Bible to know that Haggai prophesied after the exile rather than during or before? You may be asking, "What exile." Give yourself time. Do what you are reading here, and things like that will make sense, and be wonderfully helpful to you.
- Does it make a difference to your understanding to know what the Jewish expectations of the Messiah were? The Jews where expecting a "conquering" Messiah who would get the oppressive Roman boot off their necks.
- Does it make any difference to know that Corinth and Philippi were hard-core military cities while Ephesus was an intellectual center where people sat around and arrogantly explored the newest thoughts and ideas?
- Does it help to know that when a person in the Bible is said to "go down" from one city to another, they did not necessarily go South? Up and down to the western mind are tied to a compass, and the top and bottom of a map. But to the biblical audience, up and down are tied to elevation. Remember to ask questions of topography! Therefore, Jesus can go "down" from Jerusalem to Samaria even though in doing so he heads North!
You can make these observations, and others just like them simply by reading with a discerning eye and asking questions of context.
Now we put on a different hat and look at the content of the writing. This is a lot of fun!
When looking at content, one thing to look for is for repetition of words, or phrases. For example, open the gospel of Mark and look just at the first chapter. Look at these verses:
- 1:10 - Immediately coming up out of the water
- 1:12 - Immediately the Spirit impelled Him
- 1:18 - Immediately they left their nets and followed Him
- 1:20 - Immediately He called them
- 1:21 - ...immediately on the Sabbath He entered the synagogue
- 1:28 - Immediately the news about Him spread everywhere
- 1:29 - And immediately after they came out of the synagogue
- 1:30 - ...and immediately they spoke to Jesus about her
- 1:42 - Immediately the leprosy left him
- 1:43 - And He sternly warned him and immediately sent him away
I think you see it. This is clearly deliberate. That is just chapter one, and it is just one word, "immediately." Other verses say similar things like, "straightway" or "without delay." Jesus is portrayed as a bug on a hot plate jumping from one task to the next. And when we ask questions of context, we learn that the gospel of Mark was written to a Gentile audience. Maybe it was a Roman audience who would be impressed by a Jesus of action!
Another example of repetition - Many years ago I began compiling a list of all the places I found the phrase "in Christ." It is an extensive list, and it is very telling to see all the realities of the disciple's life that are tied to being in Christ. Let's look at a handful of these from Romans and Corinthians.
- Romans 8:1 - No condemnation in Christ.
- Romans 8:37 - Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ.
- Romans 9:1 - Paul speaks as though his very existence was "in Christ."
- Romans 12:5 - One body; unity in Christ.
- 1 Corinthians 1:2 - Sanctified in Christ.
- 1 Corinthians 1:30 - Righteousness, sanctification and redemption in Christ.
- 2 Corinthians 2:14 - Triumph in Christ.
- 2 Corinthians 3:14 - The veil is done away in Christ.
- 2 Corinthians 5:17 - We are new creatures in Christ.
- 2 Corinthians 5:19 - God reconciles the world to Himself in Christ.
There are many more "in Christ" passages, but these serve to illustrate the point of looking for repeated words and phrases.
Also look for repeated styles. For example look how Paul structures every letter he writes. He consistently follows the same pattern.
- He gives his name.
- He names the recipient.
- He greets them.
- He offers a prayer or a thanksgiving for them.
- He writes the body of the letter.
- He offers a final greeting or farewell.
Let's look at some examples of this.
- His name: Romans 1:1 Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus,
- Recipient: Romans 1:7 To all in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints:
- Greeting: Romans 1:7b Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ.
- Praise/Thanksgiving: Romans 1:8 First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is being reported all over the world.
- His name: 1st Corinthians 1:1 Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes,
- Recipient: 1st Corinthians 1:2 To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ--their Lord and ours:
- Greeting: 1st Corinthians 1:3 Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
- Praise/Thanksgiving: 1st Corinthians 1:4 I always thank God for you because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus.
- His name: 2nd Corinthians 1:1 Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother,
- Recipient: 2nd Corinthians 1:1b To the church of God in Corinth, together with all the saints throughout Achaia:
- Greeting: 2nd Corinthians 1:2 Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
- Praise/Thanksgiving: 2nd Corinthians 1:3 Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort,
This pattern is followed consistently in every letter except the letter to the Galatians.
- His name: Galatians 1:1 Paul, an apostle--sent not from men nor by man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead-- 2 and all the brothers with me,
- Recipient: Galatians 1:2b To the churches in Galatia:
- Greeting: Galatians 1:3 Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ,
- Praise/Thanksgiving: What? No praise or thanksgiving? Galatians 1:6 I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel--
In his letter to the Galatians, Paul offers no thanksgiving, but instead jumps right into blasting them for something very specific. That has to capture your attention!
Now that we have worked up a sweat with all that reading above, let's practice it. Because so much of our church doctrine is drawn from the Epistles, let's spend some time talking about how we might approach exegesis there. For our exercise, let's say we want to study Ephesians.
Before we even open our Bible, I recommend learning as much as we can about the city of Ephesus. So we go to our tools, our Bible history book(s) and our maps. When we do this, we learn that Ephesus was the fourth largest city in the Roman Empire. We also learn that it was home of a rather substantial shrine to a female deity. In fact, that is how the city got its start.
More than 5,000 years prior to Jesus' birth, the Amazons, warrior women from the land of the Taurians on the Black Sea brought this female deity to that region. Some say they mounted it in an oak tree. To get an idea of the longevity of this, consider that the United States is just a little over 200 years old.
Later, this deity was moved to a structured sanctuary, and around that sanctuary a community grew. The community became the city of Ephesus. The entire region, known as Ionia, was a brain center of the Greek civilization which eventually dominated the entire known world. This is where the epic of Homer came from. This is the source of the pre-Socratic philosophers. This was a birthplace of intellectual snobbery.
In stark contrast to a city like Phillipi or Corinth, both of which were hardened military establishments, these people were the thinkers of their day. They had an obnoxious zest or zeal for philosophical debate. Knowing that, it will make perfect sense when you read Paul flying in the face of intellectualism as you read Ephesians.
Ephesus was considered a gateway city because of its prime location, as well as its sheer size. It is from Ephesus that Greek elements and culture were pushed into Asia. Conversely, thorugh Ephesus, oriental culture and tradition were pushed further West and incorporated into the Greek culture.
Even as late as Jesus' day, over five thousand years later, Ephesus did not lose site of her roots and founding. In Ephesus you find (even today) the heavy-set mother goddess depicted at the very moment of birth. Other times she is depicted as having dozens of breasts. Sometimes she is engraved with signs of the Zodiac, because she controls the heavenly bodies. She is called by many names: Great Mother of the Gods, Mother of Humanity, Mountain Mother, Oupis, Ma, Bellona, Cybele, Demeter, Artemis, or Diana (as the Romans called her).
She is the giver of life. The dead are gathered once again to her womb. She stands guard over their tombs. She grew to such a level of popularity that history records there being a shrine to the Great Ephesian Artemis in every Greek city throughout the Mediterranean world. She was the most worshipped of all the Gods. Her temple in Ephesus would hold thousands of worshippers. It was considered one of the Seven Wonders of the World. It is in this temple that the Amazons first took refuge from Hercules.
From the worship of this goddess grew a system of magic, inscribed on the Ephesia Grammata, that involved the "six mystic words." We read in the book of Acts how the early Christians in Ephesus burned their books of magic. A text like that takes on new meaning when you have a fuller understanding of how dearly they held to those books.
When the Lydians were laying siege to the city of Ephesus, the Ephesians extended wollen fillets from the sanctuary of Artemis and encircled the city with them. So profound was the influence of this goddess, that the Lydians feared her protection and abandoned their siege.
This temple also served as the treasury for Asia Minor, the wealthiest province of the Roman Empire. They reasoned the goddess would give safe watch and keeping to their finances. From this, the temple itself came to serve as an enormous banking center. Ephesus stood as a bastion of female supremacy in all matters religious. It is absolutely no coincidence that it was in Ephesus Mary, the mother of Jesus was first called "theotokos" (bearer of God). In the pagan world, Artemis bore that same title.
With this background, get your Bible and read Acts 19:23-34. It makes perfect sense.
Now that you have a historical backdrop, you are ready to read the letter. Read it as a letter. When you receive a letter from a friend or family member, you don't go to page three, paragraph two, sentence five. You start with "Dear Sharon," and read all the way to "Love Dad." Do the same thing with the biblical epistles. Read it from start to finish in one sitting. Then you can go back and look at specific items in the letter.
Having read the letter, see if you can determine the purpose, or occasion for the writing. One thing all epistles have in common is a reason for their existence. See if you can summarize in one sentence what that purpose was. There is some reason, either on the author's side, or on the recipients' side. That reason is nestled in the first-century, and is usually some doctrinal or behavioral issue that needed correcting.
This exercise can be a little tricky, because it is somewhat like listening to your teenaged daughter on the phone. You get only half of the conversation, but even with that, you get a pretty good idea what is going on.
One thing to note as you realize that these are "occasional documents," is that they are not theological treatises. These are not a full compendia of Paul's or Peter's theology. We get theology from reading them. They are indeed loaded with the stuff, but it is always a theology brought to the task at hand, the occasion of the document.
As you read, if it is not too disruptive to your flow of thought, consider jotting down notes. I cannot do this. I have to read straight through and then go back a second time and take my notes.
What do you notice about the recipients? Are they Jews? Greeks? Both? Are they slaves? Free? What are their problems? What are their attitudes? What do you notice about the author? What is his attitude or mood? Remember our discussion of Paul with the Galatians. Is the occasion of the letter specifically mentioned, or is it inferred? Knowing that chapters and verses are added during translation (not in the original letter), can you see the natural, logical divisions of the letter?
You have your background, you have read the letter straight through, you have the occasion of the letter, you have your observations. Now see if you can trace the author's argument against the occasion of the letter. You don't need any tools to do this. Now, instead of reading as a letter, you can begin thinking in terms of paragraphs.
As you read each paragraph, ask over and over, "What is the point?" And remember, not what is the point for me, but what is the point for them. See if you can state in one or two sentences what the author said in that paragraph. No interpretation. Just restate what was said. See if you got the point. Secondly, see if you can determine why it was important to say that there, at that point in the letter. How does it contribute to the argument?
Finally, I want you to see that in this very long article, I have really given you only three things to do. But I assure you, if you do these things, you will be light years ahead of tens of thousands of others who do not do these things. Your Bible will come alive to you, and you will find thorough enjoyment and fulfillment from reading and studying it.
- Read the history behind the recipient.
- Read the entire letter in one sitting and take notes.
- Trace the author's argument against what you have determined to be the occasion for the letter.
Just like with the Exegesis task, do not be put off by this highbrow term, Hermeneutics. Some put Exegesis and Hermeneutics in the same bucket. I do not. For me, the hermeneutical question asks, "What does this mean for me specifically?"
This is a highly subjective task, and as such it can be difficult to do. Indeed, given the subjectivity of this task, it is amazing we do not have more differences within the Judeo-Christian world than we have.
The friction revolves around this idea of Cultural Relativity. We have to ask, and have good reasons for determining what is cultural and therefore belongs in the 1st century and then what transcends culture and is a Word for all time? None of us has felt compelled to get Paul's cloak from Carpus' home and take it to him in his Roman prison, right? Yet that was clearly a command! Conversely, we all seem to understand it to be our responsibility to "endure hardship like a good soldier of Jesus Christ." Those two commands came from the same letter, just two chapters apart.
While those two seem pretty clear-cut, there are other passages that are not so easy to categorize one way or the other. In such cases, the "common sense" approach we spoke of in the overview yields differences between us.
The greatest challenge we face is consistency. We bring so much of our subjective selves to our hermeneutical work.
- Theological heritage
- Cultural norms
- Existential concerns
Such influences result in an approach to Bible study where we have a tendency to read around certain texts. Take 1st Timothy 5:23 as an example, "Stop drinking water only and take a little wine because of your stomach and your frequent illness." Thinking back to the 1960s, and to a large degree even today, consider what 1st Corinthians says about men and women's hair. It seems to say that long hair on a man is degrading to him, and short hair on a woman is to her shame. Some Christian groups point to 1st Corinthians 14 to show that woman should keep silent in Christian assemblies, yet classify the rest of the very same chapter as cultural. I am not aware of any Christian group that keeps a list of enrolled widows, yet 1st Timothy 5 is very clear that we are to do so.
A good exercise when you find yourself wrestling with "How do I answer that text" is to go back a step to your exegetical work and ask "What does this text mean?""What did it mean to those who heard it first?"
Two quick rules of hermeneutics:
A text can never mean what it never meant.
I know we have hit that hard already, but I want that burned into your psyche. This does not always help you in determining what a text means, but it often helps determine what it does NOT mean.
When we share comparable circumstances and particulars with those in the 1st century, God's Word to us is the same as God's Word to them.
For example, it is still true today that "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." It is still true that "by grace you are saved through faith." It is still true that we are to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength.
Even with our best efforts, there are problems and challenges:
Question: Is it legitimate to take a passage that applies to a specific context, a context we share with the 1st century, and extend that to apply to another context?
1 Cor. 3:16-17 "Do you not know that you are God's temple and that God's Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God's temple, God will destroy him. For God's temple is holy, and you are that temple."
The "you" in those verses is plural. This is directed at the church as a body. Knowing that, is it an abuse of this text to apply it to an individual believer, and to teach principles regarding the care/abuse of one's body? I believe it is. I am not saying we should not take care of our bodies, but I am saying that it is an abuse of this passage to say that is what it is teaching, because such an approach sidesteps exegesis altogether. I would strenuously argue that a text must always be limited to its original intent.
Another example: 2 Corinthians 6:14 says, "Do not be yoked together with unbelievers."
This passage is frequently used to teach against marrying a non-Christian. That is not really a bad concept. Such unions are often fraught with pain and difficulty. However, it is highly unlikely that this is what is being discussed here. There is nothing in this context that suggests marriage is what Paul had in mind. It is rare in the first century that a yoke is used to describe a marriage bond. I suggest that it is far more likely that this has to do with idolatry, and perhaps even more specifically the idol feasts.
- The people of Corinth arguing for the right to continue to attend feasts in the idol temples.
- The people of Corinth challenging Paul's apostolic authority.
- Eating meat that was sacrificed to an idol.
- Wanting for force circumcision on uncircumcised men.
- Getting drunk in connection with the Lord's Supper.
Paul answered all of those issues. How then do we use those answers, if at all?
First off, do good exegesis of the passage so you are very clear regarding what God's Word was to them. Then, as we looked for the clear meaning of the text, look for a clear principle to be articulated.
Secondly, take that clear principle and apply it only to genuinely comparable situations. Let me use one of those examples as an illustration. Paul forbids the temple meals on the principle that it may cause another Christian to stumble. It is an abuse of this principle to apply that to anything and everything that gets another Christian's nose out of joint. Another Christian's faith being "destroyed" is not at all the same thing as another Christian disliking, or taking offence at my actions.
This is the difficult one because cultures do differ, over time, and over geographical spreads, and I do not believe there is such a thing as a divinely ordained culture.
One helpful approach to this is to create a distinction in your mind between activities and things that are inherently moral and immoral. For example, whenever you find what are commonly called "sin lists" in the Bible, note that these never contain cultural items. Adultery, idolatry, drunkenness, homosexual activity, thievery - these transcend culture and are always wrong.
Also, make note of items that are consistent throughout scripture, as opposed to those items where teaching seems to differ from place to place. Take, for example, the issue of silent women mentioned earlier. That was said to the church at Corinth, yet in Rome we see Phoebe was a deaconess. That seeming inconsistency merits further study rather than a quick and easy doctrinal pronouncement. Further study and sound exegesis will help resolve that issue, but presentation of that resolution is beyond the scope of this article.
Finally, work on the skill of distinguishing between principle and specific application. Some passages are written to address very specific situations. Others address principles. Ask yourself if our present situation would be an issue for us if we had never encountered a New Testament document.