Sound Advice for Bible Study
I am teaching Genesis once again this semester as I do every Fall semester. I absolutely love studying and teaching the Book of Genesis. It is full of many foundational truths and I am always learning something new. However, I must also admit that teaching Genesis is a challenge. There are certain passages that have been interpreted different ways throughout history. As rewarding as Bible study is, we all come upon certain issues or passages with a big question mark? What is this passage about? What does the Bible really teach on this particular issue? Some “experts” say this, some say that. What am I to believe? When we face these questions, we need a solid plan that contains sound advice. Here are some challenging issues and passages in the first six chapters of Genesis alone:
- What does the expression “Let Us” mean in Genesis 1:26? (I share at least 5 different views with the class).
- What does it mean to be made in God’s Image and Likeness? (There are many views)
- What is the tree of the knowledge of good and evil? What quality is it that Adam and Eve don’t have, that they have after eating of its fruit? (I share the top 4 views)
- Should the genealogies be added together to come up with the date of Creation or are there gaps in them?
- Who are the sons of God and the daughters of men? (I share the 3 main explanations)
- What do the 120 years of Genesis 6:3 mean? Is God putting an age limit on humankind or is it the time until He sends the Flood?
As you can see, you barely begin reading the first book of the Bible and a lot of questions arise within the first six chapters (and I haven’t included them all)! Beyond the Book of Genesis there are many other issues (and passages) that a sincere studier of the Bible struggles with. If you go to church regularly, or study the Bible regularly the following examples will be familiar to you:
- The role of women in the church
- Spiritual gifts (for today or not?)
- The nature of the millennium (amillennial, premillennial, pre-trib, post-trib?, etc.)
- Violence in the Old Testament (short commercial–see my series on this topic here).
Although the main storyline of the Bible is clear–God created the world, humans sinned, God chose Abram and his descendants to bring restoration, Jesus is God incarnate and died for our sins and rose again gaining victory over Satan and the forces of evil–there are a number of passages and topics which remain challenging. What is the way forward with these difficult topics and challenging passages of Scripture?
Sound Advice From John Walton
This semester I am working my way through John Walton’s Genesis commentary in the NIV Application series. While reading Walton’s comments on Genesis 2 in the “Contemporary Significance” section of the commentary, I came upon some sound advice for Bible study that I found myself agreeing with. Walton’s sound advice is broken into 3 categories: “methodological commitments,” “personal commitments,” and “values commitments.” In this post I would like to focus on the first category.
By methodological commitments, Walton simply means how should we approach the biblical text? His concern is that we not find ourselves “guilty of dressing up our own desires so that they look like the Bible’s teaching” (p. 188). His sound advice involves 5 principles:
1. We must allow the text to pursue its own agenda, not force it to pursue ours.
2. We must be committed to the intention of the author rather than getting whatever mileage we can out of the words he used.
3. We must resist overinterpreting the text in order to derive the angle we are seeking.
4. We must be willing to have our minds changed by the text—that is at least part of the definition of submitting ourselves to the authority of the text.
5. We must be willing to accept the inevitable disappointment if the text does not address or solve the questions we would like answers to (Walton, J. H., 2001, Genesis, p. 189, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan).
I’d like to briefly comment on each of these principles.
Principle 1 is so important. How often have I found myself wanting to “prove a point” and finding a passage of Scripture that supports it. Context doesn’t matter, as long as it supports my point! We can be especially guilty of this if we have grown up in church and we have been taught to look at certain topics in certain ways or to interpret certain passages in certain ways. It’s difficult to break out of this mold, but so essential if our desire is simply to ascertain the truth.
Principle 2 involves a little labor on our part. To understand the author’s intention will involve a little background study of the ancient world, and will involve getting the big picture of what a given biblical book is about. We have to interpret the Bible in the cultural setting of the inspired author and we have to do it within the context of the book.
Principle 3 tests our integrity. OK, here’s what the passage means based on context, cultural setting. wordstudy, etc. But if I “tweak” it just a little I could use it to support my position!
Principle 4 is HUGE! Are we willing to let the Bible change our minds? It could potentially mean letting go of a cherished interpretation I have held since my youth. Is truth more important to me than tradition?
Principle 5 is just as HUGE as principle 4. If we honestly believe that the text leads to a different conclusion than the cherished belief we have held on to for so long, there will inevitably be a sense of disappointment. “Boy, I really wanted the text to back me up on this, but after studying the text thoroughly, I have to admit it doesn’t.” Making that admission is a sure sign of growth, and even more importantly, it is a way of honoring God and His Word!
Next time we will look at Walton’s advice regarding “personal commitments.”
P.S. For those of you who may be wondering, “Where have you been?” This is my first post in nine months. Five of those months have been spent with my mother and helping her through the passing of my dad. It was a special time and I am grateful for it. I am also grateful to be back in York, and as far as this blog is concerned, I’m glad to be “back in the saddle again!
4 thoughts on “Sound Advice for Bible Study”
Thanks, Randy! I’m looking forward to more posts. I think Walton has some sage advice. It is so easy to see what the text really means, only to use it (“change it”) to what I’m trying to teach or show. And then I later see that I was just plain wrong. Of course, that doesn’t happen too often 😉
Haha! I agree Spencer. Walton lays out a clear strategy for Bible study that we would all do well to follow, but being human does get in the way sometimes!
Love it, thanks Randy.
You’re welcome Alec. Hope all is well with you.