Bible Study: Can It Be Spirit-Led and Academic?
Let’s face it, many Christians are intimidated by an academic approach to the Bible. In fact, some are very suspicious of an academic approach to Bible study. Doesn’t it leave out dependence on the Spirit? Aren’t academics “know-it-alls,” and full of arrogance? Don’t they reject the inspiration of the Bible? While these questions can sometimes be answered “yes,” I want to plead that it is possible, in fact, necessary for Bible study to be both Spirit-led and academic. Have you ever had a different understanding of a biblical passage than someone else? Do you always agree with family members, friends, pastors, and authors on their interpretation of a text? Does every Christian understand every biblical passage and doctrine exactly the same? The answer to all of these questions is clearly, “Of course not.” But if I am Spirit-led and disagree with a fellow-Christian that I also believe is Spirit-led, then how do I determine which interpretation is correct?
Our Presuppositions Require We Be Spirit-Led and Academic in Our Approach
In his course on “Introducing Biblical Interpretation,” (which I am reviewing. See posts here and here), Michael S. Heiser says it this way, “Meaning is not self-evident….Getting meaning out of the Bible is far more than just sitting down, opening your Bible, and just reading it.” For example, we all bring certain presuppositions to the table when we interpret Scripture. As Heiser points out, some of these are conscious, but some are also unconscious. We naturally filter things through our own background and experience. For example, I have learned as an American living in England that certain expressions, or actions do not have the same meaning here in Britain as they do in the USA. If I do not make adjustments (recognizing my own presuppositions and substituting new ones), I will often misunderstand and be misunderstood. The same is true of bible study. No matter how sincere and reliant on the Spirit someone may be, a study of biblical culture, history, language, etc. is important, or else misunderstandings will develop. This means I must learn some ancient history, and something about ancient Near Eastern culture in order to understand the Scripture. Therefore, I must study, and studying brings me into the world of academics!
The authors of “Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes” (see my review here) illustrate the problem I am referring to very well. They put it this way: “When we miss what went without being said for them [i.e., the biblical authors] and substitute what goes without being said for us, we are at risk of misreading Scripture” (p. 13). An excellent example of this is Jesus’ statement to the church at Laodicea, “I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot. I could wish you were cold or hot” (Rev. 3:15). This statement has always puzzled many people. Why would Jesus want anyone to be cold, which to us implies a total lack of faith? Although I have heard many sincere, Spirit-filled teachers teach on this verse, their conclusion was wrong! The authors of “Misreading Scripture” explain that Laodicea lies between Colossae and Hierapolis (in modern-day Turkey). Colossae was well-known for its cold water, while Hierapolis was known for its hot mineral water. By the time waters from Colossae or Hierapolis reached Laodicea, however, they would be lukewarm. So the words “hot” and “cold” are both positive terms in Revelation 3:15-16, and this is why Jesus can say, “I wish you were cold or hot.” The Laodiceans were all too-familiar with lukewarmness! To arrive at the correct understanding of this passage, some knowledge of ancient geography is necessary (for a full explanation see pp. 10-11 of Misunderstanding Scripture).
Being Spirit-Led and Academic in Our Bible Study is no Different Than Exercising Other Gifts
I believe it is important that we understand that the Holy Spirit often uses some of our own sweat and toil to bring clarity and understanding. Let me illustrate it this way. I am a musician. I enjoy playing guitar and have played in Christian bands, written songs and recorded a couple of cds. I believe that the musical ability I have is Spirit-given. However, it is important for me to develop the gift that the Spirit has given me. When I don’t practice, I don’t improve! I have spent many hours in my life practicing my guitar, practicing with a band, taking voice lessons, piano lessons, music theory lessons, and classes on how to write a song. I’ve read a lot of books on music as well. All of these things have helped me grow as a musician. If I did not practice and study, but simply expected the Spirit to do all the work, I would be a poor steward of the gift He has given me and a poor musician as well. Bible study is no different. If I am a good steward of God’s Word then I will put in the study time. I will wrestle with texts, and ideas, and doctrines. Although God is gracious in giving us many wonderful gifts through the Spirit, one constant I find in all of life is that to really excel at something you have to work at it! Thus, I believe that Bible Study must be Spirit-led and academic.
Do You Have to Know Hebrew and Greek to be Saved?
I remember a number of years ago when I was in Bible College, one of my teachers told the following story: One day a Bible teacher was asked by a skeptical student, “Do you have to know Hebrew and Greek to be saved? To which the teacher replied, “No, but someone does!” This little story illustrates a valuable point. Certainly every Christian does not have to learn the original languages of the Bible. In fact, it’s not realistic to think that they will. However, in order for us to have a translation of the Bible in our own language, it is important that someone know the original language! It’s possible that some who know the biblical languages can at times come off as know-it-alls, but that bad attitude is not an argument against evangelicals learning Hebrew and Greek. Think about it. If no evangelical Christians learn Hebrew and Greek, then we will be leaving the interpreting of all of the Bible translations and writing of all the scholarly commentaries in the hands of those who don’t share our commitment to Scripture.
Doesn’t an Academic Approach to Bible Study Go Against the Belief that the Bible is Simple Enough for Anyone to Understand?
In one of the textbooks I use for my Genesis class (How To Read Genesis by Tremper Longman III), I recently ran across a response to this question that I would like to share. Longman identifies this idea as coming from the Reformers (Luther, Calvin, etc.). I am quoting him at length because his explanation is important. He writes, “The Reformers argued strongly for the clarity (perspicuity) of Scripture. They rightly held that the Bible was not written in a code. Further they defended the view that the Bible could be understood on its own terms (sufficiency of Scripture). We do not need the tradition of the church fathers to understand the Bible. When rightly understood, these doctrines are fundamentally important and crucial to defend. The problem is that the priesthood of all believers as well as the perspicuity and sufficiency of Scripture have been wrongly understood and applied in areas they were never intended to be applied. In short, what the Reformers understood the Bible to teach was that the message of salvation in the Bible is clear and understandable to all without the need of a priestly mediator or scholarly input….However, not everything is equally plain” (How to Read Genesis, p. 20). Longman goes on to give a list of questions raised by the Book of Genesis that require study and thoughtful reflection (e.g., “Who are the Nephilim?”).
Therefore to say that the Bible requires some academic elbow grease on our part is not to say that the message of salvation is hard to understand. Many who come to Christ know very little about the Scripture, but they still find the gospel message easy enough to understand. I am simply affirming that in order for us to continue to grow in our faith and knowledge of God’s Word, we will have to apply the same discipline to studying the Bible that we do to any other endeavor in life. Regarding the Reformers I would also add that all of them could read the Scripture in its original languages. Again this is not to say we all need to be able to do this, but simply to affirm that the Reformers saw the need for deep Bible study while acknowledging the simplicity of the gospel message.
In conclusion, Bible study is not an “either/or” proposition. We either are Spirit-led or we are academically minded. These two approaches are not opposed to one another. The real problem is motivation and attitude. Do I want to impress people with my knowledge? Does my study make me think that I am better than others? If my motivation to learn is driven by these ungodly characteristics, then clearly I have a problem. But if my motivation is to know God more and to be able to teach and disciple younger believers, then that is a motivation well pleasing to God. I am convinced that the Christian who desires to grow in the knowledge of God’s Word should seek the help of the Spirit and use every available academic tool that aids the believer in deepening his or her understanding of the Bible.