Friday, April 20, 2012

How to Understand the Bible, Part 3 of 3

This week, we've been asking how to understand the Bible better. Best answer: Listen to the Holy Spirit first, then check your work with these questions.

3. How has it been traditionally understood by the Church throughout history?

You've probably heard this before: Anytime someone says they have a fresh/new/innovative teaching of Scripture, you should run the other way. It's one thing to have a fresh understanding of traditional teaching; it's important to renew and dig deeper into the truth the Bible offers. It's quite another thing to "find" new teachings in the Bible that don't line up with doctrines that the universal Church has long held.  That's why, even in personal study, you should ask how the Church as historically understood a topic or passage.

In some ways, this is the most difficult of the three "checks". For one thing, the Church has a long history, and some people dedicate their whole careers to studying the teachings of the Early Church Fathers and the development of theology over the centuries.  And it hasn't developed exactly same in all parts of the Church; there are so many denominations precisely because, somewhere along the line, someone in the church disagreed about the meaning of a particular passage or doctrine, and started their own branch.

However, I believe we are called to focus more on our agreement than our disagreement (see Ephesians 4), and there is a lot we can agree on.  To begin with, I hope you have a Bible-teaching church, so you have a good foundation of biblical education. (If not, perhaps C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity would be a good start. Also, find a new church.)  If you have questions about a passage or someone's teaching, don't be afraid to talk ask your pastor about it. Or for that matter, feel free to ask me; I don't have a seminary degree, but if I don't know the answer to something, I promise to find out together with you.

There a lots of ways you can research the answer on your own, too. It's not hard to find historic creeds, or statements of faith, that are accepted by every branch of the Christian Church.  Bible commentaries can also be useful for understanding the theological implications of a given text. There are a lot of good ones in print, and many of the older ones are now available for free online.

All of these tools are good helps.  But after everything, I would be remiss not to end where we started:  the best way to study the Bible is... to study the Bible. There is no substitute for careful, broad, and frequent reading of the Word of God.

What about you? How do you make sure that what you are learning is theologically correct?

Earlier this week:

1. How does this verse fit with the rest of the Bible?
2. What did it mean to the original audience?

Thursday, April 19, 2012

How to Understand the Bible, Part 2 of 3

The Bible is God's love letter to us. When we read it, we should first and foremost ask the Holy Spirit to speak to us through it. But relying on only our own individual perception can lead to poor interpretation; there are three questions we can ask to make sure our understanding is correct.

2. What did it mean to the original audience?

Even though the Bible contains God's message for us, it wasn't originally written to us.

Different situations
When you read "Count it all joy when you face all kinds trials" (James 1:2), is God talking to you about how you should respond to your little sister bugging you, or your internet going down? Well, maybe (especially if your response needs work). But when you stop to think that the people to whom James wrote (and 200 million Christians today) were literally thrown out of their families, and living under the threat of martyrdom for their faith... maybe your own "trials" won't seem so significant.

Each part of the Bible was written for a specific purpose, and it helps to understand that when considering what it means for us today. What sort of writing is it -- history, poetry, prophecy, personal letter?  What was the author (or the recipient) going through at the time?  Most Bibles have an introduction to each book that help you answer these questions and deepen your understanding.

Different times and cultures
The Bible talks a lot about slavery (Lev 25:39-43, Eph 6:5-9, among many others); does that mean it condones it? No -- if you read those passages carefully, you'll see that the writers were doing their best to humanize a very widely accepted (and sometimes cruel) practice at the time.

The first readers of biblical writings would have a much different understanding about how the world works.  After all, it was written over a span of ~3500-2000 years ago, in many distinct political and geographical settings that were quite different from ours.  A good study Bible or Bible guide can go a long way in helping us appreciate what topics like this would have meant to the people first hearing it.

Different languages.
It shouldn't be any surprise that the Bible was written in Hebrew (Old Testament) and Greek (New Testament). Thanks to the many English translations we now have, you don't have to be a biblical languages scholar to study the Bible. But these days, all kinds of books and online tools allow you to dig into the original language and try to understand better what it means. But use caution -- translating is tricky business!

Even if you leave the translating to the experts, it's important to remember that no Bible version is perfect. When doing serious study of a passage, it's always a good idea to read it in at least a couple of different translations, using different styles -- one using word-for-word (like ESV or NASB), one or more with thought-for-thought (e.g., NIV, NCV, or NLT).

Have you ever suddenly understood a Bible reference because of something you learned about the language or historical background?

Yesterday: 1. How does this verse fit with the rest of the Bible?
Tomorrow: 3. How has it been traditionally understood by the Church throughout history?

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

There's no such thing as a Bible verse | How to Understand the Bible, Part 1 of 3

Every encounter with the Bible can be a deeply personal experience in which the Creator speaks directly to your heart.  But how do you know that what you're hearing is really the Holy Spirit?  There are three questions you can use to make sure you understand correctly.

1. How does this verse fit with the rest of the Bible?

Here's a brain-bender for you: Bible verses don't really exist. To be sure, God inspired the writers of the Bible with His own Word; but the verse numbers (and chapters, too) were added centuries later, by men who wanted an easy way to find a certain quote, or create a list of where to find a certain word.

Verses were never meant to be clipped out and read by themselves.  It's too easy to take a single line out of context, and make it seem like it means something else. For example, look at this line from Romans 5:14:
Nevertheless, death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses...
Now, you could read that and think, there was no death after Moses. I could even make the argument that since God gave Moses the Law, he gave the means to live a righteous life, to escape spiritual death. But you only need to read a few verses more to see that Paul's point is exactly the opposite -- "law was given so that all people could see how sinful they were" (Rom 5:20, NLT).

You can get into even more trouble when you start pasting together verses from different parts of the Bible. So when you read a Bible verse that catches your eye, ask yourself, how does it fit in the rest of the chapter or section? How does that passage contribute to the overall story of the book, or the message of the letter?

Finally, how does it makes sense in light of the rest of the Bible? What are the Old Testament promises that you find fulfilled in the New Testament? Where do you find foreshadowing of Christ in the Old Testament? Where do you find two different authors saying the same thing?  What are characteristics of God you see coming up over and over again?

As has been said many times before, "Scripture interprets Scripture." Whenever you discover something in the Bible you've never noticed before, it's always best to see how your new insight lines up with the rest of the Good Book.

What are your tips for studying the Bible? Leave a comment below!

Later this week:
2. What did it mean to the original audience?
3. How has it been traditionally understood by the Church?