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?

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