One of the greatest tragedies in my Christian formative years, was that I cheerleaded into believing some so-called spiritual facts about God and Christianity that unfortunately had no meaningful foundation in the pages of Biblical text. The fact that I was an avid Bible reader meant very little, especially since I was using the text to support pet doctrines and as a springboard to get to the higher level of spiritual attainment according to these extra-Biblical concepts. No doubt, in my reading I learned basic truths of core Christian doctrine but I fell short at connecting the dots, which led to some distorted conclusions.
One of the best things that happened to me is my friend who challenged by exegesis, well actually my eisegesis because I did a pretty good job of reading things into the text that it didn’t say. He challenged me to provide Scriptural support for the extra-biblical doctrine that I had embraced, which by the way is promoted by very popular teaching today. In the end, I could not. But it did open a can of worms and a fresh perspective on Bible study that employed inductive methods and an expository approach to studying that taught me how to follow the flow of thought and connect the dots in a grammatical, historical, literal and canonical way. No longer was a ripping passages out of context to fit with cherished doctrine but rather learn to read in a way to just let the text say what it says.
This can be tricky though. Because I still have some old tendencies that I have to be careful not to seep in. I must know what they are, recognize them and put them in their proper place. No, I am not an expert nor do I purport to be. But I am an avid learner who is always asking the question ‘what is this really saying’. So in that, here are 10 questions that I always ask and thought they might be useful. I also think that these tend to be interdependent upon each other. One thing’s for sure, I think all of us can fall prey to some, if not all, of these.
1) Am I considering the context? Context is king and don’t be fooled to thinking otherwise. Every book in the Bible contains segmented markers called verses and chapters. While this may make Bible reading easier I think it can promote reading Scripture in a very fragmentary way that, with other factors mentioned below, can facilitate ripping a verse or passage out of its proper context. I recall listening to a very popular woman preacher on the radio (you all know who she is) and was talking about how we should have joy for every day living. She used Hebrews 1:9 to support the fact that we are “anointed” and should have joy above our companions. Sadly, I used to read Scripture in the same way and was chagrined at the peal of applause her “exegesis” received. This is but one of many examples I can cite that when context is not considered, it makes the text say something it does not. I also have to consider genre and read according to that genre. I can’t make narrative read like doctrine, no matter how good it might preach.
2) Am I conducting connection fallacies? This is applying the same connection at all times, such as a word fallacy. Words do have ascribed meaning, true. But again, context will determine what the word is also conveying. An example would be a comparison of Hebrews 4:12 with John 1:1 in defining “word”. Another example of connection fallacy are the connections that Michael is asking in his Transubstantian post. This is something I need to understand better. So I am currently reading Exegetical Fallacies, by D.A. Carson who also talks about grammatical, logical, presuppositional, and historic fallacies as well to understand better pitfalls to avoid.
3) Am I blowing up meaning? Because of the circles I used to travel, it is real easy for me to draw wild allegories, make connections where connections don’t exist or make my typology walk on all fours, especially when studying the Old Testament. So I have to consider the plain reading of the text and recognize when allegory is there. This does get tricky, especially with the Old Testament and gospel narratives. But here is where I find a few good commentaries come in handy. In fact, I’d say good commentaries are a pretty essential tool for all Bible study. They do help to curb unwarranted enthusiasm that might come thinking I’ve discovered some hidden or esoteric meaning that may be way blown out of proportion, or even meaning that is non-existent.
4) Am I considering the correlation?: The Bible is God’s story concerning Himself, breathed out through the penmenship of 40 different authors over the span of 1,500 years. Every verse, paragraph, chapter, story, poem, letter, book fits into this story like a puzzle piece. From Genesis to Revelation His story is about His revelation in Christ and ultimate reign. So I have to ask how does what I am reading fit in that story?
5) Is my flesh in the way? Flesh is self-focused and looks out for #1. Flesh asks ‘what’s in it for me?’. In our individualistic oriented society, the tendency is to always derive meaning from the text that will be beneficial to ourselves. This is not a bad thing in that God gave His word to us, so that we will know Him and know who we are in Christ, for those that believe. But I will naturally want to read in a way that will appease me. I also have to recognize that in passages that challenge what I want, can be dismissed or construed to justify thoughts or behavior I wish to maintain. I know, because I have tried to justify sinful behavior in the past! So I have learned to recognize what are my “buttons” that don’t want to comply. This is why I believe in prayer to foster a surrendered attitude before reading.
6) Am I bringing my presuppositions into the reading of the text? We all have them and they have been shaped by experience, culture and church (or lack thereof) upbringing. That means we can bring pre-existent ideas about what we think things are saying into reading that will formulate how we read things. I can’t remember who said this but I heard a really good truth to live by ‘always read like you haven’t seen it before’. It’s asking the question with every sitting of what is the text saying not what do I think it says.
7) Am I reading my theological assumptions into the text? I think its funny when I get accused of reading Calvin into things considering I developed a Calvinistic theology before I even heard anything about Calvin! Nonetheless, while I do agree with Calvin’s theology, I have to be careful to not read that into the text.
8.) Am I considering alternate theological positions? I have learned the value of considering alternate positions. After all, I am fallible and capable of getting things wrong. This was particularly highlighted to me when I took Soteriology through the Theology Program and began to learn about Arminian theology. It challenged me to consider a different point of view in looking at certain passages and it did cause me to wrestle with some things as well as prompt a desire to learn more about that position. In the end, I still remain a Calvinist but always need to consider where the other side is coming from. (I have yet to read completely Olson’s book, Arminian Theology but plan on it).
9) Am I being dismissive of the text? Regardless of how many times I have read a passage, chapter or book there is always something new to learn, some word or nuance that I have not considered before. I love the way God illuminates His word this way and it also shows me that I can never exhaust learning. Reading with freshness and inquisitiveness will also challenge me to wrestle with passages that may disrupt previously held thinking. In short, it is about having intellectual honesty with the text and acknowledge what it is saying, or at least ask I am looking at this right? This will often cause a great bit of wrestling but that’s ok. It is indeed hard to confess that you were wrong about something but I have had to do this quite a bit. I have learned it is well worth putting your foot in your mouth than keeping your hand on your hip.
10) Am I prayerfully allowing the text to leap in my heart and change my life? I had the immense privilege to take Bible Study Methods and Hermeneutics with Dr. Howard Hendricks (known by all DTSers as “Prof”). One of his sayings that has made an indelible impression on my heart is ‘the Bible wasn’t written to satisfy your cureousity, it was meant to change your life’. God’s plan is to reconcile His creation to Himself, to change us from being an enemy of God to being a friend of God, from being a servant of sin to a servant of righteousness, from considering the cross foolishness to the cross necessary. Jesus did not hang on the cross so we can spout intellectual superiority but live out humble submission to Him, to hopefully say as Paul in Philippians 3:7-11, to consider all else worthless compared to the surpassing value of knowing Him, being found in His righteousness to know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death. This is indeed a picture of a changed life and is the ultimate goal of Bible study.
So these are my questions I ask myself. I hope they are helpful. Or you may disagree and that’s ok too.
Addendum: Here some basic books that I recommend on the topic
Howard Hendricks, Living by the Book
Tim Lahaye, How to Study the Bible for Yourself
Roy Zuck, Basic Bible Interpretation