Proverbs 1:1-7 The proverbs of Solomon son of David, king of Israel: For learning about wisdom and instruction, for understanding words of insight, for gaining instruction in wise dealing, righteousness, justice, and equity; to teach shrewdness to the simple, knowledge and prudence to the young— let the wise also hear and gain in learning, and the discerning acquire skill, to understand a proverb and a figure, the words of the wise and their riddles. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.
The more important the task, the more important it is to do the task carefully. There’s the old carpenter’s saying “Better to measure twice and cut once.” Because cutting a board the right length is such an integral part of the process of building, it is important to do so carefully. The study of scripture is one of the most sacred and monumental tasks we can undertake, and thus it is imperative that we do so carefully. It is tempting to think that there is no need to be careful, no need to study, because scripture will always speak clearly and it is therefore always easy to understand. But that presumes that scripture’s entire purpose is to convey information, and that is not what scripture says about itself. Proverbs 1 says that the purpose of the book of Proverbs is not merely that the reader may hear a message, but that they may develop discernment and acquire skill. Further, it says that the beginning of this is found in the fear of the LORD: in reverent awe, reverent terror – the same sort of fear you would experience standing at the edge of a volcano, gazing upon power beyond power – that is the beginning of knowledge and wisdom. This is how the whole of scripture works. It forms our character, humbling us so that we may grow in wisdom and love. And the fact that scripture is not something that can be read flippantly, but must be read carefully, is an important part of that. Today we are going to spend some time talking about basic principles of reading scripture carefully and faithfully, then will spend several weeks putting these principles in action and asking what it means to apply these principles in practice.
In order to talk about how to study scripture carefully and faithfully, we must first ask what scripture is. One of the most important things to keep in mind about what scripture is, is that it is not a book. The Bible is not a single book, but an anthology of books, of different genres, written by different people, in different times and places, using the literary conventions of those genres in those times and places. Scripture is inspired by God, and orchestrated by the Holy Spirit, who speaks to us through the medium of human authors – like the Apostle Paul and the prophet Ezekiel – with their own voices, their own styles, all their individuality. This shouldn’t be surprising, because God reveals Godself fundamentally through Jesus. The ultimate revelation of God is Jesus. God became a human being, who was born at a particular time, in a particular place, who spoke a particular language, and had a particular personality. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that when God reveals Godself through the medium of literature, that God does so in a way that preserves the personality and style of the human authors through whose writing God reveals Godself. The best examples of this are the greetings at the beginning and end of Paul’s letters. Colossians 4: 14-15 (which is just a small portion of the greetings at the end of Colossians), for example, says: Luke, the beloved physician, and Demas greet you. 15 Give my greetings to the brothers and sisters in Laodicea, and to Nympha and the church in her house. What does this mean? It means “Luke and Demas say hello, and please say hello to the gang in Laodicea and to Nympha and everyone at her church.” It’s a personal letter, that contains personal greetings and personal messages to the people to whom the letter was written.
Because The Bible is an anthology of books, of different genres, written in different languages, by different people, in different times and places, this means that context is key. Plucking a Bible verse out of it’s context and paying no attention to the surrounding verses, the literary genre, or the historical context, is the ultimate recipe for disaster. My favorite example of this – because it is just so absurd – is a inspirational calendar, which you might have seen on Facebook. It is a nice little inspirational Bible verse calendar, that for July 3rd includes Luke 4:7, from the KJV: “If thou wilt worship me, all shall be thine.” It doesn’t take a lot of context to show why that quote isn’t exactly inspirational, so let’s just read Luke 4:5-7.
That. That is what happens when you separate Bible verses from their contexts.
It is not just the literary context that matters, but the historical context that matters. Who wrote it? When was it written, and what was going on at the time? What language was it written in and how were key words used at the time? The books that make up The Bible where written across a span of centuries, in three different ancient languages, and ancient cultures. None of the times and places in which the books of the Bible where written are exactly like the modern world. Sure, there may be some similarities, but they asked different questions, thought in different categories, and spoke in different ways than we do now. Reading a book written in the 1st century as if it was written in the 21st century, and taught in 21st century categories, is just as bad as reading a poem as if it was an instruction manual. Scripture speaks to the modern world through ancient words, and is able to cut through the mud and the mire, because it is rooted in a particular historical context which is distinct from ours.
Carefully and faithfully reading scripture is a monumental task. A natural question arises, given the sheer number of questions that one ought to ask when studying scripture is: “What does this look like in practice; how do I begin?” There are two simple ways to begin. One, get yourself a good study Bible. There are all kinds, so you can certainly find one that suits you. Here are three that I would recommend.
- The Faithlife Study Bible
- It is a great, all-round study bible good for introductory study or for Ph.D. bible scholars.
- If you have a computer or a smartphone) you can get for free from the church. We are distributing the study bible, as well as several other resources through the church Faithlife Group. To get your eBooks, just click on the link, create your Faithlife account, and follow the group.
- The HarperCollins Study Bible
- The study notes for this study Bible were, in many cases, written by members of the translation team for the NRSV, so when you read the study notes you are often getting information straight form the people who translated the text you are studying.
- The Wesley Study Bible
- This study Bible is more devotional in nature, but in a way that does not sacrifice depth. It’s study notes are written from a unapologetically Wesleyan perspective and speak to both heart and mind, without neglecting either one.
Another thing you can do is talk to me. There is nothing in this world I enjoy more than studying and talking about scripture and theology, and there is nothing that makes my day like a parishioner asking me a question about The Bible. I got an email a few years ago from a parishioner asking a deep question about Romans and I just about jumped out of my chair. It was so exciting – diving into Romans and fact-checking myself – and then taking the time to explain it. I will happy help you study and learn.
But, remember, this is a monumental task. It forms our character, that we may grow in wisdom and love. And the beginning of wisdom is the fear of the LORD – to stand in reverent, terrifying, awe before the enormity of God, knowing how small we are. Faithfully and carefully studying scripture both humbles and requires humility. It will take us to places that we do not want to go, and shatter our preconceived notions. When I was growing up, there was a theology which I passionately believed, and built a great deal of my identity around, seeing myself as a defender of this biblical truth, to the point that it almost became an idol. One of the most painful experiences of my life was carefully studying scripture and coming to the conclusion that that was not what The Bible actually teaches. What the theology was is unimportant. Don’t ask me, I won’t tell you what it was, because it does not matter. What matters is that it was painful; it felt like part of me was dying. And maybe through further study and growth I will reach a point where I need to abandon the new theology that I adopted in its place. That’s the point. God alone knows everything, and everyone else always has room to grow. Fidelity to scripture necessarily involves holding our interpretations of scripture with an open hand, ready to let them go if they are mistaken. Are you ready? Carefully and faithfully reading scripture is a monumental task. Are you up for the challenge?