Biblical Study 1: How Not To Do It

When I first began studying the Bible in earnest I was not a very skilled interpreter of Scripture. I’m still not. But there are a few mistakes I have learned from in the method of Biblical Study. Hopefully you can glean a little help from my mistakes.

One of those mistakes is bringing to many presuppositions to the text. To be clear about this, there will always be presuppositions. That is unavoidable. The secret is to allow our presuppositions to be conformed to the text. For instance, suppose I read a passage from the historical narrative of Acts. Acts is a historical document which I believe to be a faithful and true to the events listed therein. Now suppose I read these verses:

But Paul and Barnabas remained in Antioch, teaching and preaching the word of the Lord, with many others also. And after some days Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us return and visit the brothers in every city where we proclaimed the word of the Lord, and see how they are.” Now Barnabas wanted to take with them John called Mark. But Paul thought best not to take with them one who had withdrawn from them in Pamphylia and had not gone with them to the work. And there arose a sharp disagreement, so that they separated from each other. Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and departed, having been commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord. And he went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches. (Act 15:35-41)

One thing about this passage is that it doesn’t tell us who is right or wrong. It tells us that Barnabas and Paul had a disagreement. Now the person who has been reading Acts and knows that Paul is an Apostle may automatically assume that Barnabas is in the wrong. On the other hand, a skilled interpreter of Scripture may come to the conclusion that Paul was wrong, based on his knowledge of other Scriptures. The truth, however, is that the Bible does not say who is right or who is wrong in this instance. Presupposing that either Barnabas or Paul are wrong in this instance takes our focus off of the point of the text which is that Barnabas and Paul went their separate ways as God was leading each of them to do.

Another mistake in Bible Study is digging to deep. What I mean by this is that a person can immerse himself so deep in the words and what the words by themselves mean that he loses sight of what the passage, which is made up of words, actually says. Martyn Lloyd-Jones was a marvelous expository preacher in the sense that he preached verse by verse through the Bible. And be it far from me to criticize someone who has had such an impact on many well-respected Bible teachers in our generation. IL have never heard a sermon by Lloyd-Jones that I did not agree at least ninety-eight percent of the time theologically. But I sometimes wonder if Dr. Lloyd-Jones went to deep to the point of missing the point of the passage.
Another example is a sermon I heard preached on the heart once. I don’t remember the passage or the preacher, but I do remember that he neglected the text in order to explain how the human organ that is called the heart works. I also remember that the passage was not referring to the physical heart, but the seat of emotions. Not only did this preacher miss the point of the passage he was trying to preach, he missed the point of the word that he neglected the passage in order to preach! This is what can happen when we become to involved with word studies. We become so focused on one or two words in the passage that we miss what all the words together are saying.
Word studies are important. But only when they are used to shine light on the whole passage of Scripture we are seeking to understand.

Another mistake to avoid is depreciating the English text. I would venture to say that the English translations that are available today are the some of the most accurate translations in the history of the Western Church. Of course the Greek and Hebrew texts always take precedence over the translations, but there is no need to doubt what the English says clearly and unequivocally. If the verse makes perfect sense to you in its context, leave it alone. It probably means what it says. And the translators know more Greek and Hebrew than most of the rest of us. You may not like what the verse says, but let it say what it says. Confirm what it says by researching it, but do not change it just because it is not palatable to you or your system of theology. Conform yourself and your theology to Scripture.

A fourth mistake is not interpreting Scripture in the light of 2,000 years of church history. In the course of church history, thousands of Bible interpreters have wrestled with the same texts you do. It is never wise to impose your view of the consensus of trusted Bible interpreters throughout the centuries without a very good argument.
There are times that the consensus of church history has been wrong. I am a Baptist. I am Baptist because of theological and scriptural reasons. And by being a Baptist I realize that most of the biblical interpreters from 300 A. D. to 1700 A. D. are opposed to my view of baptism.
I say this to clarify my meaning when I say “It is never wise to impose your view of the consensus of trusted Bible interpreters throughout the centuries without a very good argument.” I have weighed the arguments from both sides and landed squarely on the Baptist side.

Finally, don’t work outside of a proper framework. Dispensationalism, Progressive Dispensationalism, Covenantal Theology, and New Covenant Theology all have their downsides. Even with those downsides your interpretation of Scripture will probably fall into one of those categories. Don’t be bound by the framework you find yourself in, but recognize that these frameworks can help you interpret Scripture. Use them as tools for interpreting Scripture, but don’t bow the knee to them.
Creeds and confessions of faith from history are also helpful for Biblical study. In these we have a good source for finding out what the Church from it’s very beginning has believed. Use the Apostle’s Creed to give you an overview of the message of the New Testament. Use the Nicene and Athanasian Creeds to understand the various Trinitarian patterns found in Scripture.
Most importantly, don’t interpret Scripture outside of the framework of a local church. We are put together in local congregations for many reasons. One reason is so that we may study the Scriptures together as we grow in the faith together. Your Pastors, Sunday School Teachers, and even the janitor can be a source of encouragement and help as you wrestle with God’s Words. And you can help them as well.

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15 Comments

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15 responses to “Biblical Study 1: How Not To Do It

  1. Rose~

    Hi Jeremy,
    Good post – you’ve really explained your approach.

    The only thing I get a little nervous about is this:

    A fourth mistake is not interpreting Scripture in the light of 2,000 years of church history.

    I believe I know what you mean by this and I appreciate what you say about challenging the accepted concensus only rarely. I would say the main reason this doesn’t sit well is because ever since I became a Christian, Catholic relatives pull this card out constantly about church history etc …
    They would say that their history goes back further than that of the Reformers … and definately farther back than Baptists etc…

    So, where does it end when you look to church history to find interpretation? I definately think it is helpful, but I am afraid that a lot of it is tainted. Could it be that by attributing authority to what “church fathers” have said, that we may perpetutate the mistakes of others? I don’t mean to be a contrarian, it is just a concern, Jeremy.

    Great, helpful thoughts, overall!

  2. Steve Weaver

    Great post! Keep up the good work!

  3. Gummby

    Something I heard recently that I think fits in this category is not to discard your long-held beliefs prematurely. The context was a cessationist moving to continuationism, but the principal is the same irrespective of the issue: we should always be willing to change if we are in error, but we should be methodical and circumspect in doing so.

    Solid post. Nice picture, too.

  4. H K Flynn

    This is a great post!

    Very true about how the janitor’s theology ought not to be neglected šŸ™‚

    My favorite of your points is not going too deep. What sometimes happens is that the result is really a topical study instead of being based on the passage.

    I think anything valid should somehow come from, or be hinted at, in the text itself, otherwise we would need specially educated professionals to decode the Scriptures…

    Wouldn’t that be weird, if that was true?? šŸ˜‰

    he he he

    God bless,

    Jodie

  5. Joe

    If we would spend more time on the point of a scripture; ie: the overriding principle(s), and less on the minutia, which may or may not be of import, maybe we would come to a common understanding more frequently.

  6. Jeremy Weaver

    Rose,
    Good points. Proceed with caution. But I would also be very cautious about interpreting Scripture in the light of what Joe Blow down the street says he learned last night.

    Steve,
    Thank you, I’ll try!

    Gummp,
    Brings to mind the passage in James about the double-minded man or Paul’s words about being carried about with every wind of doctrine in Ephesians.

    Jodie,
    Thanks for the comment! I’m all for going deep, as I know you are too. But only as deep as the text will allow. Many times what is thought of as ‘going deep’ is imposing different doctrines, whether they are true or false, on a verse that clearly doesn’t teach it. Sort of like reading, ‘Jesus wept’, and saying that it means that Jesus was lonely. Know what I mean?

    Joe,
    Probably.

  7. Jonathan Moorhead

    I particularly like point 4 and your last paragraph.

    BTW, is it “to” or “too”?

  8. Jeremy Weaver

    ‘To’ or ‘too’ where?

  9. Rose~

    Doxoblogist,
    Are you saying that God can’t speak His truths to Joe Blow down the street through His Word?

    Oh, I know you’re not saying that. :~)

    Great post, Jeremy!

  10. pilgrim

    Rose–the Catholic Church’s interpreatations don’t go as far back as they like to claim they do.

    Jeremy’s advice is well given.

  11. H K Flynn

    I know exactly what you mean.

    Even true doctrines should be preached with the passage but not as if they was being taught.

    Simple texts like Jesus wept are meaningful enough without treating them like bulletin boards !

  12. H K Flynn

    they were being taught

    aaaarggh…

  13. BugBlaster

    This is good stuff Jeremy, thanks.

  14. kec

    You said:
    “Presupposing that either Barnabas or Paul are wrong in this instance takes our focus off of the point of the text which is that Barnabas and Paul went their separate ways as God was leading each of them to do.”

    Does God ever lead people to sin? If one of them was in the wrong, and acted because of that, then is it appropriate to say that “as God was leading each of them to do”?

    This was a great article, but I’m curious about this point, since it was meant to illustrate something.

    Is that really what was meant? And if not, then what error of bible study lead to the conclusion?

  15. Jeremy Weaver

    kec,
    The point is, the Bible does not say either of them are wrong. It does not say that either of them sinned. The point of the passage is that Paul and Barnabas separated because of a disagreement between them.

    In the early church, tradition taught that each of them were already being pulled in separate directions by the Spirit. The ‘John Mark’ issue was a confirmation of sorts.

    Finally, God uses every situation in our lives for His purpose. His purpose here was the furtherance of His kingdom, which is what the book of Acts is about. So yes, I would say that God in His providence, while not causing or leading into sin, has sin incorporated in His plan.
    My point here is that playing the ‘blame game’ ends up taking away from Luke’s intention to show how the Gospel spread from Jerusalem tot he uttermost parts of the earth.

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