Thursday, January 21, 2016

We have to do the work

Only two weeks into my hermeneutics class and I'm already overflowing with the things I am learning. What I have been studying has me thinking about Bible study.

In the past, I've seen a lot of women's bible study material. I do not hesitate to say that the majority of it was not good. A lot of it was fluff. A lot of it took verses out of context or disregarded the existence of a context. A lot read things into the text. A lot tried to impose 21st Century understandings on documents that were written three thousand years ago. Many of them don't seem to expect the student to do any work, and I wonder how much work the writer has done. There are good ones out there, but there are many more bad ones.

Bible study is not a matter of what R.C. Sproul calls "lucky dipping;" that practice of closing our eyes, opening our bibles, putting our finger on a page, finding a verse, and waiting for illumination. The Bible is a divine book, but it is also a human book. And it's a book, a work of literature. That will dictate how we approach it. Yes, the Spirit does guide us, but it won't do the work for us.

There are many things that make Bible study a challenging task. Here is a small sample:
  • The chronological distance between the events and the reader
  • The original languages were not English
  • The very different cultures of the Old Testament and New Testament worlds
  • Our pre-understandings as readers
Do these challenges mean that we cannot understand the Bible? Certainly not! God intended for us to understand it, and we believe in the clarity of Scripture. We have the Holy Spirit to teach us, but that does not rule out hard work. I read this in my textbook:
. . . Being indwelt by the Holy Spirit does not guarantee accurate interpretation. Though we have no desire to diminish the creative work of the Spirit, the Spirit does not work apart from hermeneutics and exegesis . . . 

. . . The diligent Christian with even an average education who is willing to study, and who has access to the fine tools now available, can arrive at the central meaning of virtually every passage in the Bible. 
No matter how good Bible study resources are, we still have to do the work. How much work are we prepared to do? Do we simply want to let someone do the work for us? As a teacher, I have seen that my students get much more out of the lesson if they have familiarized themselves with the content beforehand. I need to do more work than my students. Teaching requires more than being able to use a DVD series to lead others. We should still be doing the work whatever "extras" we choose to utilize in our studies.

May I be so bold as to suggest that if we're not comfortable doing the interpretive work ourselves we should think twice about teaching? I suspect that sentiment won't be popular. It's fashionable these days to avoid using the word "teacher," preferring instead "facilitator," or "leader." I'm a little old school on this issue. Someone has to be teaching. Someone has to have done the work.

Bible study how-to books for women are readily available. Many want something written by women for women. I'm not familiar with all of the books directed to women, but I have read Kathleen Nielson's book Following the Ways of the Word. A book my hermeneutics professor suggested for a lay audience is called Journey into God's Word. I have not read it myself, but I hope to have a look at it somewhere down the line. Another of his recommended resources is How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth. I found that very helpful, and would recommend it. I have heard good things about Jen Wilkin's Women of the Word, but have not seen it myself. When you are shopping for one, do consider investing in a how-to book that takes into consideration the various genres found in the Bible. We can't approach prophecy in the same way we do an epistle, and those differences are important. Check out the table of contents of the books you are interested in. If you can afford it, buy more than one.

We have the God's word in our own language. What a privilege! Some people don't, and some people have only portions. With this treasure in our hands, shouldn't we study it to the best of our ability? Simply put, it means work. There is no getting around it. It won't come easy, but it will be worth the effort.


  1. I also teach a group of women at our church. You are so right. Someone has to teach, to have done in-depth study or it is just a bunch of women getting together giving their opinion of the text. We are doing a Kathleen Nielson study right now on Ecclesiastes and I also recommend Jen Wilkin's book.

    1. Yes, without someone leading the way, the danger of relying on opinion does grow. I have used Kathleen Nielson's studies in the past, too. I really like her books on the Psalms and Proverbs.

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  3. Excellent! Thanks for sharing!!

    Peter Krol also has an excellent and accessible resource on learning how to study the Bible, freely available @ Or one can purchase a similar, yet updated, print copy via Cruciform Press under the title "Knowable Word".

  4. One of the thing I love about the church my husband began pastoring a few months ago is our ladies' Sunday school class. The teacher studies using a precept-style method, then teaches us in that same method. There's very little room for "what it means to me is", and it's a great way to involve women at all levels of spiritual maturity and Bible literacy. Best of all, she's teaching them something they can duplicate on their own.

  5. Yes! Work and diligent study is necessary to interpret the Bible properly! It drives me bonkers when people take passages out of context or misinterpret a passage just because they haven't taken the time to really dig and examine them.