Four cautions when studying the Bible
The first Bible I remember owning was a black bonded leather Revised Standard Version. It’s still around somewhere, though it’s really thrashed. But I have not tossed it. Are we allowed to?
It doesn’t seem right somehow to junk a Bible. But it is “just a book” in some ways, right? We do not worship the book itself. The term “bibliolatry” seldom comes up, but when is it in play? Do you ever put anything on top of your Bible? How would we know if our Bibles have become idols?
We can easily agree that it is the God of the Bible that we believe in and worship, and that it is the message of the Bible that we place our faith in. Yet, it seems pretty clear that we give some kind of honor to the actual book. It is, after all, the story of our triune God and his salvation. Heilsgeschichte, a German word literally translated “salvation history,” is such a great pseudonym for the Bible.
A few years ago I was working to restate our evangelical-Anabaptist core convictions, and I wrote: “The Bible is the only unfailing guide for peace with God, a fulfilled life and assurance of heaven.” That makes it, at very least, unique among books.
Now then, how we read the Bible also matters. I recently read an article that reminded me that we need to keep our minds in gear when we read the Scriptures, especially when we are reading devotionally or for personal nourishment. So let’s consider a few cautions.
One of the mistakes we make is to turn a proverb into a personal promise. How often have you heard Proverbs 22:6 explained this way? While it is generally true that children will not depart from the way in which they are trained, this proverb should not be understood as a blanket promise. While sharing pain with parents who have trained and nurtured well only to watch their adult children walk away from God, as a pastor I often wished it were a guarantee.
Another proclivity we have is to select or highlight a phrase or sentence of promise or blessing for personal application. While that may well have some desired impact, the original context of life process or condition in the text often tells of deep waters that were navigated before the relief showed up. And that doesn’t address the fact that these promises were often given to a particular person or group at a special time for particular reasons.
An additional concern grows out of a strong tendency in most of us to get things well ordered and categorized, especially in our philosophical and theological thoughts and beliefs. So the tendency is to wrestle every theological idea to the ground and then put it in its place. There are, however, biblical truths that stand in tension with each other. The classic illustration is the obvious tension between God’s sovereignty and mankind’s free will. This sort of tension becomes an occasion for us to dig in and defend our preferred understanding. And that’s the point. No one has full understanding or the final word.
One last caution flag: Are we willing to admit that it is our natural tendency to read the Bible from our personal and cultural contexts? When Jesus invites his followers to come to him for rest, we U.S. Mennonite Brethren may think of a gathered worship-learning time with our church family or spending time in our recliner, at a spiritual retreat or in personal devotions. What are our spiritual brothers and sisters in famine ravaged lands or war torn places thinking when they read that text?
“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness,” is how Paul puts it (2 Tim. 3:16). But we need to be diligently thoughtful. It might be that some of us need to review and adjust our thoughts and attitudes about the leather and paper. Others of us may need to read more carefully. More importantly, let’s all live as real participants in God’s story of salvation.