Monday, January 5, 2009

Good And Not-So-Good Bible Studies

Bible Studies are a wonderful way to go deeper in our faith and to establish a more intimate relationship with Jesus Christ. One of the many benefits of Scripture is that it has the capacity to add a dialogical dimension to our prayer life. Without Scripture, our prayer life can quickly degrade into a chatty monologue. We have a tendency to avoid those “awkward” silences with the Lord so we simply talk God’s ear off expecting no response. Of course, I think we all desire a formal response but we frequently consign ourselves to defeat in that area. Scripture offers the Christian an instant solution to our deepest desire to have a genuine conversation with the Lord. The living and breathing Word of God speaks to our very hearts as if each letter written on the sacred parchment was penned with us in mind. What a beautiful gift God has given us and kept unblemished through the protective and loving arms of the Holy Catholic Church.

Bible Studies form an indispensable role in our spiritual formation. By entering into a scripture study we communicate the reality that this sacred text is very different from ourselves. We look to others whether that be the Church, certified Bible Study leaders, or resources written by qualified theologians, historians, or socio-rhetorical experts to aid us in our pursuit of Truth.

All this being said, we must also use caution when entering into a group study. One red flag of an unhealthy study group is when the discussions are dominated by the question, “What does this passage mean to you?” This is a trumpet blast to all those attending that the study has moved from looking at Scripture as something “other” than the group to looking at Scripture as “another” of the group. In other words, we have moved from trying extract the riches of the text (exegesis) to imposing our own ideas onto the text (eisegesis). I am not saying that personal application is bad. All good Bible Studies have as their goal solid personal application, but we must always make a firm distinction between our means and our end.

To this end I would like to suggest four solid pillars to a healthy and spiritually edifying Bible Study. The first criterion is that a study should be exegetical. There are many words and phrases we do not understand in Scripture that inhibit our ability to read the text correctly. The function of exegesis is to fill those empty words with a first century meaning so that the reader can read the text fluidly. Of course, exegesis may come in handy to redefine words that the reader thinks he/she knows but has misunderstood due to ignorance.

The second pillar of the study is history. Scripture was not written in a vacuum. Every book you read has a unique and powerful social and historical context. One of the greatest injustices done to Scripture is the idea that the contemporary reader’s worldview was roughly equivalent to the worldview of the first century. Much of the tragedy of the Reformation stemmed from Martin Luther’s belief that St. Paul was battling legalism like Luther was battling “legalism” in the Catholic Church. In other words, Martin Luther sometimes projected his own contemporary crisis onto St. Paul and his letters thus gravely distorting many things. We must deal with the scriptural authors on their own terms and within their own worldview!

The third pillar is theology. Just as each person comes with their own worldview, so too does each person embrace a unique theology. St. Paul does in fact have a different theology than St. John. This does not mean they contradict each other, but rather that they supplement each other. If we are studying Romans, we must be diligent in our endeavors to understand Paul’s own theology. This requires us to study St. Paul’s life seeking to answer particular questions like, “Was Paul a Jew and if so, which Jewish Sect did he come from?” “What kind of Roman education did he have?” “What does it mean that he studied under the great Rabbi Gammalial?” Such questions will help us tremendously to get into the theological mind of Paul.
After mining the exegetical, historical, and theological dimensions of our study we have finally won the right to move to practice! Now it is time to ask the great question, “What does this passage mean to me?” We have stepped outside of ourselves in order to understand the original intention of the passage at hand. In light of this truth which we have discovered through laborious study, we may now apply it to our life with confidence.

I pray these four pillars to a good and healthy bible study are helpful. May God bless you as you read the word of God, and may the information you receive always lead to personal transformation. May God be Praised!

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