I used to wonder, what is the best way to study the Bible? Is there some secret code, a method, an approach, that unlocks all the mysteries of the word of God? It was a key pursuit in my personal quest to answer the fundamental questions of Christianity.
I came across many different methods, techniques and theories, ranging from the sound to the absurd. One thing I consistently found missing was studying the Bible with an awareness that it is a metanarrative, a story of stories. The controlling narrative of the scriptures was generally absent in shaping the study. What do stories have to do with the word of God?
Words are not just the basic units of human speech. They carry stories i.e. symbolic accounts of how we think and live in the world. These symbols could be words, paintings, music or whatever mode of human communication. The writer of Hebrews famously uses the “word of God” in 4:12 in reference to the Exodus narrative fulfilled in Christ that he had been establishing as a guiding theme for the entire epistle. We find this again and again that the word of the Lord is not just a set of quotes from the mouth of God. The Bible opens in Genesis with “In the beginning God…” The word of God is the very story of God.
The storied word of God is contained in scripture. The Greek word translated scripture basically means something that is written. The first of three major tent poles that support Bible study is literature.
The Bible is literature. Many people see Holy Writ and “spiritualize” it into something that it is decidedly not. On the other hand, many Christians are understandably wary of the literature tag because of the unwarranted liberalism that was especially prevalent in early Biblical scholarship. Saying it is ancient literature does not make it any less sacred but it still remains scripture, a text, something that is written. This understandably means we need to follow the standard rules of grammar and comprehension. The Bible does not abide by a supernatural literary code.
We also need to recognise there are different literary forms and genres in the Bible. We cannot read the Proverbs in the same way we read Chronicles, Romans or Revelation. These genres and forms are not modern but they belong to the biblical period. We should not expect the Bible to follow our literary conventions. Since it is ancient literature it is written in an ancient language. We therefore need scholarship to thoroughly understand the language, its Biblical usage, and translate it into familiar contemporary vernacular for believers everywhere.
The Bible being ancient literature brings up the second pole: history. The Bible was written in the distant past, far removed from modern social conventions and technology. As much the text needs literary context it needs historical context for correct interpretation. John Walton’s maxim, the Bible is written for us but not to us, rings resoundingly true. The Bible is peppered with things that cannot be understood without an awareness of ancient culture. Things are only meaningful in an interpretive environment. The way we take certain things for granted in our everyday speech, the Bible does the same hardly ever pausing to give explanations.
Another important facet of the scriptures being historical is that it deals with real events that happened in the past. The Bible makes historical claims, albeit not in exactly the same way we conceive it, but history nonetheless. The biblical record overall does not read like ancient myths. It talked about real people and real events. This is very essential because the Bible has a controlling linear narrative with an author guiding history to a definitive conclusion. This grand author leads us to the third pole.
Theology is integral to the Bible. It contains the story of the one God, YHWH, who it claims is the author of reality. I hinted at this earlier on with the word as a story that we are dealing with a particular worldview. A worldview deals with the ultimate questions of reality, none of which is bigger than the question of God, a matter of theology. The Bible answers this question with the story of the God of Israel, creator of the world, accomplishing his mission and purpose through Jesus the Messiah. This means there is a cosmic plan and a resolution to the problems we see in this world. This unshakeable faith in a good Creator undergirds the entire scriptural narrative.
Literature, history and theology are all professionally studied. Personal or group Bible study needs to be regularly refreshed with contemporary scholarship. With modern technology this has become much easier. A discerning search on Google is often enough to keep the layman up to date. Things that in the past were only accessible on a seminary campus are available online.
The triad of history, theology and literature are in themselves different kinds of story. These three strands come together to form the connective tissue of the living word of God. We must always remember that it is the Spirit who brings the Bible to life. It is not a closed book of things that happened in antiquity. It is the living story of God which is at work in believers today. The story of Israel, God’s chosen people, climaxed in the exulted Messiah and through the Spirit it is being carried on in the Church.
Since we are presently participating in a living story we need to make sure we do not excise it from its literary, historical and theological environment. Not doing so would mean cutting the major vessels that supply the Bible with life. I described the three as poles because they are necessary to erect a tabernacle for the word of God to live in our hearts by the Spirit. Without each the structure falls. The scriptures bring history and theology together to give us a functional, coherent worldview expressed through the biblical narrative.
The mission to be the Creator’s image bearer in the world was given to Adam. It was then irrevocably passed on to Abraham because of humanities sin, was fulfilled in the Messiah redeeming the human race, and was implemented through the Church by the Spirit. We are participating in a living story which like the scriptures is told through various lives, in various places, at various times.
There is a coherent message in the Bible, the Good News of what God has accomplished in the world. This narrative must always guide and shape our Bible studies. When we watch a film or read a novel we interpret the events of the story according to the premise, plot, themes, tone, structure etc of the work. We see problems when elements in it do not form a coherent story. Our understanding of the text must go with the flow of the narrative. It must fit the story that is being told at the level of the individual book and with the entire Bible it says.
As we endeavour to study the Bible according to this narrative, the biblical worldview becomes the lens through which we live and understand the world around us. As we read the word of God it reads us. It pierces through the thoughts and intents of our heart right to the core of our being revealing who we truly are.
When Paul writes that the word of God should dwell in us I believe he was using an incarnational analogy (Colossians 3:16.) The Word became flesh through the long story of a flawed people in the same way the scriptures came to us through the lives of various imperfect authors. Sometimes people are shocked to find challenges in the Bible. Everything does not neatly add up. However, if we firmly believe that God worked in and through frail humanity it should not surprise us that his book should look the same.
The way we can tell that our studies of the Bible are bearing fruit is not by having sophisticated, cerebral, theological schemes. It is when we see the Biblical story being enacted in our own lives. It means our entire beings have been so thoroughly soaked in the word through study, through prayer and worship, through community, that we exude the grace of God in our lives. The long tortuous process of enscripturation does not end with a closed canon. In continues through us as living epistles crafted by the spirit of God.