Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth. But shun profane and vain babblings: for they will increase unto more ungodliness. And their word will eat as doth a canker: (2 Timothy 2:15-17 (KJV))
There was a point in my life, back when I was a teenager, where I first became aware that there were conflicts among the messages preached by different Christian ministers. Amazingly, all the conflicting preachers and teachers claimed to base their doctrines on the Bible. After all, could you imagine some Christian preacher who stands up and says that his message is in direct conflict with the Bible? Of course not! So, how could it be that all Christian preachers claim to be Biblically based, yet come up with different doctrines? It's confusing, especially for someone just beginning to look seriously at Christianity. So, what do we do with the Bible? Do we just discard it because so many have come up with conflicting interpretations? Surely, we can do better than that.
Enumerating all the differences in doctrine might be interesting to some, especially those who want to gawk at all the confusion among Christians, but I don't think that would be all that profitable. If you just want to get an idea of all the confusion over Christian doctrine, do a few searches on the Internet, or check out the varied books down at the bookstore. Every year it seems there is yet another novel interpretation of the Bible and its message. To argue each and every variant would be an endless chore. More importantly, constantly defending against every vain theory that comes along results in a situation where the subject for discussion is always defined by someone else. If I did that I would never get to talk about what I think is important.
More importantly, why should I need to base what I believe on what others believe? I should be able to pick up the Bible and study it for myself. That way, if I hear of a doctrine that I am not familiar with, I can check it out to see if it is true. I can also seek understanding to the questions I have directly from the Bible. After all, that is what makes the Bible so useful. Each believer can gain understanding on his own, whenever and wherever he needs to do so. So, what interests me is finding a strategy to understand the Bible myself. That way I don't have to be some sponge that just soaks up whatever is poured out by someone else. Once I have a solid, reliable way to study and understand the Bible, I have a way to evaluate any and all novel nonsense that gets thrown in my direction to see if it really is Biblically sound. I also have a way to deepen my own understanding so that I can better live my life according to the spiritual principles that God has revealed to man through the Bible.
Really, this is what a good Christian preacher should be doing. He should not be trying to just indoctrinate the listener into his beliefs. He should be showing the saints that what he says is accurate by showing them how he came to his conclusions. That's real teaching, in my opinion. The good teacher helps the student to find the answer and not just accept blindly what some one else says. This is also what every Christian should be doing. We have this resource of sacred writings, but it doesn't do us any good if we can't understand what we are reading. I have complained before that most of the problems in the Church can be summarized as "arrogant preachers and lazy saints." Put another way, the problem isn't really church organization, or type of worship service, or what type of building you gather in, or how much or little money is involved. The problem is the attitudes of the people that are involved. When "church" is about personalities and egos, about "us vs. them", about numbers, or seeing and being seen, then it will become corrupt. Only when the people are truly and humbly engaged in "faith seeking understanding" can the Holy Spirit go to work.
So where do you start? Do you just ignore everything anyone has ever written about the Bible and go at it from scratch? That is not what I am saying. The Bible is probably the most studied and analyzed book ever written. It would be stupid to just throw away that heritage. On the other hand, we can't just blindly accept what someone has written about the Bible. What we face today is usually about the same that others have faced before. We can and should use the knowledge of those who lived and are living the life of faith to get a better understanding. It's not that we should discard the thoughts of those that have walked this path of faith before us, but rather we should try to understand how they arrived at their interpretation. Did they "rightly divide the word of truth" as Paul suggests to Timothy? Where we start is to first lay out some sound principles of interpretation. Once we have those in mind we can both read the teachings of others and interpret directly from the Bible.
Formal theories about interpretation of the Bible fall under the companion disciplines of hermeneutics and exegesis. Fancy terms like those can frighten people sometimes, but really all we are talking about is reading and understanding a text. All of us do that all the time. You are doing it right now, in fact. Stop and think for a minute about what is involved in understanding this writing.
Hopefully, you take the attitude that you want to understand my intended meaning. Many people sub- consciously fail to do that when reading the Bible. They usually have some pre-conceived idea about what the Bible is supposed to say and then filter the text through their own ideas. What we should always seek to do is get the intended meaning of the original author. That's what hermeneutics is really about. It is a way to get the author's intended meaning, not whatever meaning we might read into the text.
Obviously, you need to know the meaning of the words vocabulary and grammar. That can be tricky because words have multiple meanings. Yet, that doesn't bother us because we can understand which variation in meaning is intended by looking at the context. For example, if I have been talking about a football game and then refer to "the ball" you know I probably mean a football not a basketball.
We also have to be aware of jargon. Jargon is simply a specialized use of a word that is different than its ordinary meaning. A "hard drive" means one thing to a computer expert and something different to a truck driver. The Bible has its own type of jargon and we need to be aware of that. Words like "faith" and "grace" have an ordinary meaning in English, but also have a specialized meaning in the Bible. We apply the Biblical meaning not the ordinary meaning when studying the Bible.
A good concordance and Bible dictionary can help to understand the meaning of the words in the Bible. A good technique is to do a "word study." Take a word that you are not sure of and search for all the other places in the Bible where that word is used. By comparing all the different usages, you get a larger context. From that context you can then better understand how the term is being used. Of course, you have to be aware that not all instances of the word need be the same. But, generally, the translators tried to be consistent when selecting the words to use at any given point in the text.
You also need to think about what type of writing this is. Serious writing has to be interpreted differently than humor; prose needs to be interpreted differently than poetry, etc. When reading this essay, you must determine when I am using a figure of speech and when I am being literal, and the same is true of the Bible. The Bible is filled with simile, metaphor, metonymy, and other like figures of speech. In any passage, you need to stop and consider whether or not the text is using a figure of speech. For example, Jesus said, "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God." Do we take that as a statement that rich people cannot be Christians, or do we interpret it as hyperbole? As with vocabulary, you look at the wider context of the passage to understand the intended meaning.
We also have to understand the use of idiomatic language. For example, in English, to say to someone, "Give me that" is more imperative that saying, "May I have that?" The two phrases are similar in meaning but have different connotations. The idioms of the Bible may be difficult to understand at first because of the distance in time and place from our own era. We have to try and think as the people of that time thought and to understand the idioms they used. This is expressed in the idea of historical context. We need to understand the text in the way the people of that period in history would have understood it. That means that we may also have to study first century history to understand why the writers included certain things.
One other principle is summed up in the phrase, "scripture interprets scripture." That is an all-inclusive principle that says the Bible as a whole can be considered consistent in its message. If someone interprets a passage in a way that is in direct conflict with the general message of the Bible, that interpretation is false. If a passage seems confusing, we can step back and see how it supports the overall message of the Bible. The overall message of the Bible is that we can and should trust God, desire what God has declared to be good and avoid what God has declared to be evil. That provides us a good general test for interpretation. One way to do this is to do a comparison of related passages. A reference Bible or a good search function in Bible software can help. Many parts of the Bible will quote other parts. The New Testament is filled with quotations from the Old Testament. Tracking down those references helps to understand how the writers of the New Testament interpreted the Old Testament. That helps us understand the consistency of the Bible's message.
Beyond these basics, anyone can obtain an interlinear version of the Bible and start learning the original languages the Bible was written in. Often, questions about interpretation are best answered by looking at the original language. Since most of us are not experts in those languages, we have to rely on lexicons and dictionaries. It is good to use more than one in order to avoid the bias of one author.
There are other things to consider, but these few are some of the most important and will get you a long way into study of the Bible. The thing to keep in mind is that there is a difference between simply reading the Bible and studying the Bible. Simply reading the Bible from cover to cover can be interesting, but often doesn't give you a deep understanding of the Bible. To delve deeply into the Bible and get the most out of it requires some effort. As I said before, we have far too many lazy saints that just want quick and easy answers. As Paul said to Timothy, you must "Study to shew thyself approved unto God." Only after serious study can we claim that we have rightly divided the word of truth. In my experience the effort is worth it. I know what I believe and I know why I believe it, and it isn't just because someone else said it was so. Because of that I can stand firm in my faith against the profane and vain babblers and voices of confusion.