What pedagogical approaches are there for teaching people to read the Bible for themselves? I asked several people as a small assembly line of chatterers produced dumplings for dinner.
(Dumplings, Chinese dumplings and other ones in the same skinned family – Latvian and Russian pelmeni eaten with sour cream and Mongolian Бууз (buuz) slick with the oil of boiled mutton and Georgian khinkali, are best contained a delicate membrane that just about holds the filling in but can be broken with a decisive chomp. Too thick a skin and poor granny might be chewing till kingdom come. Also, when chopsticks are the utensils of choice, the food needs to be bite-sized to avoid all sorts of ungainly contortions (or perhaps that’s just me).
Lucky Peach magazine’s recent dumpling obsession under the banner of Dumpling Month, has resulted in a nice cluster of anecdotal articles on dumpling diplomacy (complete with recipe for shui jiao), the familial socialising that comes with communal making of jiaozi, dumplings shaped to look like mice.)
Biblical interpretation is mostly about good comprehension skills, yet at the same time it is about God’s word being used by God’s Spirit as a sword for God’s people. So the first and most important thing about biblical interpretation is prayer – depending on God to enable us to understand what he is saying in his word.
But what about comprehension? How can comprehension be taught? Whether or not unique to the school programme I was in, but I don’t remember being formally taught to read or understand a passage. It was just something picked up as we went along.
An English teacher, while rolling out the dough, admitted that even in the normal education stream in Singapore, understanding a passage isn’t a priority in most Singapore schools. Rather, students learn how to ace exams by knowing how marks are allocated for certain sorts of questions. This might explain the dearth of constructive political-social discussions online and offline.
This is very preliminary sketch of things. Have to train a few groups in “Bible reading” and Bible study leading in the next few months, and typing things out helps me think. Wish someone else more competent could do it, but here I am. So, future me, here are some very vague, possibly confused, thoughts about how I might go about it. Please edit as mistakes become apparent:
Session 1 – Priority of God’s Word (Why do Bible study at all?)
Several people have suggested that we dive straight into the skills bit and skip all this “boring doctrine”. But I think that understanding the divine origin of God’s word, and the implications of that undergirds the whole of the human life. Most people would agree its priority in the Christian life, but what exactly does this mean?
There is so much to talk about, including:
- the trustworthiness of the word because of its divine origins;
- the necessity of the word because of our sinful creatureliness (cf. John 1:18 – cue cheeky question of “if Christ is the Word of God, then Christians are those who believe in Christ, not in the Bible” etc. Nope, false dichotomy.);
- the sufficiency of the word to accomplish God’s purposes in the world and in us (1 Corinthians 2:6-16, 2 Corinthians 3:12 – 4:6). Therefore we focus on planting the word faithfully, not ensuring the fruit, eg. the experience the word should produce, the community that the word should gather, the repentance that the word might extract;
- the power of the word to do this (2 Timothy 3:15-16);
- confidence in the word – clarity and purpose (cf. reader-response);
- the ultimate authority that lies in the word (cf. the Pie of Ultimate Authority); and
- as a warning against bibliolatry, how the Bible is merely the means to an end and not the end.
Maybe Timothy Ward’s excellent Words of Life: Scripture as the living and active word of God as set reading? Or some David Jackman? Jackman’s always good.
Here’s one facet:
- Q: What is God’s plan for the world? His will and plan is, in the fullness of time, to unite all things in Christ (Ephesians 1:10).
- Q: Since we Christians are part of “all things”, how are we to be united to him? Once we were separated from Christ and far off, but have now been brought near and united with each other and in Christ through his blood (Ephesians 2:11-22). But that’s not all – we are to maintain the unity of the Spirit, build up the one body of Christ until “we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:11-16)
- Q: What does God give us to enable the body of Christ to be built up? Bible (apostles, prophets), people to tell us about Jesus (evangelists), people to proclaim Christ/teach us about Jesus from the Bible (shepherds, teachers) (Ephesians 4:11-16)
- Q: Why are these necessary for the building up of the body?
- Q: Who builds the body of Christ?
- Q: How do they do it?
-> Q: What does this tell us about the usual way God accomplishes his plan for the world?
-> Q: What then are we seeking to accomplish in our times of Bible study?
-> Q: Why would the idea that “everyone can make the Bible say anything they want” be blasphemous?
-> Q: What specific ways would this change the way we personally lead Bible study this year?
When I was little, Bible study was a chore that you avoided the best you could. But the reality is that it’s not just necessary for growth as much our daily food and water, it’s also like sweet fresh water after you’ve crawled about in a hot acrid desert, or, when you’ve come in from the snow, stamping your feet and sniffling, a steaming pot of slow-cooked stew, rich with red wine, bobbing with tender beef chunks and good carrots and tomatoes .
Session 2 +++ – Grammatical-Historical Bit and Expositional (Book) Context (What is he saying and why is he saying it?)
God chose to make his official communication through human agents, using human language, expecting human minds to comprehend the same…but not without hard work.
Ask an evangelical minister for book recommendations for a toolkit to interpret the Bible and you get:
As a young Christian, neither of the first two books worked very well for me. It was all very well to have a catalogue of tools to use and a few worked examples, but I still couldn’t understand how they were to be deployed. “It’s more of an art than a science.” they said. Oh thanks very much, I said then, could I have someone hold my hand please? (The latest in the Dig Deeper series is really very useful in this regard, I think.)
Many years on now, I find myself agreeing that it’s more of an art than a science. But let’s see how much of a process we can put on it to help others.
It is clear that to understand the Bible correctly, we need to understand what the human author of that particular passage is saying. God chose to work through prophets and apostles and they wrote at a specific time, to a specific people, in a specific situation.
So our interpretation would have to be two-fold:
(i) working out what the human author is saying; and
(ii) understanding, as far as is necessary, the historical context into which he is writing. Q: How do I work out what God, through a historical author, is saying?
Here goes an attempt at a process (although I suspect one usually moves back and forth between most of these points in any ordinary reading exercise):
- read through the whole book once preferably, if you are distracted by such things, without editor-imposed headings and sub-headings
- note any obvious themes, statements of purpose for writing
- hypothesize a structure to the book (how the Gospel writers build their argument/evidence for Jesus as the Son of God etc, or for Paul’s epistles, perhaps his argument flow)
- hypothesize a structure to the given passage
- work through individual chunks to test hypothesis – bearing in mind the genre of the book or of the specific chunk, dealing with the grammatical stuff like nouns, verbs, tenses, cases, use of metaphors and idioms, and using the usual comprehension skills (eg. in Dig Deeper‘s terminology, “linking words”, “repetition”, “narrator’s comment”, “tone and feel”, “quotation / allusion”) or equivalent in the language in use for that study (Chinese? Tamil? French?)
- work through the details – this is somewhat controversial in certain circles: my SLOB leader was adamant that one must not spend alot of time working on the details, whereas a lecturer at The School was convinced that the main point of what the author was saying was dependent on the details and the more elusive our understanding of them was, the harder we needed to work at them. I suspect it’s the more-art-than-science thing of knowing when to pursue the details and when to leave them alone because it is unlikely they will contribute much to the main point.
- check hypothesis of structure to given passage
- from the structure, hypothesise the main point, that is, the thrust of the given passage
Q: What do we do with the historical context and the expositional/book context? Check how the hypothesised main point might fit into author’s context, intended audience, and the overall purpose of the book as a whole. After all the breaking up of a book into passages for bite-sized studies is artificial.
- How would this passage link to previous chunk?
- How would this passage help to develop the purpose of the book (if stated)?
- What would be missing if this section was not here?
- Why is this here? What would change if this passage was moved somewhere else in the book?
Q: What does the passage say?
Q: Why is the passage saying this?
Q: Why is it saying it here?
Then come to a conclusion as to the main point of the given passage. Write what some people call a purpose statement – stating the aim of the human author in this chunk of the book. Ensure that it is a clear and specific sentence, not something that can be applied to any other part of the New Testament (eg. not “God loves you and his son died for you.”)
But we need to hold our horses – a nice succinct purpose statement is not the point of Bible study; responding rightly to what God has said is (see Session 4).
(Pedagogical approach-wise, wonder if, instead of doing endless exegetical exercises, we could just work through the text together with the leader modelling how he/she was thinking about it as we went along. Very NLP (neuro-linguistic programming) “pseudo-science”, but it’s certainly the way I personally learn best.)
Session 3 – Redemptive-historical Context Hmm, it’s really artificial to break all this up into different sessions, but seeing that I have only an hour for each session…
All Scripture (and all of us) fit in somewhere on God’s timeline for the world. Knowing where our particular book fits in eschatologically would help us understand not only what God was saying to his people then, but also what he is saying to us now as we head towards the consummation of all that he has promised.
Loads of biblical theology (“the study of how every text in the Bible relates to every other text in the Bible”) books to choose from here: Graeme Goldsworthy’s Gospel and Kingdom and Vaughan Roberts’ God’s Big Picture trace the storyline through the Bible with themes of kingdom and covenant, Michael You’s Read Mark Learn: Bible Overview studies at St. Helen’s Bishopsgate, and Thomas Schriener and D.A. Carson have a good number of books and articles on this between them.
Session 4 – Living in Light of God’s Word
The main point of the main point is to understand God’s word so that our minds can be changed and we can live differently. Michael You has said in several of his talks that broadly, there isn’t that much that God wants to tell us:
- he wants us to acknowledge that he is God and we are not;
- he wants us to see that reality is quite different from what we might think. Our baseline is usually that this world is all there is, will continue forever. But the world isn’t like that – God exists, he made this world, this world will come to an end, whether you like it or not, and Jesus will return to judge;
- he wants us to change our worldview that shapes how we think and how we act. If we think that this world is all there is, then we want more money, and to get that we will decide on a well-paying job even if we have to work all days of the week. Even if we were brought up in a Christian family, most of us have a worldview that tells us that we have security because of the things of this world. But the reality is that this world is passing away and God wants us to want the new world to come. We must want what God wants, his goals, eternity, new creation.
- God is not an arbitrary spoilsport. He cares for us with his infinite power and love and he wants us to be assured that we can leave our lives in his hands.
Our right response to God’s word will totally transform our lives. Will this work? Pray so. Now to get some dinner.