The Bible. A book so significant that we do not even italicize the title. A book that, according to orthodox Christianity, is the actual Word of God to humanity. A book like that must be a pretty big deal, right? After all, many people begin and end their day reading the Bible. Around our house, we memorize parts of the Bible, share sections with others, and even have portions of the Bible framed as artwork reminders and hanging on the walls!
A book that inspires such devotion surely must not be subject to the same academic habits that we put other literature through, should it? After all, the quickest cure for enthusiasm is assigned work, right?
While many of us would argue that we can and should study the Bible academically, our habits tend to show we do not believe in academically studying the Bible. We don’t do it, so we must not actually believe in it. Let me challenge you to rethink your choices about studying the Bible.
Why Study the Bible?
First, let us consider the objection that academic study may crunch our devotion to Scripture. That is a legitimate concern. As someone holding a seminary degree, I have tasted that danger myself! Yet if we had a student who truly loved science, would we hide the chemistry books for fear of crunching her love for science? Nonsense! We would buy a chemistry set, introduce her to Dr. Jay Wile, and watch devotion grow with knowledge.
We would, however, take pains to feed the fires of devotion alongside the learning. Studying the Bible is no different. We make the effort to establish a devotional habit separate from the academic subject. At times, the two types of study will cross paths but they are not the same. Further, academic study of Scripture should, eventually, feed back into our devotional lives.
How to Study the Bible?
Now, let us consider whether or not the Bible ought to be studied like any other book. In fact, it must be. We read it, do we not? As we study other works, do we not seek to understand the meanings and intentions nestled in the words? Of course we do. One would not read Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham jail without learning why Dr. King was in jail or the state of the people to whom he was writing.
So, if we are going to read Paul’s Letter from a Roman jail to the Philippians, we should study why Paul was in jail and what the state was of the people to whom he was writing. Or Malachi’s message to the returned exiles, as another example. In a similar manner, we learn world history from books called The Story of the World, so when we study “The History of Israel According to the Former Prophets,” we should not just read it without exploring how it fits into the flow of the world.
The academic study of Scripture, then, is not merely chasing a curiosity but broadening our understanding of what God said. Look back at the beginning: the Bible is the Word of God. We ought to do our best to understand it. That means we will explore how it was written, including form and genre and structure. We will examine when it was written, in both culture and history. We will examine where it was written, in geography and society. We will examine who wrote it and who the audience was. From there, we can see even more clearly how the Bible applies to our lives today and how God will use the Bible to change not only us but the whole world.