Recently my church ran a short study on how to interpret the Bible, a three-session series based on the first 9 General Principles of Interpretation from Walter A. Henrichsen's book, A Layman's Guide to Interpreting the Bible.
I found these short sessions very helpful, and appreciated how they were so simply and straightforwardly laid out; it didn't make you feel like you were masquerading as a theological student! To be honest, I never gave much thought on how to interpret the Bible, preferring to focus on those more straightforward passages, so yes, it was about time.
Since we all don't have the time to read as many books as we'd like to, I thought I'd summarize those 9 principles for your benefit. You're welcome.
RULE ONE: Work from the assumption that the Bible is authoritative.
Henrichsen identifies 3 forms of authority that every Christian "consciously or unconsciously" relies on:
Tradition, Reason, and the Scriptures.
According to the Reformed belief, the Scriptures should always come first, based on its authority as the Word of God, though that doesn't exclude the validity of the other two forms of authority.
This of course raises the question: how do we know the Bible is inspired by God, is the Word of God? According to Henrichsen, inspiration must follow authority, not the other way around: "Therefore in Bible Study you begin with the issues of authority. It and the question of inspiration which naturally follows are answered when you submit to the Word of God. You may study inspiration as a separate topic, but you only know the Bible to be the inspired Word of God as you place yourself under its authority." Henrichsen uses the example of a passenger about to board a plane bound for Tokyo, even though the captain cannot guarantee a safe journey: "The demand that commitment come before knowledge is not unique to the Christian faith. It is common, everyday experience for all people."
RULE TWO: Use the Bible to interpret the Bible; Scripture best explains Scripture.
When interpreting the Bible, beware of omission and addition, as the disastrous consequences in the Garden of Eden indicate. Likewise, beware of individual verses taken in isolation, as they can often be used to support both sides of an argument and can't be considered conclusive as such. Heinrichsen gives an example of how either Galatians 5:4 ("You have fallen away from grace") might give the impression--taken in isolation--that it's possible for a Christian to lose their salvation; however, as John 10:27-29 shows, this isn't the case: "My sheep listen to My voice; I know them, and they follow Me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of My hand. My Father, Who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father's hand."
And that's why cross-referencing is important. Primary cross-referencing should be based on thought/topic rather than on specific words, which should be secondary cross-referencing.
RULE THREE: Saving faith and the Holy Spirit are necessary for us to understand and properly interpret the Scriptures.
This was an interesting thought I hadn't considered, which to me underlined the fact that studying the Bible is not like studying any other book. Don't come at it with an attitude of entitlement, expecting the formula of read-understand-benefit that might work with a Tolstoy or a Shakespeare play. When we decide we want to study the Bible it requires a humble attitude, godliness/a clean conscience before God, and prayer for the Holy Spirit's enabling. How much we understand from our study is directly related to our spiritual state.
"Count your blessings, name them one by one...Count your many blessings, see what God has done."
I grew up singing this song and was always slightly skeptical about how simple it made gratitude sound. Even at that age I knew there was a difference between knowing I had many things to be thankful for, and being thankful for them. Talk about counting, I could rattle off a list of blessings I had without necessarily feeling more grateful for them--like saying grace and knowing that though you were grudgingly 'thankful' for food so you didn't have to starve, you weren't thankful for oatmeal all the same.
Thanksgiving, however, is something we are commanded to do in the Bible, because God knows it's something we need to do--something we have to be reminded to do, sometimes.
It's hard to be thankful when your mind is full of things that need to be done. It's like trying to pray with a to-do list for the day in front of you.
I've never seen the correlation between busyness and the challenge of gratefulness before, but looking at it in this way totally makes sense--having actually experienced how hard it is to do devotions with a hundred things on your mind.
We always say that we have so many things to be grateful for (and we usually use the word 'blessings' when we say that) but the truth is that we struggle to actually feel this gratitude we talk so loudly about.
Of the ten lepers Jesus healed in Luke 17, I find it interesting how they were healed halfway on their way to the high priest. Perhaps it was a test of faith, to see if they were willing to start on the journey even before they had been healed. At any rate, the actual healing happened when they had already left Christ. After the initial rejoicing died down, the nine were all focused on finishing the journey, following the right protocol and getting officially declared cleansed as soon as possible. Get to the temple, find high priest, and a hundred other things they wanted to do and could do now they were clean, was probably buzzing in their minds nonstop.
Only one realized that he owed so much to the man they'd left behind, and that they hadn't even thanked Him. And that he might not get the chance again.
And he turned back.
He stopped long enough to realize that though the official cleansing was important, and that his whole life had been given back to him, with all the possibilities and opportunities that meant, it could wait. He stopped to consider the implications, not just the consequences of the miracle which had just happened.
Gratitude doesn't come in instant formulas, like noodles or coffee.
Contrary to being achievement-oriented--even for the right things, as in this case--thankfulness requires that we stop and reflect. One of the reasons God knows that we need to be commanded to be thankful, reminded to be thankful; all too often we're headlong in our schedule, our goals, our duties and responsibilities, even our emotions.
Thankfulness is realizing what we are, and who God is.
I was just notified that apparently the link to my other blog (the Discipline of Wonder) under the Browse page of this blog isn't working--due to a small and yes, characteristically blur mistake on my part--so I hurried to fix that! Clearly I wasn't destined to make waves in Silicon Valley.
*PS: It has just come to my attention that "blur" is specifically Singlish slang, so for my non-Singaporean readers, here's a definition from none other than Oxford Dictionaries.
I sat down to finish this article (it was just an idea, a few bullet points and a title) and the first thought that came to my mind was, "Should I dare to do this?"
After all, it's been several consecutive years of teaching Sunday School/not attending a regular Bible study and perhaps that means I'm not a good authority on the subject. Yet, I think the transition from student to teacher and the distance with which I've been able to observe, from afar, has helped me better appreciate and (hopefully) benefit from Bible Study--something I hope I can prove when I have the chance!
It's not easy to lead a class, whether you're teaching or facilitating. Let me first say a word on facilitating--that modern take on teaching which is supposed to encourage participation, interaction, and pro-activeness. That's the rosy ideal behind the idea. Usually it results in horribly awkward silences and a traumatized facilitator who ends up babbling wildly, painfully aware that he/she isn't supposed to be talking so much, why isn't anyone saying anything, this lesson was a failure, an epic failure, and what made anyone think facilitating a class was easy? I'd rather go to the dentist! At least they don't expect you to talk. Talk, people, talk!! Why won't you talk??!
From this you can probably tell I've had my share of facilitating failures (could that be considered a pun, by the way?)
I think realizing this is probably the first step to being a good student, to improving your classroom experience (since my small church rents classrooms in a school, that's completely accurate; but I suppose this does apply to non-spiritual classes as well, so.)
At the risk of sounding like Christianized link bait, (see title of post!) I humbly offer some simple tips you probably already knew:
1. As a student: Be involved. This sounds like something you'd get from your school counsellor or some college help book like Cal Newport's How to Win at College, but it's true. After all, Bible study isn't that much different from any lecture in school. One person stands up before the rest and is expected to impart pure distilled wisdom within the specified amount of time. That's high expectations, though. I've hardly met many people or even books (my teachers, growing up; textbooks or otherwise) who can do this. In reality, the student's response is just as important as the teacher's input. So before you sit down and routinely succumb to the mysterious muteness and stagnation that attacks so many Bible Study students, I suggest you embrace this thought of the day: (a la all those peppy motivational individualist corny sayings that appear on the classroom whiteboards)
YOU determine how much you benefit from your bible study class.
As a student, when you walk out of the class feeling like you didn't gain anything, it's easy to blame that on the facilitator/teacher's skills. However, if you ever become a facilitator/teacher you'll realize how hard it is to generate interactive discussion without the proactive help of at least several people in the class, which I call your backbone. I just experienced this first-hand at church camp leading one of the discussion groups. I could have hugged and wept tears of gratitude for the several brave souls who backed me up and kept the discussion going, and together enabled an atmosphere that encouraged others to feel less intimidated/crippled, to share what they thought.
Even the best teacher in the world needs backup. Don't let those questions become the long, horribly uncomfortable silences everyone (and most of all, the teacher/facilitator, trust me on this) dreads. Just open your mouth. You don't have to have a earth-shattering insight which draws from three different philosophies, a conspiracy theory, five world religions, and cross-references from six different parts of the Bible. Even if it's just to answer the obvious, in-your-face questions; realize you're doing everyone a favour by helping us move on.
As a student, you never have a passive role. We are not little vessels lined up waiting to be filled with capital K Knowledge (or Facts, to properly quote Hard Times.) Though undoubtedly that would be a much easier way to learn.
2. As a facilitator: Make your questions specific. Address people directly. Take turns, going around, so everyone has a chance to answer, rather than always leaving it in the air for anyone to take. People are usually too awkward and hesitant to answer if you throw the question into the air; they feel exposed and apologetic to claim it (me.)
Or, break down the question into manageable, specific questions. Bible Study questions are almost always big sprawling abstract questions, which are good for discussion; but people usually need help to be brave enough to tackle such tough spiritual food. So cut the steak into bite size pieces for them.
You might want to consider having a balance of easy and hard questions/different types of questions, so as to encourage different people to speak, especially if there are some who have less Bible knowledge under their belt, or are just less confident. Also, it gives people have time in between to think--but still stimulates them, unlike those deadly silences which in all my lifetime have only proven to impede rather than improve brain activity.
In Sunday School I've realized-- by necessity--that different children have different gifts/ways of thinking, because I have a considerable age range in my class. In order to make sure some don't get left out because they're quieter/don't know as much about the Bible/don't think or process things in the same way as the rest I try to have a balance of what types of questions I ask. So we have comprehension questions (after reading the Bible passage, I ask them to retell in their own words), we have stimulating questions ("What do you think David should have done? Did he do the right thing?") and we have application questions where I ask them to give me an example from their own lives, or in our modern context. I shall never forget one little girl who contributed thoughtfully to our discussion on idols, "Oh, it's like my brother and his hair."
Pro tip: Overcome your fear of getting a tough question you don't know how to answer by addressing it honestly (please don't wing it.) Don't be afraid to admit you don't have an answer. Backup resource--establish a "Parking Lot" where all those tough questions are put, so you can take your time to follow up; or--bonus--appoint someone to be in charge of that.
3. As both student and facilitator: Know your ultimate goal. For example, to me as a Sunday School Teacher my ultimate goals are to install in the children awareness of their need for Christ, an understanding of the person of God and themselves in relationship to Him, and a passion to read and study the Bible for themselves. I would think that likewise as a Bible Study teacher or facilitator your ultimate goal would be to stimulate and encourage people to read, study, and think through the Bible with interest and a desire to learn, rather than just spoonfeed knowledge and theology into them--which cultivates passivity and the lack of application, leading to stagnated spiritual growth.
To accomplish that (the motivation to learn, not the stagnation of spiritual growth) is in itself a great step. You need to pray for the Holy Spirit's help to work in those hearts and bless the time they spend, whether on their own or together, studying the Word (something I need to start doing for my kids.)
If you're a student, you should also probably have a more specific goal than a vague walk-out-of-Bible-Study-feeling-on-spiritual-cloud-nine/feeling-spiritually-smart. After all, Bible Study is most effective when it doesn't just take place on Sunday in church, but is still happening the rest of the week, on your own.
4. As both student and facilitator: Be vulnerable. Share from your personal life. Another Sunday School anecdote; sharing about my own experience and temptations, whether my conversion or examples from my life, really enabled me to connect with the children. Being honest about my failures and doubts helped them to share about their own, and--I hope--to have a more accurate understanding about what it means to be a Christian, about what all those theological truths about God mean when they're applied to life.
On a side note, I think it's important, especially for children who grow up in Christian homes. I think I'm not wrong to say that many such kids are actually misled--despite sound theological teaching! think me, who knew about total depravity and sanctification and yet still struggled with this!--to think that being a Christian means becoming almost perfect, because of the overwhelming "Sunday behaviour" they see in the adults around them, or the unconscious, internalized emphasis on external behaviour they've grown up with.
Back to the topic. I believe this also encourages direct personal application of what we learn to our lives. It's safe and non-threatening if we do our little study keeping all the lines we draw comfortably within the context of that Bible story or that historical period. Vulnerability--and more than that, actual transformation--is when we dare to draw the line with the marker from the page to where we are now.
7. As both student and facilitator: See each other as friends. Your relationship should continue, be based on the world outside of the classroom, not just limited to that one hour you're together inside the same room.
When you care for and know each other, it's easier to discuss difficult topics or different opinions, easier to open up and share. When you can see each other first as people and fellow Christians--each with our own baggage of failures, weaknesses, prejudices, blind spots, and differing gifts--rather than simply in your respective roles as "teacher" and "student," with all the respective expectations and pitfalls that go with those roles, you communicate better.
Teach me, O Lord, the way of Your statutes,
And I shall keep it to the end.
Give me understanding, and I shall keep Your law;
Indeed, I shall observe it with my whole heart.
Make me walk in the path of Your commandments,
For I delight in it.
Incline my heart to Your testimonies,
And not to covetousness.
Turn away my eyes from looking at worthless things,
And revive me in Your way.
Establish Your word to Your servant,
Who is devoted to fearing You.
Turn away my reproach which I dread,
For Your judgments are good.
Behold, I long for Your precepts;
Revive me in Your righteousness.
Psalm 119: 33-40
The church is meant to be so much more.
Not an institution.
Not a social club.
Not even a social welfare center.
In our confusion and our muddled attempts to do what is right, we hurt others, we hurt ourselves, we damage the witness we have of Christ. We forget that the church here on earth is meant to be a shadow of the perfect community and fellowship we'll have in Heaven, which surely should make us sit up and reconsider what type of church we're creating and cultivating now. We get lost in the petty morass of what music, what Bible version, what clothes, what ministries we use to define ourselves,
I sometimes wonder if God experiences the divine equivalent of a face palm when He see us so busy and so obsessed with creating and maintaining our own idea of what church should be like, and all the while--perhaps--it's so far from what He intended for us. And meanwhile we're so busy, so self-righteously pleased with our efforts.
Search the Scriptures 1 Tim 3:14-4:5 took an interesting approach by focusing on the qualities we should aim for as a church, not just for church leaders.
1 Timothy 3: 14-15
These things I write to you, though I hope to come to you shortly...that you may know how to conduct yourself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of truth...
The truth. Are we as a church concerned with the truth of the gospel rather than how palatable it is? (and this, to me, is a huge challenge personally--to "not be ashamed of the Gospel," especially now when political correctness is so significant) Am I, as an individual Christian and a church member/goer, grounded in and concerned with the truth, with examining and studying the Bible, thinking over and discussing what I hear? How important are the sermons and what we learn in Bible Study? When I was small the main point of church was tea break, the time to play and have nice snacks like chips and sausages which you mightn't get at home much. I'm still learning to readjust what I see as the focal point of Sunday worship, which often easily becomes areas of service, or people you want to catch up with.
Now, therefore, you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, in whom the whole building, being fitted together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.
Note the repetition of 'together.'
Unity. This is such a tricky word. So often we tend to define Christian unity simply by how well everyone gets on with each other in church. It is such an abstract concept that we settle for the absence of obvious conflict and often forget to examine what this Christian unity is supposed to be based on anyway. If unity is merely everyone smiling and shaking hands during tea break how are we any different from a Meet the MP session or a wedding reception?
What is our basis for Christian unity?
Christ is our center, the reason we are together, the bond between us. Not because we have similar backgrounds or similar culture. Not because of similar personalities or hobbies. These things help, of course; they are staple to the forming of human relationships; but unlike other friendships they should not be the foundation here. In this case, sometimes they become distractions.
As such, diversity in the church is a blessing because it highlights how Christ is central to the relationships in it. Conformity or similarity so easily replace Christ and we end up getting on so well--only because we all believe in homeschooling or we share a mutual passion for fine coffee (though obviously there is nothing wrong with either.) Show me a church where you have people from all different walks of life, ages, backgrounds, income brackets, races, languages even, and I believe that's fertile ground for relationships truly based on a love for Christ, for the cultivation of truly Christ-like love, which is characterized by grace.
Think about this for a second. This has some very sobering applications on the way we see difficult or different people in church.
Likewise, the repetition of "together"--being built together, fitted together--reminds us that our spiritual growth is supposed to be a collective event and not one that takes place in isolation, as the architectural analogies highlight.
Though we ought to take individual responsibility for our spiritual growth, God's greater plan places us within the context of a church, our individual growth as inevitably tied to the collective growth of the church--both because the church ought to facilitate our growth, and because we should contribute to the church's.
2 Cor 6:16-18
And what agreement has the temple of God with idols? For you are the temple of the living God.
As God has said, "I will dwell in them and walk among them. I will be their God, and they shall be My people."
No idols--something we can only accomplish by cultivating a passionate love and worship of God. These temptations are always there, even as a church; our idol might be expanding our congregation, or being thought well of, or having more full time workers etc. On a personal level--how do we contribute to the culture and atmosphere in church, do our conversations reflect and reinforce the idols of everyday life? Do we create a community or environment which is conducive to and condones petty, habitual sin, the consuming pursuit of idols, from pornography to people-pleasing?
We need to encourage each other, to grow in loving God before we can truly get started on destroying the idols consuming us.
From Annie Dillard's "Church"
"The higher Christian churches - where, if anywhere, I belong - come at God with an unwarranted air of professionalism, with authority and pomp, as though they knew what they were doing, as though people in themselves were an appropriate set of creatures to have dealings with God. I often think of the set pieces of liturgy as certain words which people have successfully addressed to God without their getting killed. In the high churches they saunter through the liturgy like Mohawks along a strand of scaffolding who have long since forgotten their danger. If God were to blast such a service to bits, the congregation would be, I believe, genuinely shocked. But in the low churches you expect it any minute. This is the beginning of wisdom."
a small voice
Ci thinks some of God's greatest blessings to mankind are
ALL IMAGES FROM PINTEREST UNLESS OTHERWISE SPECIFIED. THANKS, PINTEREST!