Tips for Studying the Bible
I was asked recently for advice on studying the Bible. I thought I would expand my ideas so that others can see some methods in studying the Scriptures. The list is more based around hermeneutical principles. Hermeneutics is the study of texts to derive an interpretation, and how one practices hermeneutics has the greatest influence on one’s theological development.
Exegesis vs. Eisegesis
It is important that we delineate between two methods of interpreting a passage in Scripture. First, we can practice exegesis. Exegesis is where we attempt to determine what the original author intended for his audience to understand. Through this practice we would study the historical, sociological, theological, and other contexts to determine what is being said. For instance, if you didn’t know that John was writing against the Docetists in his first epistle then you will miss important lessons from the book.
In contrast to exegesis is eisegesis. Eisegesis is what exegesis attempts to avoid. Eisegesis is when we impress a theological/sociological grid upon the text and come out with an aberrant interpretation. We should always be cognizant of how our presuppositions govern and guide our interpretation of Scripture, and we should always seek to be honest and be corrected when it is needed. It is a very easy trap to impose one’s own ideas onto a Biblical text so be careful of that.
The Analogy of Faith
The most important aspect to how we interpret the Bible is how we weight the texts. For instance, although the New and Old Testaments are both equally Scripture and should be given equal study, the New Testament is the interpretive “lens” that we should examine the Old Testament through. Augustine said that, “the New Testament lies hidden in the Old and Old Testament is unveiled in the New.” This means that practically one would engage the whole of Scripture through the completed revelation. For instance the author to the Hebrews in chapter 8 quotes from Jeremiah 31:31–34 which talks about a New Covenant and applies it to the Church age; that is an example on how we can use Hebrews to interpret the Jeremiah passage.
The underlying message of the Analogy of Faith is that Scripture interprets Scripture. This idea is encapsulated in the above explanation. There is never a need to interpret a passage on its own; you can always look to other places in Scripture with similar ideas and weigh the instances. This is an important part of studying systematic theology.
The Use of Commentaries
One of the greatest tools to interpreting Scripture are commentaries. Faithful, Godly men have gone before us and spent much of their lives expositing the Bible: John Gill, Matthew Henry, and John Calvin are three such examples (although Calvin didn’t write a commentary on Revelation). We should be careful to immediately adopt a view held by a commentator, and we should likewise be careful to become to reliant upon a certain commentator to give us our interpretation. But if use discerningly, commentaries can add much to our study of God’s Word.
One warning I must provide. I found that as I studied theology more I tended to keep going back to one commentator over another, and I found myself less and less questioning the interpretation of that commentator (John Gill for me). I had to learn that John Gill’s commentary was not infallible, and that just because you agree with one aspect of one’s theology does not mean that you will agree with all of it.
Keep the Author in His Context
It is important, in practicing sound exegesis, to keep the author in his context. For instance, if we separate Jesus from His first century, Jewish, Palestinian context than we can easily misinterpret what He wanted us to learn. This is especially important, because it is very difficult to separate ourselves from our own worldview to look through another’s (just try and communicate with someone from an international culture). Also, understand that the text may afford a meaning that the author wasn’t aware of. Did Jeremiah understand the nuances of what the New Covenant would be and what it meant for the law to be written on the heart? Probably not, but he had the idea that it was coming.
Emphasize Biblical Theology over Systematic Theology
The single biggest mistake I made in trying to learn the theology of the Christian faith was studying systematic theology over Biblical theology. I needed a framework to interpret the Scriptures, and I found that systematic theology, while it offers great insight, cannot provide the “beginning to end” view that I needed. This is why the debate between a covenantal or dispensational view of the Bible is more important than Calvinistic or Arminian soteriology. The latter is a part of the former, and the former gives us the bigger picture.
I need to understand the Biblical revelation as progressive. I needed to start at the beginning, and understand the history of God working with Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, Solomon, and so on before anything else. The best way to study this is to realize that God is a covenantal, promise-oriented God, and studying the Scriptures as God’s unfolding plan of redemption manifested in covenantal promise.
Engage Others in Dialog
Another mistake we can make in interpreting the Bible is to do it alone. We, as Christians, are made to be community oriented; and that is how we should study the Bible as well. Just because we consult others doesn’t mean we immediately fall into the error of Groupthink, but dialogging with others can aid in how we interpret Scripture.
I find that when I spend less time alone at my computer screen and in my room reading theology, and the more time I spend asking questions to others, seeking those of differing opinions, and “thinking out loud” the more success I have. Be careful of just seeking out those who agree with you, because it is a huge hindrance to spiritual and theological growth.
Be Teachable and Open to Persuasion
The greatest joy I have learned is to be teachable. The minute I shut my mind off from learning something I rob myself of great lessons and truths. Just because the speaker, commentator, or friend is a different theological persuasion doesn’t mean that we can’t learn something from them. Lastly, always have the mindset of “persuade me of something worth believing.” When you actively engage other ideas it will do wonders for your growth.