One of the heartening signs in Christianity today is the resurgence of Bible study in many quarters. Of greatest significance, the Bible is increasingly coming to the fore in the training of Christian ministers and in the program of local churches.
Though thankful to God for this progress, we would be unrealistic not to recognize two outstanding shortcomings of Bible study today.
Failures In Bible Study
The first is that this renewed emphasis on Bible study is not as widespread as it needs to be if the Christian church is to be revitalized and equipped for its crucial mission to our needy world. Many preparing for Christian work are still not being trained for a Bible-oriented ministry. And the rate of “Bible literacy” among the laity is still relatively low.
A second shortcoming has to do with the fact that the way in which the Bible is studied has a great bearing on the value of such study. As a result, our lack of concern about study methods or our espousal of unsound methods may make some Bible study less beneficial than it should be or may even result in study that is more detrimental than uplifting.
Doctrine And Practice
One underlying cause of these shortcomings is of special significance to those who have a high regard for the Scriptures. It is the fact that we have often not put into actual practice the theory we profess to accept, that the Bible is the final authority for faith and conduct. We have not been sufficiently aware that it is possible to hold to a strict doctrine of Scriptural inspiration and authority and at the same time neglect to give the Bible the vital place in church and personal life that such a high view requires.
This discrepancy between doctrine and practice poses an especially subtle threat, because we often succumb to it with the best of intentions and without malice aforethought. This schism can often be traced to our acceptance of a creed or confession apart from an open-minded study of biblical evidence. The creed or confession then becomes our final authority, our doctrine of Scripture notwithstanding. As a result, the study of the Bible becomes dispensable, and it is therefore dispensed with, or if Bible study is attempted at all, it becomes an exercise in finding biblical support for a position already accepted. For instance, a minister once warned that he did not want anyone who came to his church to teach any doctrine that conflicted with his denomination’s position, even if it were found in the Bible. Not very many ministers, of course, are willing to make such a statement, but some may think the same though not choosing to express it in so many words. Again, in studying the Bible with a group, one often finds resistance to changing of convictions previously held. Even before the biblical evidence is examined, some will take the position that anything which deviates from their present beliefs cannot possibly be sound. Some fear that if they examine the Bible with an open mind, they may have to change their views. One student, for example, when queried as to why he did not do his assignments, admitted that he was afraid that he might find something in the Scriptures which contravened his doctrinal position. Then there are those who declare a certain theological point of view, but are unable to give the biblical data from which their point of view is derived. In fact, a leading official of a certain denomination, when questioned about the scriptural grounds for his group’s unique emphasis, freely admitted that he was not conversant with them. And yet in each of these cases, if the question had been asked whether the individual concerned accepted the Bible as the final authority for faith and practice, the answer would have been in the affirmative.
Return To Bible Study
What then should be done in order that we may realize in practice the commonly accepted view of biblical authority? Of first importance is a more general return to the study of the Scriptures themselves. And that study must be carried on with the proper attitude and purpose. For if the Bible is to be genuinely authoritative, it must be allowed to speak freely without the imposition of our prejudices upon it. Bible study needs to be approached with a sincere willingness to find the evidence, whatever it may be, and to come to whatever conclusions the evidence justifies, whether they accord with our confessions or not. Our first concern should be, “What is justified by the biblical evidence?” not, “How can I find support for my point of view?” With fearless and bold spirits we must venture forth in faith, like Abraham, not knowing beforehand the doctrinal land to which we are going.
The Inductive Spirit
This willingness to examine biblical evidence carefully and to make valid deductions from the data found, whatever these deductions may mean for changing our doctrines and lives, may be called the inductive spirit. Such a spirit is the very essence of sound Bible study.
It is not to be inferred, however, that perfect objectivity is a practical possibility. Gamaliel Bradford was right when he observed, “There are simply those who think they are impartial and those who know they are not.” But such a realistic acknowledgment should not deter us from making impartiality our goal. Indeed, it should be the prelude to a valiant effort to be as open-minded as, with God’s help, we can be. And though the practice of perfect induction is beyond our reach, our grasp for it should be marked by wholehearted devotion to the ideal of biblical authority.
Without such devotion to the Scriptures, one may easily abuse a concept of authority based on his own examination of biblical evidence. In fact, one reason for giving a focal place to confessions is to avoid the danger that an unbridled individualism may masquerade under the guise of induction. However, it should also be realized that a position based primarily on the fear of the abuse of another position is not on sure ground. For to negate points of view because they are susceptible of abuse would be to negate all truth, since no truth is beyond abuse. Furthermore, the determination of truth by ecclesiastical majority carries with it even more disastrous abuse. The Romanism against which Luther protested represented such abuse. Thus, in view of our limitations as men, we may find it wise to accept the Reformation principle that each individual is to study the Scriptures for himself and to draw the conclusions which he judges to be valid under the guidance of the Spirit.
To do so is not to deride the value of historic creeds. In fact, because they have gained such a widespread following and because they have survival value, they need to be considered an important part of the data for interpreting Scripture. But creeds must never be elevated to the place of final authority, lest they replace the Bible. Rather, they should be brought constantly under the judgment of the Scripture.
Sound Bible study, then, has as its point of departure and as its prevailing attitude the spirit of induction. But it must involve more, for spirits need embodiment and implementation. No matter how well-intentioned we may be, it is possible to negate in the area of techniques what we affirm in the area of principles. Thus, a methodology is needed to express the inductive spirit.
Marks Of A Sound Method
Such a methodology should involve, first, the working out of definite study procedures so that men from all walks of life may be enabled to examine biblical evidence for themselves and to draw sound conclusions. To accomplish this task we need to translate our topical approach to hermeneutics into a psychological approach, which relates the laws of explanation to the study experience of people of varying capacities.
In so doing we need to recognize the primacy of the firsthand study of biblical text. For the moment some other text is made primary, it tends to become authoritative. It does not follow that commentary helps should be shunned. They are valid in the study process, but only as they are secondary to the Bible itself.
Attention should also be given to enabling individuals to make sound applications of biblical truths to present-day life. The necessity for such training may be underscored by conducting an experiment with a Bible study group. All one needs to do is to have the group agree on the meaning of a scriptural statement, and then to let individual members suggest its relevance for life. In many cases applications will be offered that are not only contradictory but at times bizarre and even shocking.
We have outlined briefly a task which, in some ways, is ideal and beyond achievement: to develop with Christians in all walks of life an inductive spirit and a Bible study procedure in harmony with such a spirit. But much can be done, and even an approximating these goals will bring impressive compensations.
One result will be a movement toward a sounder theology because it will be more biblically based. For even if certain man-made confessions were infallible, the need still remains to interpret them. And it is often more difficult to make valid interpretations of abstract creeds than it is to understand correctly the concrete, historical revelation embodied in Scripture.
Another salutary effect of inductive Bible study will be a more vital Christian faith. We come into a closer relationship with the Spirit who underlies the record and who uses the record when we have firsthand experience with the record itself. For the words of our Lord are spirit and they are life. The Bible nourishes and revives the human spirit in a way that statements about the Bible can never do.
The result of an intense personal faith will be a witness given with assurance and with enthusiasm. One who has gone to the source itself testifies to what he has seen and heard, and his testimony will carry the authority and the contagion that cannot be generated by secondhand experience.
The ultimate outcome of the resurgence of genuine Bible study will be the greater realization of the oneness of the Church for which our Lord so fervently prayed. The true spirit of ecumenicity will be realized when we gather in one accord to find the biblical message and to experience biblical faith. In so doing we will come to understand the complex problems involved in interpreting and applying Scripture. And even though we may differ from our brothers in some of our conclusions, we will gain a sympathetic understanding of their views. But, more important, we will find a great body of fundamental biblical verities to which we can give common and wholehearted allegiance. When this happens, the world will believe that our Lord was sent by the Father, and that the Father has loved those who are in the world as he loved his own Son.
Robert A. Traina is Associate Professor of English Bible at The Biblical Seminary, New York City. He holds the B.A. degree from Seattle Pacific College and the S.T.B. and S.T.M. degrees from Biblical Seminary, where he has taught since 1945. He has published two works, Methodical Bible Study and Methodical Bible Teaching.
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