God’s people today desperately need an approach to biblical study that is authentic, simple, practical, and available to all. The following five principles, I believe, fulfill those requirements.
A) Authentic Prayer and Self-Distrust.
When you open the Bible, it is important to open it in much prayer and self-distrust. If human hearts are exceedingly wicked and deceptive, then the greatest barrier to Scriptural understanding is the lack of a teachable spirit. If you don’t have a teachable spirit, then it doesn’t matter how much Greek you know or how many Ph.D.’s you accumulate, your learning will not open the Word to you. True knowledge of God does not come from merely intellectual pursuit or academic study. It arises from a willingness to receive the truth no matter what the cost (1 Cor 2:14; 2 Thess 2:10; James 1:5).
So I’d like to suggest that you begin your study of the Bible with what I call authentic prayer. That means prayer for a teachable spirit. Prayer that God will open your heart, bypass your defense mechanisms, and teach you what you need to know. Authentic prayer goes something like this: “Lord, I want the truth no matter what the cost to me personally.” That’s a hard prayer to pray. But that kind of prayer will open the way to fresh insight into the Word.
B) Use a Variety of Translations.
Every translation has its limitations and weaknesses, and to some degree reflects the biases of the translator(s). So the safest course of action for a Christian who doesn’t know the original languages is to compare several translations against each other. Let’s suppose you are comparing five different translations of a particular text. If all five translations agree, the underlying Greek text must be reasonably clear. On the other hand, if all five translations go in different directions, it is a signal that the original language is ambiguous in some way. But if four translations say roughly the same thing and the fifth is way different, you have just discovered the bias of that fifth translation. The authority that you as an interpreter give to any particular translation of a text will depend on the level of certainty that it is accurately based on the original. Looking at a variety of translations breaks us away from pet readings that feed our own biases and can give anyone a clearer picture of the original text.
C) Favor the Clear Texts
If you want to let the Scriptures speak for themselves, spend the majority of your time in the sections of Scripture that are reasonably clear. There are many parts of the Bible that are reasonably clear and others that are quite difficult. A great safeguard to your study of Scripture is to spend the majority of your time in the sections that are reasonably clear. The clear texts of Scripture establish the reader in the common ground of the Bible and the great verities of its message, safeguarding the interpreter against an inappropriate use of texts that are more ambiguous.
Adventists in particular seem to gravitate to the ambiguous texts of the Bible, texts that are difficult to understand because they can point in more than one direction. People who misuse the Bible tend to work with unclear texts, treat them as if they were clear, and then base their theology on this “clear” reading. When people spend the majority of their time in the difficult texts of Scripture they usually end up having to distort clear texts of Scripture because the message of the clear texts contradicts the theology they have developed from the unclear texts. But if you spend the majority of your time in the clear texts of the Bible, they will gradually shift your thinking in a more biblical direction.
D) Favor General Reading
A fourth, and most vital, principle is to spend more time reading the Bible than “studying” it. People often study the Bible in a fragmented way. They study a verse at a time, and then compare that verse with all kinds of other texts found in a concordance. In a way the concordance becomes their real Bible. They take a word, look at snippets from 300-400 texts, and pick out those that seem to say what they believe the Bible is saying. The best safeguard against such unintentional misuse of Scripture is much general reading of the Bible. Broad reading of the Bible sensitizes you to the literary strategies of the biblical authors. Use of a concordance, on the other hand, puts you in charge of the process, instead of the biblical author. The process is even more dangerous when the concordance is a computer. One can look at text after text without ever reading them in context.
The use of a concordance and the comparing of scripture with scripture has its place. But when you spend all of your time comparing scripture with scripture you can lose the forest for the trees. General reading of the Bible, on the other hand, helps you to look at the big picture and put isolated texts together with their contexts so that the meaning can become clear. It safeguards the reader against bizarre interpretations of its isolated parts. General reading helps bring you into a teachable spirit and helps you see the text as it was intended to be read. The Bible is not supposed to learn from us; we are supposed to learn from the Bible. Hence the recommendation, “Spend the majority of your time reading the Bible instead of studying it.”
E) Criticism of Peers
A vital principle for the study of the Bible is to give careful attention to the criticism of peers, in other word, anyone who has given the biblical text the same kind of careful attention you have. As I mentioned before, one of the biggest problems in biblical understanding is that each of us have a natural bent to self-deception (Jer 17:9). That self-deception is so deep that sometimes–even if you are praying, using a variety of translations, and focusing on the clear texts and broad reading–you can still misread the Bible on your own. So the best antidote to self-deception is to constantly subject one’s own understandings to the criticism of others who are making equally rigorous efforts to understand those texts.
Two kinds of peers are particularly valuable: 1) people who have studied the text carefully and who disagree with you, and 2) people who are particularly gifted or experienced with the tools of exegesis, including the original languages. We need the criticisms of others who say, “I’ve looked at this text carefully and I just don’t see what you are seeing. To me the text says something totally different.” It may be painful to listen to that kind of criticism. But we need to. You see, I don’t learn much from people who agree with me because we already see things the same way. It is people who disagree with me, who see the text differently than I do, who can teach me something about the text. We all have certain blind spots with regard to the Bible. These blind spots are rooted in our self-deception. But when I am confronted with someone very different from me, someone of another race, or even another religion, I am confronted with realities in the text that I would never have seen on my own. I may not end up agreeing with them, but my view of the text will be sharpened. Even in the study of the Bible, we need to listen to others, particularly people who have also studied the Bible carefully and have come to different conclusions than we have.