1. Some questions to ponder
These questions all arise out of the studies we have been doing. They are intended to be thought-provoking. None of them is of the type that requires a one-word answer. In fact, in some cases there can be more than one right answer.
i. Belief in the authority of Scripture and a grasp of the principles of its interpretation are both important, but which is the more essential?
ii. Why do you think it is important to resist the idea that it is the authority of the church that underlies the authority of the Bible?
iii. Identify the book of the New Testament with which you are the most unfamiliar. Why not start reading it today?
iv. Identify the book of the Old Testament with which you are most unfamiliar. Why not start reading it or (if it is very large) a sizeable portion of it as soon as you have finished the book you identified in the New Testament?
v. Which book of the Bible do you think is the most important in terms of its relevance for understanding the rest of the Bible?
vi. The poetry of the Book of Psalms and other parts of the Old Testament written in poetry is in sense-rhythm rather than sound-rhythm, with ideas in successive lines which compare or contrast with each other or in which lines succeeding the first develop its thought. What special value(s) do you see in this for us today?
vii. The Bible is full of analogies. What benefits and dangers are there in our use of analogies from our own world today, and how can we exploit the benefits and avoid the dangers?
viii. Why is it important for us to realise that the principle of literal interpretation of the Bible does not mean we should interpret it in a wooden or literalistic way?
ix. How many books of the Bible have you studied as complete books? This question is in the interests of realistic personal assessment and is not meant to depress you. You can start now.
x. Pick one of your favourite Bible stories and read it through several times. Identify aspects of it or details of it you have never noticed before. Thank the Lord for every new insight he has given you.
xi. Study 12 referred to confusion between Israelites and Israelis. Identify some of the dangers of making a straightforward identification between these.
xii. If somebody said to you that because the revelation of God for us has come to its completion in Christ, we therefore do not need the Old Testament, what would you say?
2. Important Principles of Bible Study
It may be helpful for us to summarise briefly the principles we have been discovering. We will summarise these by the use of four words:
We come to the Scriptures in an attitude of faith. Through their witness to Christ we have come, by the grace of God, to know him. We trust the Word of God because it is trustworthy, worthy of our faith, and it is the Spirit of God who has induced this faith in our hearts.
Certainly Scripture has been written by human beings, certainly it is in human language and is the product of human thought, but this whole process was under the supervising inspiration of the Spirit, so that the end product was the Word of God, as trustworthy as God himself. In fact, what meaning can we give to God’s trustworthiness if we do not think in terms of trusting what he says because of who and what he is?
This means that just as we responded to Christ through the witness of Scripture at the beginning of our Christian lives, so we continue to do so as those lives progress, so that at every stage and increasingly our faith is grounded in the totally trustworthy Word of God.
The importance of this principle can hardly be overstated. It operates at two levels.
First of all, there is the literary and historical context of the writer. No passage of Scripture comes to us without a context, and its meaning is always in terms of that context. Isolate it from this and try to interpret it in that isolation and endless misunderstanding is possible. The trustworthiness of any passage of Scripture, large or small, is its trustworthiness when understood in terms of its context. As we have seen, there is a grammatical and an historical factor in this.
We should not even interpret a whole Bible book without its context, and in this case this is, first of all, the testament in which it occurs and then the whole of Scripture. This shows how important it is for us to gain more and more knowledge and understanding of the Bible as a whole, and to do so particularly in terms of its theology. Just as individual passages are grammatically expressed and historically conditioned, so is the Bible as a totality. It is an ancient oriental book and we need to read and interpret it as such. This means that no study of its language, its history, its culture or its theology is ever wasted.
There is a second contextual level and that is my own or your own context. Just as no passage comes to us without its context, so no reader comes to that passage without a context of his or her own. You and I are not isolated individuals, hermetically sealed from the world in which we live. Even if you are a hermit, living in isolation from everybody else, you have been conditioned by your pre-hermit existence and by any reading you may have done in your hermit’s cell.
This means that there needs to be an understanding of how the ancient and oriental and yet eternal Word of God applies to your life in your situation. Here we see the importance of both thought and prayer. This will lead us on to our third important principle.
An analogy, of course, is a similarity between two things which in other respects are different. Like context, this too operates at two levels.
First of all, there is analogy within the Bible itself. This is extremely extensive and we only really scratched the surface of it in our study of it in Study No. 6. We encounter it at every turn, for spiritual truth can only be understood through what we are aware of in this tangible, visible, audible world that is all around us.
Here we see how ancient, how far-reaching, the recognised educational principle of proceeding from the known to the unknown is. In this case the known is the visible, the universe in which we live, and the unknown is the invisible, the God who made that universe and us. This is the ultimate as well as the most important application of the principle of proceeding from the known to the unknown, and it is God himself, in his Word, who is the great Teacher.
It is also the application that is most full of danger, for it is the basis not only of authentic divine revelation but also of idolatry. This takes place when we take something in the world God has made, something that reflects God in some way, that should make us think about and worship that God, and give it the status that only God himself should have. To learn about the one true God through visible things and to exalt some of those things and make them divine are totally different, the former so blessed and the second so abominable. Paul addresses this situation with strong language in Romans 1: 18-32.
Jesus Christ is the ultimate Analogy of God, for he is both like and yet also unlike God. Paradoxically, his likeness to God is total, so that in this respect the word “analogy” is not really applicable, and yet not total, and so in this sense it is applicable. He is totally like God in that all that God is, he is, for he is God the Son. Yet at the same time he is unlike God for he is human and God, as God, is not human. Where there is total likeness, even at the Divine/human level is in terms of character, for morally the Son, even as Man, is utterly one with the Father.
Secondly, there is analogy between the Bible and your life and mine today. When we are reading the Scriptures, we need to give prayerful thought to our own situations, looking to God for guidance through his Spirit and seeking to see those situations in the light that comes from the Word. The principles to be found in the biblical exhortations, addressed to ancient oriental people, need to be applied to the situations in which we find ourselves today; the biblical characters, unlike us in some ways and yet so much like us in others, are used by the Spirit of God to challenge or to warn us.
All this is based, as we have already seen, on the unchanging character of God. What he was to his people of old he is to us today; what he said to his people of old he says to us today, even though we need, with the Spirit’s enabling, to translate that into terms applicable to our own lives in our own societies.
This is the final unchanging principle. We begin with faith and we end with obedience, although there is a real sense in which the two are intimately related. Faith is a form of obedience. “Believe the gospel!” is a command, a command of God, and in responding to it we exercise “the obedience of faith”. Not only so, but obedience to God requires faith, for we are obeying Somebody we cannot see, but who, by faith, we know to be there. Not only so, but we trust him with the consequences of our obedience.
We may be skilled in contextual and in analogical study, but it is only in faith’s obedience to the Word that God’s real purpose in speaking to us finds fulfilment. When we think of what Christ has done for us at such cost to himself, can we stop short of that?
My father had intended this study to be a half-way stage, a summary of what had been covered in the first 13 studies, before proceeding on with the remainder of the course. Point 1 was originally titled “Some questions to ponder before we go further.”, and in the first part of the text he said (of the questions posed) that he would “make some comments on them at the start of the next study.”
Before he passed into glory he asked me to proceed with the publication (I had been helping him with the technical side), and, in an email sent just days before he died, had said that the first thirteen studies could stand alone if he was incapacitated in any way.
Rev Iain Macaulay has been of great help in revising some sections that were not in a ready state for publication. We trust that the course has been of benefit to you.
Any feedback would be welcomed (email firstname.lastname@example.org).
John Grogan – 15th April 2012