The Principles and Practice of Bible Study (Part 1)

We are all aware that the real issue behind so many questions and problems in the church world is the doctrine of Scripture. There have always been those who, in one way or another, denied the inspiration and infallibility of the Bible. But in these last days the churches of the Reformation do not even give unanimous assent to this truth, in spite of the fact that the Reformation of the sixteenth century claimed to be a return to the truth concerning the Bible. Even those in Reformed churches who disagree with the age-old teaching of the church on such matters as seven-day creation and women in office will often agree that these differences are to be traced to different views of Scripture. 

By the grace of God we, as churches, are among those who still confess that the Bible is the Word of God, perfectly and completely revealing the whole counsel of God concerning the salvation of His elect church. And we believe too that this Word has been wonderfully preserved by God up to the present time. 

We must not forget, however, that principle and practice go together. The true doctrine of Scripture must be part of our confession, to be sure, but that means that the Scriptures themselves must be part of our life, and that means in turn that we must read and study the Scriptures in proportion as we believe them to be God’s own Word. If the Scriptures are not the leaven of our lives, permeating every area of life, then we will also eventually lose our good confession. 

As is the case so often with us, there seems to be a gap between principle and practice. Not only is there evidence of a real lack of serious, dedicated Bible study among us, but we often find, time and again, that our study of God’s Word, whether privately or in the company of other believers, is aimless and without real or lasting satisfaction. We must not only be shaken out of our slothfulness and excited to diligent study, but we must also learn how to study God’s Word. And Scripture itself can and will teach us that if we will pay attention to what it says. 

That we have a responsibility to the Scriptures is beyond question. God’s Word and God’s people belong together. And this need for Bible study is rooted and grounded in the truth that the Bible is the inspired and infallible Word of God. Because the Scriptures are “God-breathed” they are profit able for teaching doctrine to the man of God, for reproving and correcting him, and for instructing him in righteousness (II Timothy 3:16, 17), all of which is part of his eternal salvation. Even our children must be taught that the study of God’s Word is of far greater urgency than any of the other studies to which they give themselves. God’s Word is a matter of life and death. If we realize that, we will be much more like the Bereans who, when they heard the Word of the Apostles, received, it with eager faith, and in that same eagerness searched the Scriptures daily to find there for themselves the truth which the Apostles taught. 

Nor must we forget that Bible study—even private reading and study—is a deeply spiritual matter. We can be taught how to study the Scriptures, but that does not mean that Bible study is a mechanical matter of following certain rules and coming to an understanding of what God says in His Word. Because the Bible is God’s Word, it is spiritually discerned (I Cor. 2:14). The unbeliever does not have the spiritual gifts that are necessary to understand the Word, and therefore he can neither see himself in the light of the Word, nor hear God speaking peace to His own people as He does in the Word. On the other hand, every child of God does have those gifts, whether he be the greatest or least of God’s saints. No believer need be afraid to study the Scriptures. Nor does he have an excuse not to study them, as if he is not qualified. Christ’s anointing belongs to every one of the saints, and that anointing teaches them all things (I John 2:27). 

These spiritual gifts include the desire to know the truth as it is in Jesus, the humility and reverence which are necessary to learn from and submit to the teaching of God, and a living fellowship with God through the Spirit. It must be emphasized here that these things are gifts of God’s grace to us. Do we see then that the study of God’s Word is a matter of prayer above all? How can it be that we poor sinners should open the Word of God, the revelation of His supreme and eternal glory, and expect to receive something, when we do not come with the prayer, “Open thou mine eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of Thy law” (Psalm 119:18). 

Nevertheless, our study must also be organized and have direction and purpose. Unorganized and aimless study is fruitless study. In making our study fruitful the basic principles of the doctrine of Scripture can be further applied to give us that needed guidance. 

In organizing our study of God’s Word and giving it direction, the all-important matter is finding Christ in the Scriptures. We must not become so involved with the meaning of words, the relationship of text and context, differences of interpretation and other questions that-we-forget to seek the incarnate Word Who reveals Himself in-the Word. Jesus Himself says to the Jews, “Search the Scriptures . . . (for) they are they which testify of ME” (John 5:39). He says that also to us. Jesus did not have to admonish the Jews for failing to study the Scriptures. That was not their problem. They had studied the Old Testament Scriptures from youth on and knew them much better than we do; but their search was a failure, and it was a failure because they did not find Christ in all of the Old Testament. They did not even recognize Him when He came and walked among them and did His mighty works in their cities. Let us beware, lest in our study of the Word, we fail to find Him there as God’s Christ, the representative of the righteousness of the Living God in this sinful world. 

Specifically, this means that, whenever we open the Scriptures, we must set ourselves consciously and deliberately before the question: “What does this passage teach about our Lord Jesus Christ and the only way of salvation in Him?” And, even more specifically: “How does this portion of God’s Word lead me to the feet of Jesus?” If we do not ask these questions of ourselves every time we open the Bible, the natural blindness of our minds will prevent us from seeing any more of Jesus in the Scriptures than did the unbelieving Scribes and Pharisees. Then we will only find moralism and “Bible Stories” and not the Gospel. I know personally that this is not an idle warning. I myself and the men who graduated from our seminary with me had to be reminded of exactly this truth at our Synodical examinations. May God grant that we never forget it again. 

This very practical matter of seeking Christ in the Scriptures is an application of the principle of organic inspiration. When we speak of organic inspiration then we mean among other things that the Scriptures are a perfect unity. They are one and cannot be broken (John 10:35). They are one, first of all, according to the good-pleasure and purpose of God. They are also one because they have one divine Author, the Holy Spirit of God. But especially they are one because from beginning to end they have one message and one theme, Jesus Christ, the revelation of the power and wisdom of Almighty God. Thus our study of the Bible must be a conscious application of this principle of organic inspiration. 

This same principle of organic inspiration, that the Scriptures are one, also means that the Word of God must always be studied in its context. The chief characteristic of false teachers is that they quote Scripture passages in isolation from the rest of the Word. By context, however, we do not mean only the verses which preceed and which follow a particular passage, what we might call the chapter context, but also the context of the whole book in which a passage is found and the context of all of the rest of Scripture. That means we ought never attempt to understand a passage unless first we understand the theme of the book in which it is found, and the place of that book in the whole unity of the Bible. We must ask ourselves: “How is this book different from all other books of the Bible, and what part of the whole counsel of God concerning our salvation does it expound?” When we have sufficiently answered that question we may return to the passage at hand and ask ourselves how this verse or these verses fit into the overall theme of the book in which they are found. 

To take just one example, a careful study of the Epistle to the Ephesians in the light of all the rest of Scripture shows us the theme of that grand Epistle, that is, the glory of the church in its union with Christ. In this it differs from Colossians, an Epistle very much like Ephesians, in that Colossians emphasizes rather the glory of Christ as the supreme head of the church. That theme of Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians must be the golden thread which runs through the interpretation of the whole book, and a study of any part of the book must not lose sight of that theme. In the very first section, for example, Ephesians 1:3-11, Paul shows us that the glory of the church is not only from God, but according to God’s own eternal purpose to glorify Himself in the salvation of the church.

The truth of the organic unity of Scripture does not mean, however, that we ignore the fact that the books of the Bible were written by different men, at different times, and under different historical circumstances. We do not mean by this that the Bible is historically or culturally conditioned, so that at least in certain parts it is no longer applicable to the church today. That idea is utterly repugnant to anyone who really believes in inspiration. It does mean, though, that we take history and culture and all the rest into account when we study the Bible. It is important, for example, for us to know that the prophecy of Zechariah was for the remnant that had returned from the Babylonian captivity, or that the story of the book of Ruth is part of the history of the time of the Judges who ruled Israel after Joshua. Or, to use another example, it is important for us to know enough geography to be able to follow the missionary journeys of the Apostle Paul, or enough history to know that during New Testament times the Jews still had a measure of self-rule, but that in the trial of capital cases they had no authority to put a man to death, as in the case of Stephen. A study of chronology, history, geography, and social customs of Bible times is, therefore, an indispensable part of our study of the Scriptures, though it may never be used to call into question the authority of Scripture. 

Another principle very closely connected with the principle of the organic unity of Scripture, is the fundamental rule that Scripture is self-interpreting. Because Scripture is the handiwork of the Spirit, only the Spirit Himself can tell us what the Scriptures mean. He does that always in and through the Scriptures themselves. The books of the Bible must tell us what their themes are. Scripture itself must solve all so-called problems of interpretation. Scripture must define its own words and concepts, not the dictionary and not commentaries. The dictionary, for example, will tell me that a covenant is an agreement or pact between two parties, but only Scripture will teach me, through careful study, that God’s covenant with His people is not an agreement, but a sovereignly established relationship of friendship with the everlasting God in and through the Son of His love, Christ Jesus. 

This means, even more specifically, that when we are struggling with the interpretation of key words or phrases in a passage, we must go to all the other passages of the Word of God which shed their light on the one at hand, and by comparing Scripture with Scripture come to understand the meaning of the Word in a particular passage. In doing this a good concordance is one of the most valuable tools we can have for Bible Study. I would even go so far as to say that a concordance is the one indispensable tool for us in our Bible study. 

But what we must remember is that this matter of Scripture interpreting itself is of critical importance. Just because it is the Word of God that we are studying, we must be sure that we do not read into the Scriptures the things that belong to the wisdom of man. Nor must we study the Scriptures to find in them support for our own philosophies. But as humble and obedient servants of Jesus Christ, we must come to hear what God the Lord says to His church. And it is exactly a humble consciousness of our own inability to understand spiritual things and of this important principle that will enable us to receive God’s instruction with an obedient ear and a willing heart. 

(To be continued)