Why am I presenting a Bible study method and claiming it is new? Aren’t there plenty of methods of Bible study already available? What is it about yours that makes it new?
These are good questions to ask about this method. I was driven to start preparing materials on Bible study because I noticed that many Bible students get very little from their study. When they do study seriously, they are very much dependent on commentators, and they’re not sure just how the interpretations are produced. Some get involved in the technical details of Bible study, but then either give up, or become bogged down in hunting down minor points, and miss much of the blessing that is available.
My conviction is that Bible study is about an individual’s relationship to God. It is not just about learning about God, or learning doctrines taught by others, it is about you experiencing God, for yourself. In the case of Bible study, you are bringing your experience of God into contact with the way that other people through the ages have experienced God’s presence, and you enrich your own experience by hearing about theirs. For me, “participatory” Bible study means more than that all the students in the group participate in the study; rather, I mean that you, as a Bible student, participate in the experience. You come as close as possible to feeling the experiences of others.
Now this sounds like an approach that is just for believers. After all, if you don’t believe in God, how can you experience him? How can you really feel what someone else who claims to experience God actually feels? But I think that just as one can get very involved in a TV show, move, or other fictional account, or one can empathize with the experience of another, it is possible to get much closer to the Bible in the historical sense by trying in various ways to become a part of the story. This involves using your own imagination, involving your emotions, and thinking about more than outlining the facts.
Even so, the facts are still important, and I put great emphasis on understanding as much as possible what things were like for the Biblical characters. So this approach does not leave off the historical. Rather, it leads you from the historical experience to present experience.
Keys to Bible Study
- The first key is getting the Bible out from between you and God. Let God speak to you. Let the Bible help. Don’t let the Bible be a barrier.
I am borrowing this image from my article on Biblical inspiration, Inspiration and Sources of Authority for the Christian. It illustrates my view that the Bible is not something that stands between you and God. It is not the only way you access the divine. It is not even necessarily God’s primary way of communicating with you personally. Rather, it provides a light on your own relationship with God. The question is this: How can I improve my relationship with God through understanding how these other folks related to God?
- The second key is to approach the Bible with a desire to learn, not to find support for what you already know. This seems simple, but in the church we are often so tied up with our doctrinal statements, or more likely or weak memories of them, and also so afraid that our ideas might be wrong or that someone will call them (gasp!) heresy, that we really can’t listen openly to what the Bible says. I’m not saying that the Bible is going to overturn all your traditional doctrines. I am saying that you should worry about being wrong as you try to understand what the Bible says, and particularly what God is saying to you as you study the Bible.
- The third key is to make a serious and active effort to understand just what it was that the people in Biblical times experienced, and how they responded to it. Get to know them as they were. It’s impossible to do this perfectly, but let me suggest that it is worth your effort to do your best. This means accurate and sympathetic reading. It also means some humility–not assuming that you are more intelligent, wiser, more ethical, and have a better imagination.
- The fourth key is to look at yourself and your spiritual community carefully and honestly, and try to bring your experiences together with those of others. This is how the participation is brought forward to the present and your Bible study starts to impact who you are as a person.
- The fifth key is to share your experiences with others, and to try to translate your understanding so that they can also understand and participate. Don’t be afraid to talk about ethical issues, for example, without reference to the Bible. If you really understand what you have learned in your Bible study and your communion with God, you should be able to support it on another basis. I believe that if God is the creator of the universe, and I have understood what God wants, that should also be logically supportable.
These elements led me to develop this system and many of the exercises I suggest. I hope they will help you as well.
Let me make one additional suggestion. I am posting a number of study outlines, and sometimes study lessons. In these I suggest specific exercises that go with specific passages. Don’t be stuck with my suggestions. You can use the same idea on another passage, or create similar exercises. If I have only posted a study outline, simply use the appropriate study methods essay (see above on the Map to the Method for links) to find exercises to apply to each passage. My hope is that my suggestions will become less and less important to you as you become more comfortable simply working through a passage for yourself.
I pray that God blesses you, and I believe he will, as you study!