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Introduction

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This commentary contains a collection of thoughts and opinions arising from Bible study (alone and in groups) over many years, arranged primariloy as an aid to preaching. I started to compile it in 1984, and converted it into web page format in 2002. Bible study is largely about connections: connections between Bible passages, connections with everyday life, connections with learned works. Web page format, through the use of hyperlinks, handles connections particularly well.

The content is not necessarily original, and arose haphazardly from Christian living rather than systematic analysis of the Bible. Where the thought arises from only one source, it is cited; otherwise the thinking is either mine or from a number of sources that agree.

Conventions

Conventional names for parts of the Bible are used (e.g. "the Law"). The convention for showing book, chapter, and verse numbers of biblical references is "Book Ch:Vs". The Septuagint is abbreviated, as is customary, to LXX. Modern bible translations are given their usual abbreviations: AV = Authorised Version; RSV = Revised Standard Version; GNB = Good News Bible; NIV = New International Version. Care should be taken with meaning that is apparent in only one translation; it may shed useful light on the passage, but this needs to be checked by reference to the original Hebrew (applicable to most of the Old Testament) or Greek (applicable to most of the New Testament) text.

Christians do well to take note of modern Jewish scholarship concerning the Old Testament; dialogue with them can be useful, but requires care to avoid unnecessary offence. Jewish scholars do not believe that Jesus was the Christ so they avoid the abbreviations B.C. (before Christ) and A.D. (Anno Domini) and use instead B.C.E. (before Christian era) and C.E. (Christian era). Christian scholars who work alongside Jewish scholars are increasingly adopting the same conventions, and the two sets of abbreviations are used interchangeably in this web-site.

Reading the Bible

Why should we read the Bible? Ian Aveyard in God Thoughts page 48 says that we should think about the world in the light of the Bible because "The process of moving from the bible to life has been the traditional way of thinking Christianity.

How should we read the Bible? The Scripture Union recommends that the Bible should be studied in the light of the following questions:

There is also a 5-stage method of imbibing scripture (quoted with permission from an article by Joyce Huggett in Christianity+Renewal January 2002):

1. Read
slowly and expectantly, allowing God and the passage to fill your horizon
2. Receive
allow the passage to react with our inner selves, exposing worries perhaps
3. Respond
pray through any confessions, thoughts or feelings
4. Rest
focus on God for a while
5. Regurgitate
think about the passage again during the day.

Zechariah 3:8 implies that the Old Testament is a lived-out allegory of spiritual life, an approach supported by Galatians 4:24, and 1 Corinthians 1:22 explains how different groups read scripture.

John Stott in Understanding the Bible says on page 14 that Jesus understood the Scriptures to be about himself (John 5:29, Luke 24:27, Luke 24:44).

He adds on page 15 "The fundamental relation between the Old Testament and the New Testament, according to Christ, is that between promise and fulfilment" (Mark 1:15 RSV, Matthew 13:16–17).
On page 22 he says "Just as in a children's treasure hunt, one is sometimes fortunate enough to stumble immediately upon the treasure but, more usually, has to follow laboriously from clue to clue until at last the treasure is found, so it is with Bible reading. Some verses point one direct to Christ. Others are remote clues. But a painstaking pursuit of the clues will eventually lead every reader to that treasure whose worth is beyond price...Since [the Scriptures'] purpose (or the purpose of the divine author who spoke and speaks through them) is to bring us to salvation, and since salvation is in Christ, they point us to Christ, as we have seen. But their object in pointing us to Christ is not simply that we should know about him and understand him, nor even that we should admire him; but that we should put our trust in him...[John 20:31]...The conclusion is simple. Whenever we read the Bible, we must look for Christ. And we must go on looking until we see and so believe."

Academic Approaches

C S Lewis in Mere Christianity on page 132 describes the relationship between spiritual experience and theology as being like comparing standing on the shore with the waves lapping your toes and looking at a map of the Atlantic. The map is dry and unreal compared with the experience, but the experience will never show you how to reach a place on the other side. On page 134 he goes on to say that theology is difficult because it claims to describe another world, as much outside our experience as, say, atomic physics. On page 140 he says that if we were making Christianity up we could of course make it a great deal simpler, but Theology is essentially an experimental science, and it is the made-up religions that are the simple ones. "Of course anyone can be simple if he has no facts to bother about."

Some Protestants despise catholics for venerating the Blessed Virgin Mary, saying that they treat her as God, which is idolatry. Thomas de Quincey commented in 1647:

We Protestants charge upon...the Roman Catholics Mariolatry; they pay undue honours, say we, to the Virgin. They, in return, charge upon us Bibliolatry, or a superstitious allegiance — an idolatrous homage — to the words, to the syllables, and to the very punctuation of the Bible. They, according to us, deify a woman; and we, according to them deify an arrangement of printer's types. quoted in [1] p.169

The term "Biblical Criticism" has negative connotations, but the activity it describes cannot be avoided. John Drane in Introduction to the New Testament explains the use of the word "critical" in this context as meaning "detached and analytical". When we read the first-century parables we are duty bound to think about what that meant to the first hearers (requiring knowledge of the historical context) and perhaps how it could be told with equivalent effect today. Translators are faced with this problem continually, and sometimes it is useful to go back to the original language where additional meaning that was lost in translation may be found.

However, there seems to be a chasm between the sort of faith described in Hebrews 11:1 and some ways of analyzing scripture. We live in an uncertain world, and how we respond to that uncertainty is important. It seems that some people are naturally more willing to take risks than others. A legalistic approach to academic work views anything uncertain as a weakness in the argument and best left out. Given that uncertainty applies even to the working of the senses through which we perceive the world, taken to its logical conclusion that approach must lead one to conclude that we do not know anything for sure. Some academics seem to assume that if any ancient source is similar to a biblical source then the biblical one must have used the other, without justification. Such an assumption is academically unsound unless it is first acknowledged and then justified.

Many theological theories mistrust parts of scripture that cannot be verified against other sources, or scientific evidence. By contrast, the writer to the Hebrews advocates taking God at his word, that is, regarding scripture as more reliable than any other evidence available to us. Some theologians take the first approach to extremes, and their findings seem remote from the everyday life of a Christian. There is a world of difference between someone going through the Bible looking for things that seem implausible and casting doubt, and someone looking for surprises in order to learn new truths. The first is a purely intellectual exercise, but the second is a spiritual exercise. The first is inherently destructive, but the second is constructive.

A third and less extreme approach is that of Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes when solving a mystery. He first accepted the idea that he was dealing with a mystery so his understanding was incomplete. When he found evidence that did not fit in with his current theories he welcomed it as an indication of where the errors in his understanding lay. By adapting his understanding to fit the evidence, rather than discarding evidence that did not fit his ideas, he found the truth.

René Descartes and Francis Bacon thought that any scientific endeavour should and could remove prejudice and thus influence by the observer, in order to obtain an objective rather than a subjective result. The "baggage" of an expectation of what the result of the experiment should be was to be avoided. Such ideas dominated Western thought from the Enlightenment to the late 20th Century, by which time it had become clear that this aim was firstly unachievable in practice, and secondly lost sight of the contextual significance of the results.

Some theologians (who thought that by being theologically "neutral" they avoided prejudice, but consequently they had no experience of God at work, representing a sort of negative "baggage") could not believe but dismissed these accounts as allegory or myth, and as a result we have to treat their gloomy findings as too much influenced by their own backgrounds. I see the reluctance of some scholars to believe in the miraculous as an example of just the kind of prejudice that it seeks to avoid. If an ancient book says that a miracle happened, and there is no other evidence, why doubt it? Jesus said "for God all things are possible" (Mark 10:27, NRSV). The miraculous element is the reason why the account has been passed down to us while many accounts of contemporary but mundane events may have been lost. The author and subsequent history both tell us that the value of the account lies in the miraculous element. It follows that scholars who choose to discount that element miss the author's point, and by removing the historical value from the original document they also remove any value from their discussion of it.

The Post-Modernism ("new age") that followed the Enlightenment sees reality as very subjective "You can believe what you like as long as it works for you". To some extent this is true, because we have all seen different aspects of God's vast nature and work, but of course there is still one actual reality. This tension is reflected in the Bible itself, which sometimes seems contradictory due to the very different perspectives of its writers. The reader has to try to discover the truth underlying these tensions, which is a skill that may in turn help us to apply God's truth to a "new age" world. But the "new age" will, just like the Enlightnement, affect the thoughts of present-day theologians, and we need to try to identify and compensate for them.

In terms of understanding the Bible, the reader needs to have experience of life to understand what the writers are trying to say. By acknowledging that we too have tried to "be good" in our own strength and failed, we agree with the writers that we are doomed and in need of God's salvation. By extrapolating from the tiny signs of God's presence that help us believe in him, and learning through small answers to prayer that God can be trusted, we become more able to accept the accounts of prophecy and great miracles. This extrapolation could lead us astray, and the value of the stricter academic approaches lies in acting as a check on the truth of what we teach, but it must not be allowed to replace positive biblical teaching. A car is unsafe without brakes, but a car with brakes but no engine is dead and useless. Some scholars do not believe that Jonah, for example, actually existed, but accept that the book can teach useful truths. Some of the hearers of such teaching may believe in a literal Jonah, others not. Teaching in a way that does not rely on the literal existence of Jonah helps both types of hearer to learn; teaching that Jonah did not exist is likely to alienate some hearers without benefit. The scholar may regard the literalist as weak because his beliefs are uncritical; the literalist may regard the scholar as weak because he cannot believe the Biblical accounts. Both need to heed Romans 14:1.

Finally, a Christian interpretation of any part of scripture must be consistent with Jesus's teaching and actions as recorded in the Gospels.

References:

  1. Campbell, Gordon Bible — The Story of the King James Version Oxford: OUP 2010

© David Billin 2002–2014