One of the questions I often get asked is, “Yancey, what can I do to better understand and study the Bible?” Here are the top three things everyone can and should learn in order to be a better student of the Bible.
Hermeneutics is a fancy word for the art and science of interpretation. In learning hermeneutics we’re trying to understand the principles and rules of interpreting passages we read in the Bible. For example, a good hermeneutical approach takes the different literary genres of the Bible into account. Scripture contains poetry, prophecy, parable, and a myriad of other literary styles, each with specific ways they should be read. Let me illustrate. One of the most oft-quoted Scriptures is Proverbs 22:6 which says we are to train our children in the way they should go and when they get older they will not depart from that training. It’s a great verse, but the problem is when Christians take that proverb as a watertight, guaranteed promise from God, thinking that if they do their parts as parents, God is obligated to make their kids faithful to Him as they grow into adults. But proverbs aren’t promises, they’re…wait for it…proverbs, which are general truisms. They are common wisdom statements that guide us, not guarantee us. As you can see, knowing this one hermeneutical rule not only would help us more accurately interpret (and apply) passages like these but potentially save us from putting false expectations on God (and us). Hermeneutics is critical to understanding the Bible.
#2: Biblical Theology
Biblical theology is the study of how every part of the Bible finds its plotline in Jesus. It’s an attempt to understand Scripture’s One Big Story whereby God is progressively, organically revealing his plan to redeem sinners through the gospel. It doesn’t see Holy Writ as 66 books as much as it does one book which moves the reader through meta-phases of God’s plan in Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Restoration. This One Big Story begins in Genesis and concludes in Revelation, with Jesus as the Hero of it all. There’s no question, this discipline is critical for maturing as a Bible student. For example, biblical theology argues that understanding the Old Testament outside of Jesus not only risks missing the point of the Bible but makes way for continual confusion and frustration, causing you to find yourself mired in passages you don’t know what to do with. But by learning biblical theology, instead of bailing in sections like Leviticus, you can see not only how God uses it to contribute to the One Big Story but how it moves the reader to the beauty and glory of Jesus. Indeed, we cannot properly interpret any part of Scripture unless, like Jesus himself did (cf., Luke 24), we relate those Scriptures to his person and work. Biblical theology can help you do that and, as such, grow your skill in understanding the Bible.
#3: Systematic Theology
If biblical theology is akin to using a fish eye lens that sees from horizon to horizon, systematic theology is like a microscope in that it helps us view one thing in depth. It’s an attempt to understand what the entire Bible says about any particular biblical doctrine (or teaching) like prayer, the Holy Spirit, salvation, etc. Systematic theology can help give balance to the student of the Bible when the temptation arises to interpret specific passages without consulting the rest of Scriptures. For example, systematic theology would assist the woman who bases her prayer life on the singular verse of John 14:13 (“Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do…”) and gets angry at God when her prayer is not “answered.” It would help give discernment to the man who, after being faced with some proof texts from the Bible by a Mormon missionary at his door, now assumes they’re both talking about the same faith. Systematic theology helps both categorize and connect the truths we see in the Bible in honest and meaningful ways. My doctoral dissertation was on systematic theology and spiritual formation and in my research, without question, one of the biggest impacts on adults who learned systematic theology was in their study of the Bible. Individual after individual testified that their love for God’s Word grew because many, for the first time, saw how the “why’s” of what they believed tied not just to one or two Scriptures but throughout the entire Bible. This is what systematic theology does and how deeply it blesses those who desire to better understand the Bible.
Hermeneutics, biblical theology, and systematic theology – three areas that, if you earnestly seek to grow in them, WILL make you a better student of the Bible. If you are a leader in the local church, let me up the ante by challenging you to work hard to find ways to implement the three areas of study into your church’s spiritual formation process. In doing so, you can train generations to be better students of the Bible.
Let me conclude by giving one book recommendation for each area:
- Hermeneutics: How to Read The Bible for All Its Worth by Gordon Fee & Douglas Stuart
- Biblical Theology: God’s Big Picture by Vaughan Roberts
- Systematic Theology: Systematic Theology by Wayne Grudem
3 thoughts on “Three Things to Make You a Better Bible Student”
Great post, Yancey. I agree that all 3 areas you mentioned can help develop any student of Scripture.
Also, I agree that “a good hermeneutical approach takes the different literary genres of the Bible into account.” Spot on, and let’s do it.
However, I’m not sure Prov 22:6 is a helpful example of the point. I think saying that “proverbs aren’t promises” actually misunderstands the proverb genre and can possibly foster mistrust of the text (which looks, smells, and feels like a promise).
Bruce Waltke challenges this approach in Volume 1 of his commentary on Proverbs (pp. 107-108). I’ve also reflected on this point in a post entitled R.C. Sproul’s Proverbial Peccadillo, and I’d be delighted if you had a chance to read and interact with it. Please let me know if you think I’m missing something.
Dan Philips does a bang-up job on Prov 22:6 in his book God’s Wisdom in Proverbs. He shows how it’s really a promise in the opposite direction from what we often hear. That is, if you train up your child “according to his way” (giving full reign to the sin nature without providing discipline or instruction), you’ll end up with a rebellious teenager (he won’t depart from his way). In other words, let the child have his way, and he’ll have it.
A better example of “why we must pay attention to genre” could be something like Judges 5:20. Did the stars literally fall from heaven and fight against Sisera?
Peter, thanks for the kind reflection, challenge, and suggestion. I’ve read some of your rationale of promises being contained within proverbs but still lean toward thinking of them as wisdom literature which deals in contextual generalities. I can see how this might be less so where the LORD himself is specifically invoked. Nevertheless, at this point, while I appreciate you and Walkte, I’m currently a Sproul, ESV Study Bible, and Fee guy on this issue. 😉
However, I reserve the right to get smarter about it.
Thanks for taking the time to consider it. I’m with you at the end, but I’m on a slightly different path to get there. Regardless, keep up the good work!