Recently, I’ve been talking with some friends about some hard questions, and we turned to a particular chapter of Romans. After I sent them a link discussing part of the passage, one of my friends started searching for other commentary about it. But then he stopped, because, as he put it:
After that, I decided researching the passage would be counter-productive. My goal is to understand the passage, not understand what scholars say about the passage. I suppose I’m going on the assumption that if God is conveying truth, even someone as ignorant (unschooled) as myself should be able to understand at least the main point.
He then proceeded to read the chapter himself, think about it, and send an email to the rest of us explaining what he saw in the passage.
In thinking about his comments and his approach, I find myself both agreeing, and wanting to preserve a right place for commentary. At the core of good Bible study is personal Bible study–you the Christian, with God, studying the Word and receiving from the Spirit. It should never be less than that. But Bible study should be more. It should include community & relationship, accountability, and connection with the rest of the Church–now and in the past.
Personal Bible Study
We’re supposed to pore over Scripture directly. I think study Bibles aren’t very good for new Christians–they should be poring over Scripture, getting in the habit of looking there, first. Not getting in the habit of answering every question by reading what other Christians say. We shouldn’t depend on study notes to give us the answers–our first impulse shouldn’t be to look there, but rather to wrestle with the Word. The same applies to commentaries. We can’t let studying them replace Bible study.
Bible Study in Community
The Christian life isn’t about me & God, it’s about us & God. We’re not supposed to be solo Christians. That goes for Bible study, too. It should be relational. It’s not “me & my Bible & God alone in the woods”. We study by ourselves (just like we pray by ourselves), but we shouldn’t stop there. We need to do things in community, in fellowship. Solo prayer & worship is important, but there’s also a richness to group prayer & worship–to the “one another” work of the Spirit. Same with Bible study–there is richness and help in studying together. Christ did not die to make solo Christians; he died to purify a people, to make a family, to make a Body of various parts joined together–who will be loving and serving and blessing each other, teaching each other, through the work of the Spirit.
So we talk about it, and you help me see what I might have missed, and vice versa. Or you help me see that it doesn’t say what I thought, and vice versa. If something seems obvious to me but you can’t see it at all… Then we need to step back and look again, together. “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.”
Is the Bible Plain?
Community Bible study is part of accountability, and we all need it. Because the Bible is written for us all to read, but there are lots of ways that we can get things wrong. We have blind spots, we have preconceived ideas. We fail to see things because we don’t want to, or we see things because we want to see them. Or we just miss things for no apparent reason–even things that seem obvious after someone points it out. And sometimes the Bible is hard to understand–it’s not written for scholars, but not everything is plain & easy. As people say, “The main things are the plain things, and the plain things are the main things.” The basics of the Gospel & following Christ are plain, but it’s also easy to miss things, and we need to help each other see more clearly.
So… I think Bible study should have steps. (1) Spend time prayerfully studying the Word by yourself. (2) Spend time studying it with other Christians.
Commentaries Are Christian Community, Too
“Studying it with other Christians” includes going out into our Christian community and study it with each other. But commentaries are another way.
A commentary is just something that another Christian has written. It might be quite helpful, and show you things in the passage that you missed. It might tell you some helpful background info–something that would have been obvious to the original audience, but isn’t obvious to a 21st century American. Or it might say things that are totally off-base. Just like any time you study the Bible with another Christian. It’s not a replacement for reading the Bible yourself, and you need to apply discernment to what you read. But it can be very, very helpful. Our fellow Christians can be very, very helpful.
Christians Who Aren’t Like Us
We all have blinders & bad assumptions–things that make us misunderstand Scripture, or read our theology into the text instead of reading it out of the text. Those problems sometimes come from our cultural background.
But people from other cultures have different blinders. We make different mistakes–and if we examine them together, we can help one another to see more clearly.
The more we listen to Christians who are very different from us, the more we will have iron sharpening iron.
So, it’s exciting that Christianity is growing so much in Africa and China. I can’t wait to find out how they contribute to our understanding of what God has said–to see how they challenge the Western church’s priorities and assumptions.
The History of the Church
We also shouldn’t just read commentary from modern people. We should be connected with the church as a whole, throughout history. We should be grounded in history. We should be aware of how Christians have wrestled with and answered questions in the past, and we should hear their voices as well. Because:
- Just as people from other cultures today have different blinders, so do people from the past. They’re less likely to make our mistakes, and we’re less likely to make theirs.
- If we really think the Bible is clear, do we think it is clear only to us, now? If we think the Bible is saying something that no other Christian in the history of the world has seen, shouldn’t that make us wonder?
- If we have the Holy Spirit, so did they. If we are fallible, so were they. If our fellow Christians today are worth listening to, so were they.
Let’s listen to the dead guys, too.
Catholics and Eastern Orthodox understand this point, but go too far. They invest the history of the Church with too much authority, letting it move into the role of interpreting for us, instead of with us. But sometimes Protestants do a pendulum swing, too far in the other direction.
Only sometimes. But it definitely happens.
We should draw on the wisdom of the Christians who have gone before us. It’s one thing to look at it with caution and discernment; it’s another to throw it off entirely, like a teenager convinced of his parents’ irrelevance & foolishness.
The Holy Spirit has been teaching Christians from the Scripture for 2000 years, and it doesn’t make sense to cut ourselves off from that. It is not “Me and my Bible alone in the woods with God.” As we pray for God to help us understand his word, we should be plugged in directly to the Bible, and into our community, and into the broader community of Christians, living and dead. Study the Bible directly, and then do it with other Christians. We help keep each other from going off in weird directions.