The first passage of the Scripture I studied was Philippians 3. I was a new believer, new to Bible study, and in a 3-year masters program on biblical exegesis. For a semester project, I had to pick a passage, study it, and present my interpretation to the rest of the class and all the exegesis professors. I still have my paper.
At the time, I thought I did a stellar job. The professors passed me, but today I’d give myself a D-. Looking back, I now realize I had so much more to learn!
How do you know if you’ve successfully understood a passage of Scripture? It helps to begin by understanding and embracing these basic interpretative convictions:
- The author’s intended meaning is absolutely crucial for the valid understanding of any verbal/written communication.
- The Bible is in some ways no ordinary book: it is inspired by God, without error, and authoritative.
- In the way we are to understand the meaning of the Bible, it is ordinary. That is, it conveys meaning by means of normal, human communication from a human author to a particular human audience.
- When we know the human author’s intended meaning, we also know God’s intended meaning.
- The goal of biblical interpretation (or biblical exegesis) is to carefully and objectively uncover the author’s intended meaning to his original audience.
- Having successfully understood the author’s thoughts and therefore the text, the essential next step is to draw legitimate principles from the text for our lives today.
Consider these points from chapter 3 of Bob Smith’s Basics of Bible Interpretation about the goal of Bible study:
- Sermonizing is not Bible study. Sermons are often emotional, motivational appeals to action. Teachers frequently springboard off the language of the text, diving deep into platitudes and catchy stories designed to inspire and motivate us to the chosen call of action. At their worst, they have nothing to do with the passage of Scripture read. As Smith writes: “The speaker wheeled back and forth like an eagle over the text but he never came to rest upon it.”
- Whipping up three or four good exhortations from a text is not Bible study. Exhortations are great, as long as they come from the passage at hand. Often they are merely calls to action and repentance. As Smith writes: “After the text was read there issued a torrent of words exhorting us to five different things. God knows that we needed at least ten exhortations, but God also knows that the relationship of the text to the exhortations was completely accidental.”
- Academic exegesis is not Bible study. While most sermons today don’t regale us with their understanding of the aorist or the jussive, they often regale us with their scholarly analysis of popular culture, psychology and research statistics. Again, impressive but not the goal of bible study.
- Propagandizing is not Bible Study. Smith wrote it best: “Like the fingers of the pianist race up and down the keyboard, so his fingers raced through the Bible finding the relevant verses. Plunk, ping, plunk! It did not take long before I realized we were not having Bible study but a party line. The Bible was a keyboard and the teacher was playing his own tune upon it.”
- Pious observations are not Bible study. “The poor man of God does everything but explain the text. I got 30 minutes of various and diverse unrelated and uninspiring pious observations. Each observation was a worthy one. But the passage itself remained untouched. We had been all around the text but never in it.”
The actual goal of Bible study is to convey the meaning to the people of a set number of verses. …. The heart of Bible study must always be the matter of meaning. The first question of Bible study is not: “What is devotional here?” nor “What is of practical importance here?” nor “What is inspirational here?” but “What does this passage mean?”
If you’re looking for a refresher course on Bible study or to begin learning how to study, Basics of Bible Interpretation by Bob Smith is still a good choice. You might also enjoy listening to: The Goal of Bible Study.
Part of the Series: Bible Study 101
Photo used here under Flickr Creative Commons.