Going Deeper in Bible Study

by Henry Neufeld, Publisher

Learning coverRecently I was listening to an explanation of a Bible passage by a writer who shall remain nameless. In the course of this explanation it became clear that the writer had an overriding agenda, and by that I mean an agenda that overrode the story told in the text. It became his story as he repeatedly informed his readers of what other, less enlightened people believed the passage meant and then strongly affirmed that if we studied the passage “more deeply” we would discover that his conclusion was the correct one.

The problem was that at no point in his explanation did he explain what there was “deeper” in the passage that would support his particular interpretation. He simply affirmed and reaffirmed that if we would just look deeper we would see that his conclusion was inevitable.

I should note that my own understanding of the passage clashed vigorously with his. It could be that I’m biased. But I never heard him point to any particular element of the passage in question that would suggest his understanding over what he was describing as the dominant one for the passage, one that he thought was very wrong and even dangerous. I actually think both his and the traditional understandings leave something to be desired. But that passage is not my subject.

Similarly, I have heard many proclaim that if one just looks at a passage in context, one will discover that it means something quite different than it appears to mean on the surface. Much less frequently the person speaking will explain just what context is in view (historical, grammatical, structural, literary, etc.) and just how that context changes the surface meaning.

Don’t get me wrong here. The most obvious surface meaning of a scripture is very frequently not what the original author intended. If seen in proper historical, cultural, and literary context it may well mean something different. But these elements of context are something that a serious student needs to discover and then express. And there’s another important context: The context of our own experience and biases.

I do not intend in this essay to propose methods of Bible study. I’ve written two books that are relevant to this process: Learning and Living Scripture (with Dr. Geoffrey Lentz) and When People Speak for God. What I’m suggesting here is that if we go deeper we have to ask “in what way”? If we study the context we need to outline the connections that we make and how those questions impact our understanding. If we are trying to see things from a broader perspective, what is that perspective?

When I was in college taking a major in Biblical Languages, I encountered the historical-critical method. I also immediately encountered the controversy that there is around this. One was surrendering the notion that God had inspired the Bible if one used the historical-critical method. On the other hand, one was denying the intellect and going against science if one avoided it.

I at first embraced this method for a simple reason: It was pursuing what I had thought was the goal of Bible study. Let’s get closer to the sources and thus get at the real truth. Form criticism could take me back to original forms of a saying so that I could hear it more like it was when it was first spoken. Redaction criticism let me look at the process of producing a book in the form in which it appeared in scripture. Source criticism let me look at documents that preceded the ones I actually had in front of me.

I was digging back into history. I was getting closer to the source. I had never framed it in this way, but God was at the source, and if I could just get right back there I would know precisely what God had to say to me without any doubt.

But then inadequacies began to show up in my new-found methods. Source criticism might explain how there were two creation stories and how they might differ, but if source criticism was the explanation for the differences, what explained the fact that they had been combined into one document? If they were too different to have been written by the same person, why could the documents written by two persons be combined, successfully, into one by yet another person. Was this latter person too stupid to see the differences? Did he just not care?

Enter canonical criticism. Let’s look at the text as we have it in its canonical form, the form accepted by the community of faith over time. In this case, I look at the text as it is and ask what I can learn from the current form. This is all very nice, but I had to ask myself if the current form is the important thing, then why does it have such a tangled past? If the current form is so good, were those who lived with its predecessors spiritually crippled?

While I could certainly pick holes in just about any critical theory, I could also see the ways they picked holes in some of the traditional views of how we got biblical books. There was plenty of room to critique the details of the sources of the Pentateuch, such as dating and the exact boundaries between them, but at the same time sources could explain the reason why many things were there that otherwise made no sense.

It was at this point in my thinking that I started to refer to “critical methodologies” rather than “historical-critical method.” No, that’s not original with me, but I don’t even remember when I first encountered it. It just seemed to fit the need.

Early in my studies I had some difficulty with the criticisms of one methodology by practitioners of another. Then I began to note that people tended to grab hold of one particular approach and stick with it. To a person with a hammer everything is a nail. To a form critic, everything was orally transmitted. To the redaction critic, there must have been a process of editing. To the source critic, all books have sources. And to the advocate of canonical criticism, it was obvious that the canonical form of the text, accepted by the church as Holy Scripture, was the one to study.

So I went back to sources. Not document sources. Not historical first sources. Philosophical sources. Where do I start in my exploration of the Bible? My starting point is this: I believe God is active in history. I’m going to again bypass all the issues of why I believe this and in what way I believe God is active. I will simply note on the latter point that I prefer to say both that God can intervene, but that this intervention is more an internal process that we might ever imagine. (On this point, see Edward W. H. Vick, History and Christian Faith, though I had not read his book when I first took up this approach.)

If God is active in history, why would I believe that God was more active in one piece of history than another? More precisely, why would I believe that God was more active at one point in the history of the text than at another?

And thus I got a new definition of “going deeper.” I now consider it important to go deeper into the history of the text, not as I did when a college student trying to get closer to the mouth of God, but rather to see God in action in the production of the text. Form criticism, to the extent it works, takes me to a point where I can see, through a glass darkly, early people telling stories of their God around a camp fire. Sources let me see communities that contributed to my community bringing God’s stories together. Redaction criticism let me look at those communities trying to bring their variant stories of God’s activity into one stream.

In turn, once there was a text to be transmitted in writing, the variants in the text told me the story of transmission and preservation. I can certainly use text-critical principles to get a text closest to the original, but in those variants I can also see God’s people struggle with the meaning of that text. Instead of becoming concerned about errors—and there are many errors in transmission—I started to see each document as somebody’s Bible, or a portion of it. However much I might treat it as a source of data, textual variants, for someone, the manuscript in front of me was God’s Word.

As people then create translations and editions, instead of seeing some corruption of an early source, I see God’s people both passing on and shaping the story of God’s action while at the same time shaping it for generations to come.

This is just one strand of the way we read and tell the story of God’s people. God is no longer, for me, the distant person that I search for at the end of a long process, whether the historical-critical process I learned in academic work, or the historical-grammatical study I learned when I was younger. God is, for me, the one who is in and through everything, who spoke and yet speaks, who is obscured in the tales of old, and often equally obscured in ours, who may be clearly seen in some events in the past, but may also be clearly seen in my own home.

And then as I tell that story and shape that story, I know that God will still be active.

Bible study, in this sense, is not a spectator sport. It’s a participatory sport. Don’t get upset that I’m calling it sport. It’s often one of the greatest sports that there is. To use examples from baseball, as we interpret, we can throw balls and strikes. We can hit a ball in a way that looks hopeless, but due to someone else’s error nonetheless it results in a run. Or we can do everything perfectly in terms of technique and still get nowhere.

And because God is with our study every bit as much as he was with the most ancient source, we don’t have to worry. We can go ahead and play at whatever skill level. Just remember that none of us play the game to perfection.