I recently had a conversation with a well-known pastor who claimed that theological colleges shouldn’t teach theology. After dropping that bombshell, he explained what he meant. Instead of simply teaching theology, he said, they should teach students how to do theology.
The distinction is important, and goes for churches as much as for theological colleges. Every Christian – not just those who will become our pastors – needs to be equipped to know not just what the Bible says, but how to find out what the Bible says. Sadly, few of our churches explicitly teach this skill, and most Christians are relying more and more on preachers and commentators to tell them what the Bible says, and losing the joy of discovering it for themselves. Worse still, some evangelical churches appear to be preaching a new Catholicism. Just as medieval priests did not believe that the laity could be trusted to read the Bible on their own, so many evangelical churches give the impression that it’s just too risky to let the ‘ordinary Christian’ read the Bible without the help of more experienced Bible teachers in print or in person.
But it shouldn’t be like that! Every Christian – even the most recent convert or the least academically gifted – should be able to read and study the Bible for themselves. Of course, our own study must never take the place of listening to Bible-teachers. Personal interpretation and application must never take the place of congregational teaching. But when we combine both corporate and private study, when we both listen to teachers and teach ourselves, we will find that there is a greater richness and challenge in the Word of God than we ever thought before. Yet it’s vital that we do our best to read the Bible in a way that will genuinely profit, and not lead us astray. If we simply charge into Bible study, it’s quite possible for us to quickly get out of our depth, and end up in a mess. If we’re going to read the Bible well, we need help, and we need training.
If this training is not available in your church, then thankfully there are books that you can turn to instead. Below are some of the very best currently available:
If you’re a relatively recent convert, or if you find reading or study difficult, or you’ve never read a book about studying the Bible before, then books in this section are for you.
Living by the Book: The art and science of reading the Bible (Howard and William Hendricks, Moody Press)
Howard Hendricks has been a professor at Dallas Theological Seminary since 1951, and pours all his wisdom and experience of teaching Bible study into this book. That he does so in a way that is suitable for all Christians, and not just seminary students, is a wonderful achievement. Like most of the books listed here, the principles are simple: observation, interpretation and application. The book consists of forty-eight short chapters, sometimes just a few pages long. There’s also an optional workbook that allows you to immediately apply the principles being learned to a particular Bible passage, which means you are putting into practice the skills you are learning. The workbook ends with a complete study of both Ruth and James. The result is a wonderful introduction to studying the Bible.
How to Study Your Bible: The lasting rewards of the inductive method (Kay Arthur, Harvest House)
How to Study Your Bible is an introduction to methodical Bible-study for which Kay Arthur and her organisation Precept Ministries have become famous. What Arthur does is to create a very strict method that encourages you apply to every Bible text a system of notation to mark the passage, ensuring that nothing is missed. Many people will find her method too prescriptive, but for those who prefer a rigid system to ensure they apply the principles correctly, How to Study Your Bible could be extremely helpful.
Search the Scriptures (Alan Stibbs, IVP)
There are a million copies of Search the Scriptures in print, and it’s not difficult to see why. Its approach is quite different from the two books listed above, and it’s best used after you have read one of those books. It takes you through the entire Bible, splitting the Scriptures into over 1,000 passages, and for each passage (around 20-50 verses) asks two or three questions that are designed to ensure you’ve studied and understood the passage. Because it takes you through the whole Bible in three years, it’s a great gift to give a student before they leave for university. But anyone who wants to read through the whole Bible (and who wouldn’t?), but needs a light framework to help them on their way, would find this book a real help.
For those who already have a good grounding in Christian theology, know their Bibles well, and understand the basic principles of studying the Bible, then these books will stretch them a little further. These books are probably best for people who have already read through the whole of the Bible at least once, and want to deepen their understanding.
How to read the Bible for all its worth (Gordon Fee & Douglas Stuart, Zondervan)
Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart’s book builds on some of the basic skills of observation, interpretation and application, by looking in more detail at the various genres found within the Bible: epistles, Old Testament narratives, gospels, prophets, etc. They suggest various difficulties that can surface when reading each genre, techniques that can help along the way, and provide many examples of each of these things in practice. It doesn’t demand quite the hands-on approach of earlier books, so more discipline is required from the reader to ensure that the skills learned are put into practice, but if you’re willing to do this, it’s a great help.
Grasping God’s Word: A hands-on approach to reading, interpreting and applying the Bible (J Scott Duvall & J Daniel Hays, Zondervan)
Grasping God’s Word is a large-format hardback that offers a thorough guide to studying the Bible. It’s designed to be used as a first-year textbook in Bible colleges, but remember that most first-year Bible college students know little more than the ‘average’ serious Christian – that’s why they’re going to college after all! The book is in five parts. The first three parts deal with the basic tools of interpretation, understanding the context of biblical passages at various levels, and with application and meaning. The chapter on the role of the Holy Spirit in understanding the Bible is particularly helpful. The final two parts then deal with the various genres of both the Old and New Testaments. Every time a new concept is introduced it is accompanied by scriptural examples, and there’s even an optional workbook which contains exercises and questions to ensure that the lessons are really remembered. As a result it’s a good book to work through on your own, but even better in part of a small study group, or as a one-to-one with your pastor or elder. If you have the time and energy to devote at least an hour or two each week to serious Bible study, this book would be a wonderful aid.
Getting the Message: A plan for interpreting and applying the Bible (Dan Doriani, Presbyterian & Reformed)
Doriani’s book is particularly aimed at those who have a responsibility to teach the Bible, but he is at pains to point out that doesn’t mean only preachers. It’s a book therefore that could be particularly helpful for Sunday School teachers (particularly those teaching teenagers), leaders of ladies’ Bible-study groups, CU group leaders, and those engaged in one-to-one discipleship. The book’s great strength is its emphasis on applying and teaching the Word, and its Christ-centeredness. He unashamedly writes, ‘Every passage in the Bible presents Christ both as the remedy for human fallenness and is the end point of God’s plan of salvation’. There is a danger in Bible-study that knowledge can simply fill the head and not the heart, so if that is a temptation for you, or if you are involved in teaching others, then this book could be a particular blessing.
The books in this section are for those who have an excellent grasp of the principles of Bible-study, who have read the Bible through several times, and have the time to devote a few hours each week to Bible study. Most of those whom that describes will be involved in teaching the Bible at some level, or if not, should be considering doing so. Like the previous section, these are books that would help preachers as well as other Christians, but they are not books about preaching.
The Word Became Fresh: How to preach from Old Testament narrative texts (Dale Ralph Davis, Christian Focus)
If you are not a preacher, don’t be put off by the subtitle. Ralph Davis has written this book ‘as an exercise in reading the Old Testament for fun and profit’. As he focuses on just one genre, he’s able to go into much more depth than any of the other books we’ve looked at so far. Davis doesn’t supply questions or exercises, but he does fill every page with examples from across the Old Testament. Thankfully, the examples come from both the ‘easy’ and ‘hard’ bits of the Bible, so there’s no ducking of the difficult questions. And although the book is more likely to fill your head with questions rather than answers, we should remember that’s exactly what is needed when we’re reading the Bible. Highly recommended.
Putting the truth to work: The theory and practice of Biblical application (Dan Doriani, Presbyterian and Reformed)
Like Doriani’s Getting the Message, this book is aimed at teachers of the Bible. Though it builds on the foundations of the other books reviewed here, it offers much more besides. Its particular strength is showing how biblical study both benefits from, and contributes to, theological understanding. For example, the book starts by showing the importance of a theological framework (by which Doriani means covenant theology), but also spends considerable time later showing how all biblical passages should lead to the forming of doctrinal understanding. Also particularly helpful is the emphasis on grace throughout, a whole chapter that focuses on the interpreter (his courage, character, and credibility), and the many examples (some of them fairly lengthy) that both illustrate and inform.