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Uncovering Well-Worn Paths
Seeking to be Consistent
This is the final week in a three-part series on how to study the bible. I’ve been happy to hear that it’s been helpful for a number of you, and I hope today will be no exception.
We’ve been going through a method for bible study which I call ‘The Three C’s.’
It’s made up of:
As I’ve mentioned before, this is nothing novel or new, but others such as Köstenberger and Perkins have utilised the same, or at similar, methods for studying the word and have been a great help to me in developing a simplified version that anyone can pick up, regardless of age, maturity, or biblical understanding. I've simply changed the names to make them slightly more memorable. We began with Context, where I fleshed out three ways you could prepare yourself to read a book of the bible before you even begin. I talked about the Book, People and Events, and that by starting a bible study with questions like:
- Who wrote this book?
- Who is this book being written to?
- Who are the principal figures?
- What are the key events?
- When was it written?
you would be better equipped to understand what is going. Imagine going to watch the third film in a trilogy without having seen, or even heard of, the first two films, you’d be understandably lost. By learning the historical context, the human author behind the words and events, and people talked about within the text, you’ll be far less likely to find yourself lost along the way. To help us when we do get lost though, we talked about comparison, that when we struggle to understand the verses, the passage, or even the book that we are reading, we should turn to tools within the Bible to help us before going elsewhere. To train you in how to do this well I showed some of the ways the bible itself teaches us to use the tool of comparison by leading us to other passages including direct references, allusions, and anchors. I would encourage you to read both of those articles to get a fuller understanding of the first two C’s, but that should be enough to go on for now or a reminder for those of you who are caught up.
The Third C
When I go for a walk - even though I live in a city - I’m fairly spoiled for choice when it comes to whereabouts I should go. If I turn left, there are parks and wooded areas and the right leads onto the seafront. A little further and there’s the windmill and if I’m feeling in a window-shopping mood I can turn around and head to town. Regardless of what I choose to do, one thing I am sure not to do is get lost. Roads, pavements, and signposts are everywhere and if that wasn’t enough the whole world it seems has been mapped out by google just a couple of taps away on my phone. Even in greener areas I barely need to think, instead, I can be sure to follow the rugged path made by the centuries of constant foot traffic which has killed any possibility of life and now leads any future travelers in the same direction as the ones who have come before. It’s essentially second nature to us, we follow the paths we know are safe by checking them against the experience and knowledge of others, even if that means trekking down a worn and muddy path we’ve never seen before over the beautiful green one that seems to be going in the right direction. If everyone went that way, the green path is probably wrong. When we read the Bible, we should endeavour to do the same, at the end of the first article in the series I said:
“[The Bible] has been used by many, many saints before you and will be used by saints long after you’re gone, worry not, you’re tracking a well-worn path.”
Adsum Ravenhill, The Raven’s Writing Desk, Two Weeks Ago
Picking up where that thought left off, I’d love to introduce you to a few of these saints and help give you some tools to find even more. The reason we do this, after reading the word in Context and then comparing it with other passages from the Bible, is because what we learn from the Bible should be consistent with that which has come before. Imagine if you went to a town and asked what was down a particular road and found out everyone who’d been down there for 2000 years had never come back. Worse still, what if no one had EVER been down there because there was a mighty cliff at the end, would you go down there? There are absolutely debates about specific texts and differences in Theology even within denominations, but to say that was true of the vast majority of Scripture is a wild overstatement. For the most part, when we read texts, we find that from the early Church Fathers right up until the present day, though differences in emphasis may exist, a huge degree of consistency is found. We want to make sure our own theology does the same.
Commentaries, Curation, and Consistency
One of the greatest gifts Church History has given us is brilliant commentaries from many authors, from many backgrounds throughout the eras. What’s more, we’ve also received study bibles, expositions on specific texts, and whole books on theology, Christian living as well as apologetic material. All of those are supplementary to the Bible and should never be seen to be as authoritative as Scripture itself. If they are good though, they are authoritative, albeit to a lesser degree. In the first chapter of Galatians (1:6-24) Paul gives an exceptional, though simple, exposition of which teaching we should accept and what we should abominate. I encourage you to go and read through that carefully, but for the time being, here are the cliff notes.
1. There is no other gospel (v7)
It should be clear to us that there is only one Gospel, that of Jesus Christ, but at times we can be drawn towards other things which feel like truth to us. Whether due to bias, because we need a quick balm for an emotional wound, or for a multitude of other reasons, the human spirit is quick to run away from God and needs to turn in repentance back to God. When we’re looking for solid, Godly resources we want to be sure that what we’re reading advocates for and expounds upon the Gospel. That’s Rule #1
2. Revelation is consistent (v11-20)
We will come back to this later, so take special note here.
Paul, even though he received direct and obvious revelation and inspiration from Jesus on the Damascus road, went and checked his message against that of the Apostles meticulously. For three years he lived in Jerusalem to get to know Peter and even stayed with him for fifteen days. James, Jesus’ own brother was also a friend to him at this time. Paul also makes explicitly clear that even if he, another apostle, or an Angel (v8) comes and preaches something contrary to the truth received, that we are to reject that. If what you’re reading, listening to, or learning from claims to say something else, something new, it’s not worth the paper it’s printed on.
3. Transformation should be evident (v21-24)
After hearing the Gospel, it changed Paul from a persecutor of the bride of Christ into a leading witness and eventual Martyr for God. Though this is far harder to truly understand and get to grips with, the life of a true convert, especially an author of a text which expounds upon scripture, should show significant transformation. Just because someone is intelligent, a gifted communicator, or a delight to read doesn't mean that what they're saying is in accordance with scripture. Look for teachers whose lives you could imitate as much as their words.
There is no other gospel, revelation is consistent, and transformation should be evident.
Really simple rules, but so easy to break if we aren’t careful.
Why this is the last step and not the first
You may be asking why, if it's so important that we remain consistent with historical theology, we don't just start with a commentary. Back when I worked in a Kindergarten, I would occasionally let kids fall off things, even if it would hurt them a little. Not terrible heights of course, but every so often, after being told again and again not to stand on the middle of a seesaw it would become clear that they were not going to learn unless they found out why I was telling them not to. I would clean up the wound, give them a bandage and check they were okay and then we would have a serious conversation about why they shouldn’t do things like that. In future, when we would cross a road during a class trip for instance, if they struggled to wait for the green man before crossing, I would remind them of the seesaw, and all of a sudden, they would remember that there are things we shouldn’t do. I could tell you what to believe, some people will, but I can’t make you believe it. I believe that if you read the bible, study it every day and keep at it, you will grow in faith and learn to trust God more and more. What’s more, I think what you’ll find is that it will become easier and easier to line up what you’re learning with what’s in the commentaries, study bibles or other books, and when you’re challenged on things, you’ll know whether or not they are worth listening to, because you’ll have learned how to weigh them against scripture. We believe as Christians that the Bible is authoritative and that we should trust what it says, I want you to truly believe that.
Next week I’ll give you some tips on which commentaries I recommend, as well as Study Bibles and maybe even a few books. For now:
Read the Bible in Context, compare verses you don’t understand to other verses, and then check you’re being consistent with historical theology.
Grace and Peace,