It’s been said that the Bible is like a body of water in which a child may wade and an elephant may swim. The youngest Christian can read the Bible with profit, for the Bible’s basic message is simple. But we can never exhaust its depth. After decades of intense study, the most senior Bible scholars find that they’ve barely scratched the surface. Although we cannot know anything with the perfection of God’s knowledge (his knowledge is absolutely exhaustive!), yet because God has disclosed things, we can know those things truly.
Trying to make sense of parts of the Bible and of the Bible as a whole can be challenging. What kind of study should be involved when any serious reader of the Bible tries to make sense of the Bible as a whole? Appropriate study involves several basic interdependent disciplines, of which five are mentioned here: careful reading, biblical theology (BT), historical theology (HT), systematic theology (ST), and pastoral theology (PT). What follows looks at each of these individually and shows how they interrelate—and how they are more than merely intellectual exercises.
“Exegesis” is the word often used for careful reading. Exegesis answers the questions, “What does this text actually say?” and “What did the author mean by what he said?” We discover this by applying sound principles of interpretation to the Bible.
Fundamental to reading the Bible well is good reading. Good readers pay careful attention to words and their meanings and to the ways sentences, paragraphs, and longer units are put together. They observe that the Bible is a book that includes many different styles of literature—stories, laws, proverbs, poetry, prophecy, history, parables, letters, apocalyptic, and much more. Good readers follow the flow of texts. For example, while it is always worth meditating on individual words and phrases, the most important factor in determining what a word means is how the author uses that word in a specific context.
One of the best signs of good exegesis is asking thoughtful questions that drive us to “listen” attentively to what the Bible says. As we read the text again and again, these questions are progressively honed, sharpened, corrected, or discarded.
BT answers the question, “How has God revealed his word historically and organically?” BT studies the theology of individual biblical books (e.g., Isaiah, the Gospel of John), of select collections within the Bible (e.g., the Pentateuch, wisdom literature, the Gospels, Paul’s letters, John’s writings), and then traces out themes as they develop across time within the canon (e.g., the way the theme of the temple develops, in several directions, to fill out a “whole Bible” theology of the temple). At least four priorities are essential:
1. Read the Bible progressively as a historically developing collection of documents. God did not provide his people with all of the Bible at once. There is a progression to his revelation, and to read the whole back into some early part may seriously distort that part by obscuring its true significance in the flow of redemptive history. This requires not only organizing the Bible’s historical material into its chronological sequence but also trying to understand the theological nature of the sequence.
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