Of Trees, Forests, and Bible Study

Of Trees, Forests, and Bible Study

I was impressed recently while reading several different blog entries about the importance of the way(s) in which we look at Bible passages. Now I certainly emphasize looking at the forest–at the broad sweep of Biblical themes. One way of looking at themes is in terms of trajectories–which way is the Bible story going.

For example, we know that as the Israelites leave Egypt, God doesn’t intend them to remain a nomadic band wandering in the desert. Slowly he gives them additional laws. Included in those laws are some that look forward to possession of the land. As Christians, we ultimately look at a trajectory that leads to Jesus Christ, and even through him to the church, which is to embody Jesus in the world.

Another way to look at themes is in terms of doctrinal statements or confessions. In this case we look at the doctrinal statement of our church, for example, and look at how scripture fits into this larger doctrinal whole, which is a light form of systematic theology. I think this is so important that when teaching interdenominational classes, I ask the students to be aware of their own church’s doctrinal statement as they study. This gives focus from the community of faith to which someone belongs.

But all of these elements can cause problems. When looking at trajectories, it’s quite easy to go off on a trajectory, and perhaps head for interstellar space without a guidance system. It’s quite possible for me to imagine that the intention of a Biblical writer is to go to some point that I prefer, while ignoring what the writer actually says, and where God’s people actually went. It’s quite possible for me to reinterpret scripture to support my preferred doctrinal statement, rather than going back to the source.

Recently, Molly Aley posted this article on the Complegalitarian blog dealing with the Hebrew word “ezer” in Genesis 2, and how it should apply to male-female relationships. Now I should make it clear that I’m egalitarian, so I have a bias here, but I think both sides have tended to be more concerned with hearing what they want to hear in Genesis 1 & 2 than they are in listening to what the text actually says.

Molly has broken out of that and pointed out what this text does and does not say specifically. Now can that answer tell us the answer to all debates about complementarianism vs egalitarianism? Hardly! What it does is get us one anchor point. How that unfolds in a broader theme requires further study.

The study of a forest has to move from the individual cells in the trees to the trees themselves, to the ecology of the forest as a whole, and also to the many beasties, including human beasties, who use the forest. There is a place for word by word dissection of a passage, and there is a place for broad, sweeping overviews. But they have to be tested against one another on a regular basis.

In terms of Bible study, this means that there is a place for reading the whole Bible, whole books, individual passages, individual verses, and even individual words. There is a place for spending hours, days, and weeks on a single word. But if we get unbalanced about it, we’re going to produce nonsense, and nonsense in the study of God’s word is a pretty dangerous thing. One important way to avoid nonsense is by sharing. A blog is one way of sharing. Commenters come by and point out your mistakes, or add pieces you never thought of to the puzzle.

The forest ecology, for Bible study, extends to the church fathers, to other commentators, to your pastor and fellow church members, to members of the academic community, and even to members of other faith communities. I have received great blessing from reading Jewish commentary along with the Hebrew scriptures.

Listen, read, change focus, change perspective, and then listen some more. It’s a great joy to find something new, or more importantly to find yourself in a new, growing relationship with the Word Giver as you do so.

3 thoughts on “Of Trees, Forests, and Bible Study

  1. Thanks for the link, Henry, and for the thoughts here (that I’m just now seeing).

    There is a place for word by word dissection of a passage, and there is a place for broad, sweeping overviews. But they have to be tested against one another on a regular basis.

    Amen. Good stuff.

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