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Theology regularly takes the driver seat in Bible study. This is only natural since our theology is the construct or model we hold in mind while we read. For example, our theology of God informs how we read Scripture. If one believes that only the Father is God then he will struggle with certain verses (like John 20.28) while reading others with ease (like John 17.3). When we encounter difficult texts our tendency is to explain them away so that we need not alter our theological model on that particular subject. We may look at other translations until we find one that agrees with what we think it should say or else pontificate conspiracy theories that all the extant manuscripts are corrupt because the “evil” early Church Fathers and scribes had a nefarious agenda. Thus, our theology leads our Bible study rather than the other way around. But, what if this is doing things backwards? What if this way of studying the Bible is inherently dangerous?

Pursuing theology is natural because our God-given minds are innately eager to assimilate raw data and make sense of it. We read Scripture and our mental wheels turn trying to work everything out. This is a good thing and I am certainly not against the idea of synthesizing understandings of particular topics based on Scripture. However, what I have come to see is that there is an appropriate order to doing this work. Here is what I suggest:

1: Accurate Text   We can be experts in hermeneutics (the art of interpretation) and even study the text of Scripture in its original languages, but if the text we are studying is inaccurate then all of the work we do will be skewed. The Bible was written in three languages: Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. For the Old Testament we have several manuscripts including the Leningrad Codex, the Aleppo Codex, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and a very ancient Greek translation called the Septuagint. For the New Testament we have well over five thousand manuscripts in Greek, and thousands more in translations of ancient languages like Coptic, Syriac, and Armenian. There is no one manuscript that is completely correct. This is partly because the oldest ones often only contain a portion of Scripture and partly because of scribal errors. As a result, textual scholars work through the many variations in order to arrive at the earliest and best reading. For the vast majority of Scripture the text is certain, but there are occasionally areas where variants can significantly change the meaning of a passage (often these are footnoted in most Bibles). An excellent Bible that helps English readers understand where there are manuscript discrepancies and the reasons behind why a particular one was preferred is the NET (New English Translation), which can be accessed for free on bible.org. For those who can read Greek, Bruce Metzger’s Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament is the standard work in the field.

To round out this section I will list three major examples of what I am talking about. The first is the story of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery (John 7.53-8.11). It may or may not have actually happened, but it certainly was not in the earliest and best manuscripts of the Gospel of John, rather it was added later. The second is the ending of Mark (16.9-20), which likewise did not exist in the earliest and best manuscripts of the Gospel of Mark, which ended at verse eight. The third example is 1 John 5.7, which was significantly lengthened from “For there are three that testify” to “For there are three that testify in heaven: the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit; and these three are one.” The earliest manuscript containing this kind of reading is from the 10th century and it was a marginal note. Thus, it is important to get the text right first before proceeding to the next stage. Fortunately, as I mentioned earlier, most Bibles will include footnotes if there are significant alternative readings.

One last item to mention is that the King James Version (KJV), which many consider more accurate because of its age (it turns 400 this year), was based on relatively late Greek manuscripts. Since 1611 archeologists have found thousands more and so modern Bibles are much closer to the original than the KJV and NKJV. If you are a KJV reader, I would recommend upgrading since their are many highly literal translations available that are based on far more accurate Greek texts (i.e. NASB, ESV, NET, NRSV)

2: Exegesis   What does the Scripture say? Sometimes our interpretive lenses so color our reading that we do not actually see what the Scripture says accurately. We must all try to be as mindful as possible of our own biases when we study the Bible. Exegesis is the word that means understanding what the text actually says. The idea is to get the meaning out of (ex) the text rather than read our notions into (eis) the text. Exegesis must always lead theology rather than the other way around. If we allow our theological understanding to have priority, then we will have no choice but to bend Scripture to fit our system of thought. If what the Bible really says messes with our theology then so be it. It is our theology which must change, not Scripture.

Exegesis is best done by paying careful attention to context. We begin with the verse itself and then zoom out to see how that verse works in its immediate context (paragraph or chapter). Probably 90% of erroneous interpretations can be avoided by simply reading the surrounding paragraph in which a verse is written, rather than taking a verse as a sound byte or a one-liner. Next, it is usually helpful to read the entire book to get the overall context (and sometimes it might be necessary to read all of the books written by that particular writer). At this point, if the verse is still fuzzy it is often helpful to consult a commentary. Reading Bible commentaries is like asking a friend what he or she thinks, except this “friend” has studied the book extensively in its original language and is thoroughly acquainted with the options for understanding a particular passage. I have had some pretty good success consulting the Baker commentaries, though I’m sure many others are good as well. Still, we are not really doing theology yet; we are merely trying to figure out what the text is saying. Only after the hard work of exegesis is done can we move on to the next step.

3: Theology   When we do theology we are not studying our own opinion, but we are seeking, as children of God, to think our Father’s thoughts after him. Theology is faith seeking understanding–someone trying to discern the big picture from all of the little pieces. Doing theology can be hard work and sometimes it can make us quite uncomfortable. This is because biblical doctrines often conflict with cultural norms and long-held personal beliefs. Again, getting the order right is paramount. What we think is common sense may be out of sync with divine wisdom. Our understanding of Christianity may be skewed by misinformation, tradition (or anti-tradition), or ethnocentrism. Theology is king over our culture and our individual sensibilities. God’s one opinion overrules the majority of human opinions.

Theology is the task of bringing together all of the Scripture on a subject in order to seek a unified doctrine. Bad theology is when only a select group of verses (commonly called “proof texts”) are embraced by one’s theory while others are completely ignored. Good theology seeks to embrace all of Scripture in an effort to discern God’s mind on a particular subject. Since we are not the direct followers of Jesus and the apostles we can never be absolutely sure that we understand their writings correctly. Thus, we must struggle to remain intellectually humble, always able to hear other viewpoints which conflict with our own. Often it takes serious prayer and long hours of wrestling with various Scriptures before God can break down our stubborn theological walls to reveal to us a better understanding. When this happens it is painful (after all, who likes finding out he or she is wrong) and exhilarating (since we are moving closer to the Light).

9 Responses to “Bible Study: Getting the Order Right”

  1. on 20 Jan 2011 at 6:56 amWolfgang

    Sean,

    thank you for some interesting and important points concerning a profitable study of the Scriptures. In your paragraph concerning “the accurate text”, you give some examples and mention

    it certainly was not in the earliest and best manuscripts … , rather it was added later.

    This brings up some questions, such as:
    Are the “earliest” (by that I suppose, you mean the earliest of those mss that have been found until today?) manuscripts are also the “best” (by that I suppose, you mean best as most accurate to the originally written works? ) ?
    Is it possible that the reading of a “later” manuscript from a different location perhaps reflects actually an even earlier (but not discovered or known) manuscript which would be more accurate to the original?
    To what degree does the location from where the manuscript comes have influence on its accuracy and closeness to the original (in other words, is it possible that from even early on in a certain location deviations were introduced into the text due to theological reasons, and now we have perhaps “earlier” manuscripts from that text tradition than we have from the text tradtion of another location where the text may have been transmitted more accurately?

    Cheers,
    Wolfgang

  2. on 20 Jan 2011 at 2:11 pmWolfgang

    Sean,

    another few thoughts about your good post on an important topic

    Exegesis is best done by paying careful attention to context. We begin with the verse itself and then zoom out to see how that verse works in its immediate context (paragraph or chapter).

    I would add that there is not only the “textual context” (such as chapter and neighbouring chapters, etc.) but also the “historical” and “cultural context”. There may be expressions used that are peculiar to the people of whom and culture in which the described situation happened … and these need to be understood in that light, rather then in a context of our modern day culture.

    Something I have found to be very important is the observation of the “historical” context, that is, noting when something was said or written and recognizing what time it speaks of relevant to the time of writing. Quite many errors occur because sections of Scripture are read from an incorrect time perspective, for example, such exegesis is putting what was present tense at the time of writing into our present time now at the time of reading, etc.

    Another important point in a correct exegesis involves recognizing to whom the Scriptures were actually addressed and written. Many Christians today incorrectly read especially the NT scriptures as if they had been written yesterday and as if they were addressed to us now … however, NONE of the Scriptures in the Bible is addressed or was written to us today, who are living thousands of years later. For example, when we read in Paul’s epistles of “we” and “you”, etc. it is essential to recognize that Paul did not write this to Christians living in 2011 in a small town in Germany, but was writing to believers living then in the place he mentions.

    A proper theology must needs then recognize how any of what is stated in the Bible might APPLY or NOT APPLY to us readers who live now almost 2000 years after the NT scriptures were written. Such is achieved by proper exegesis which thus does take into consideration the historical and cultural context.

    Cheers,
    Wolfgang

  3. on 20 Jan 2011 at 9:32 pmDoubting Thomas

    Sean,
    Thanks for the great article. It was particularly timely for me. In that I was struggling with some issues in regards to my personal bible study habits. I found the following quote from you particularly enlightening. “The third example is 1 John 5.7, which was significantly lengthened from “For there are three that testify” to “For there are three that testify in heaven: the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit; and these three are one.”

    I’ve had Trinitarians quote the KJV version of 1 John 5.7 to me before, and I didn’t know how to explain it. Now I know the ‘truth’. Thank-you for enlightening me…

  4. on 20 Jan 2011 at 10:35 pmSean

    DT,

    click here to read a more thorough explanation on 1 John 5.7

  5. on 21 Jan 2011 at 4:06 pmSean

    Wolfgang,

    Is it possible that the reading of a “later” manuscript from a different location perhaps reflects actually an even earlier (but not discovered or known) manuscript which would be more accurate to the original? To what degree does the location from where the manuscript comes have influence on its accuracy and closeness to the original (in other words, is it possible that from even early on in a certain location deviations were introduced into the text due to theological reasons, and now we have perhaps “earlier” manuscripts from that text tradition than we have from the text tradtion of another location where the text may have been transmitted more accurately?

    Yes, all of this is possible. There are always exceptions, I’m sure. I am certainly not a textual critical scholar, but I know that there are different manuscript families. A good deal of their work is to determine a family tree of sorts explaining which manuscripts were copied from which. This is difficult work, and where there is uncertainty it is noted (for example in the Textual Commentary of the GNT).

    On your second comment, I certainly agree that proper exegesis (also called hermeneutics) depends on more than just getting the context right. Like you said, the original Sitz im Leben is also necessary to take into account. However, my intention in writing this post was not so much to instruct on proper exegesis as it was to emphasize that exegesis should always have priority over theology rather than the other way around.

  6. on 22 Jan 2011 at 2:35 amWolfgang

    Sean,

    I certainly agree with the general point of your post and only wanted to augment a few details …

    As you noted here, the matter of determining the accuracy of the text in order to even have the proper basis for the next step, exegesis, can be complex in terms of comparing the various available old mss and determining their weight not only from age (whether they are earlier or later) but also from which location they come and to which textual tradition (mss “family tree”) they belong.

    My other concern, the observation of the proper historical and cultural context, is — as I have seen in various discussions even on this blog – a rather decisive exegetical principle when it comes to adherence to that which you mention as your intention for writing the post => exegesis should have priority over theology. Unfortunately, insisting on one’s theology then leads to ignoring those important principles of a correct exegesis. The texts are read and interpreted within a “textual” context, but are sort of misplaced in regards to their “historical” and “cultural” context in order to either establish or maintain one’s theology.

  7. on 22 Jan 2011 at 3:39 pmSean

    Wolfgang,

    As you noted here, the matter of determining the accuracy of the text in order to even have the proper basis for the next step, exegesis, can be complex in terms of comparing the various available old mss and determining their weight not only from age (whether they are earlier or later) but also from which location they come and to which textual tradition (mss “family tree”) they belong.

    You are right to observe how complicated the discipline of textual criticism is. I’m thankful for the scholars who have dedicated their lives to putting such a jig-saw puzzle together (not to mention the fact that reading scribal hand-writing is extremely difficult, especially when there were no spaces between words). Fortunately for us, we live in a time when this work has already been completed and we can simply refer to reference books (or the footnotes in a good study Bible) for information.

  8. on 22 Jan 2011 at 11:06 pmXavier

    Sean

    Fortunately for us, we live in a time when this work has already been completed and we can simply refer to reference books (or the footnotes in a good study Bible) for information.

    Two words: LOGOS, Bibleworks. 🙂

  9. on 20 Jul 2011 at 4:17 pmXavier

    Anyone seen this?

    …the publishers of the Common English Bible translation want to clear up anything and everything that can confuse those inclined to dive into the Bible, so “Son of Man” now reads “the Human One.

    …the new $3.5 million Bible translation that took four years to complete, also tossed out “alien” and “foreigner” in places (read Exodus 22:21) in lieu of “immigrant”; shifts toward a more gender-neutral approach (“brother or sister” versus just “brother” when Jesus teaches to “warn,” not “rebuke” in Luke 17:3-4); adds in plenty of contractions; uses words such as “insulted” instead of “defiled” (1 Samuel 17:45); and eases up the language of the Lord’s Prayer (found in Matthew 6:9-13) by switching out “hallowed be thy name” for “uphold the holiness of your name,” among other shifts.

    http://newsfeed.time.com/2011/07/20/new-bible-translation-aims-for-common-language/?hpt=hp_t2

  

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