There are about five gazillion ways to study the Bible, and three gazillion ways of reading it. I know. I’ve tried them all.
“Hyperbole” – the use of obvious and intentional exaggeration.
For as long as I’ve been a Christian I’ve looked at different ways of reading the Bible, and different ways of studying it – from reading plans to meditation; from chronological to inductive; from prepared study guides to randomly opening the Bible and reading. The issue? They are all useful, but they serve different ends, are more helpful towards different purposes and they are all methods. And what do I do when I see a method? I try to understand it, to formularise it, to improve it, to determine if it is the best method such that all others can be instantly and permanently dismissed from my conscience.
And there is a problem here – the best method today won’t necessarily be the best one tomorrow. But it may come good again in a week. Methods aren’t static, nor is my perception of them. At the back of my mind whenever I consider methods a statement from the 19th century American Methodist pastor E M Bounds comes to mind:
The Church is looking for better methods; God is looking for better men.
It may be helpful to try to distinguish between Bible reading and Bible study – or at least to lay out my definitions of them. In a sense the distinction comes back, in part at least, to the purpose of the interaction and the tools used. Bible reading may be otherwise termed as devotional reading or, in Christian parlance, having a quiet time. It is to read a portion of the Bible (from a verse to a chapter give or take) with a view to withdrawing from the world a little and spending time in God’s presence. Prayer is involved as we declare out intention to spend this time with God, and we can pray or echo parts of what we read back to the Lord as or after we read. Equally, once we’ve read and are contemplating or meditating about what we read then that can become a source or launchpad for more prayer.
Bible study, on the other hand, is generally a bit more cerebral and focussed. One would normally be tackling a book or chapter of the Bible sequentially. But you may be looking at a specific person, or a word and how it is used through the Bible, or a theme or topic. More tools are needed – Bible dictionaries, commentaries, word study books, Bible encyclopedia, multiple translations of the Bible, a concordance.
Several months ago I came across a webpage which spoke of some of the distinctions between devotional reading and Bible study. The author uses the term devotional v exegetical. The article, Devotional and Exegetical Reading of Scripture is quite helpful in drawing the distinction but also in elevating or honouring or promoting or encouraging both types of activity. Let me quote several passages from that article:
There are two very different ways of reading Scripture: exegetically and devotionally. Both are valid, but serve totally different purposes and approach the Bible in totally different ways.
On exegetical reading:
This [exegetical] way of reading Scripture has as its goal understanding the meaning of the biblical text for the larger purpose of drawing theological, doctrinal, or homiletical [preaching] conclusions from it.
Whereas on devotional reading he says,
Devotional reading of Scripture is a personal reading that is intimately tied to prayer as devotion to God. It is an attempt, a search, to encounter God through sacred Scripture … As individuals contemplate a passage from Scripture, they allow the Biblical text to master them as they saturate themselves in the presence of God through focusing on Scripture.
And of the two he writes:
Now, the real problems come when these two ways of reading Scripture are confused, or one is eliminated altogether.
And of whether a “Bible Study” group is really a “Bible Study” group?
Most “Bible Study” groups I have attended are mislabeled. A “Bible Study” where everyone sits around a circle and the leader goes around the circle and asks, “What does this passage mean to you,” is not a Bible study. It is an exercise in devotional reading. That may be adequate for a certain context, as long as people understand what they are doing, and know the difference between devotional reading and Bible study.
Within these introductory words in place I hope to write a series of posts on different aspects and types of Bible reading, meditation, study. But that will have to wait until I’ve had a holiday. And that begins tomorrow!