Monday, August 22, 2022

Why study the Bible. . .

Bible studies can be good and salutary and sometimes they are a disaster.  It all depends on why people are studying the Bible and how that Bible is being studied.  We all know that even if we do not admit it.

There are some who study the Bible the way they would pursue a hobby or special interest.  They want to find out everything they can about it.  They are curious and interested but in so many ways the Scripture they studies does not impact greatly their faith or their lives in Christ.  It is information for informational purpose.  We learn many things like this today.  It is information that lies largely passive within our minds.  This information does not impact who we are, what we believe, or how we live.  It is just information.  This is not Bible study.  The devil probably knows the Bible better than the average Christian and perhaps even more than the exceptional one.  But that knowledge does not serve any useful purpose except to twist and distort in order to trap the weak in faith and cause the strong to stumble.  There is no gain in studying the Bible in order simply to learn about it.  We study Scripture to listen to the voice of God, confident that in that voice the Spirit is at work, for the purpose of strengthening our faith in this mortal life and keeping us holy and blameless to eternal life.

There are some who study the Bible the way we might approach a mystery or a puzzle.  They are sure that there are hidden meanings in Scripture that are at least more interesting and maybe even more profitable than hearing what the Word says.  They approach everything in Scripture as if it were not what it says.  They delight in unlocking the mystery but they are not ready to say Christ is the key to the Scriptures or its central story and focus.  In the extreme this is Gnosticism but it is also an ordinary way so many look at Bible study.  Again, the problem here is that the story of Scripture is not many stories loosely connected but the story of Christ from beginning to end.  The Bible does not have a hidden agenda other than making Christ known so that Christ may be known.  If you cannot begin there, maybe the end result of your study will not bear the fruit God has appointed either.

There are some who study the Scripture as if doctrine were something bad and diversity was a higher purpose.  They love to find in Scripture questions without answers -- except for the suggestions of individuals who see in those Scriptures what they want.  The familiar question in this kind of Bible study is what does that mean to you?  But of course, if might mean something very different to me.  Who is right and who is wrong?  If there is nothing but opinion, there is nothing left in Scripture.  The Word of the Lord is filled with Thus saith the Lord and none of this is meant as a starting point for speculation but all of it is meant as authoritative for doctrine, reproof, correction, learning, and growth in faith.  If leaving the Bible study means taking your doubts home too, perhaps that study is not beneficial.

There are those who study the Scriptures as if they were any other book -- except that they just might grant to any other book and any other author more credibility than they give to the Bible.  The skeptics love to pit passage against passage, author against author, and word against word.  They seem to take strange delight in trying to undo any historical or factual assertions in God's Word.  It is all symbolic and not much of it is truth.  Like Jefferson of old, they would love to condense Scripture into a more manageable book with saying that usually end up moralizing more than saving.  If your goal is to find loose ends that threaten the unity and message of Scripture as many books all speaking of the same Christ, then just maybe you are getting it wrong int he first place.

We study Scripture to grow our faith and equip us to live holy, upright, and godly lives in Christ,  We recognize the Word of God as the very voice of God.  We do not give it meaning but it shapes us with the power of its truth and the Holy Spirit.  We acknowledge that this Word is living and active -- not a tame and weak Word but wild and powerful --- doing not our bidding but God's bidding for us.  We study the Scripture to find out what God has said and done and these form the doctrines that order our days as well as our eternity.  We study Scripture not to find a way out of the words that conflict with the will, desire, and purpose of the sinful self but to control that sinful self better and giving the devil less leeway in our daily lives. We study the Scripture because it is efficacious -- it accomplishes for us what it says to us.  This is no small matter.  When we realize this, we also begin to realize how we are not the judges of the Word but are convicted by it, that our reason is not some sacred power over God's Word but itself transformed by that Word for God's eternal purpose, and that our awareness and esteem of God's mercy grows every moment we listen to His voice.

Bible study is good and salutary but it can also be dangerous.  The danger happens when we treat it like any other book, its message as if it were only information, and presume to place ourselves above that Word with opinion, doubt, and feeling.  Honestly, some of our Bible studies are not helping us or helping the work of our Lord and the problem is not God but you and me.  If we get this right, we will be blessed everytime we open God's Word but if we get it wrong we will be led astray.

There is one more thing to be said about Scripture.  The Word of the Lord is not directed primarily to individuals but to the Church; it is not a private Word directed to a person but a liturgical Word that is heard first in the assembly of God's people around that Word and His Table.  The study of God's Word flows out of its primary context as the liturgical assembly hears His call, is gathered by the Spirit, and listens to the Lord addressing His people.  The voice may be the pastor's but the Word is always the Lord's.  God's Word is studied first as it is preached into our ears within the Eucharistic assembly and from there it lives in us and is reflected upon and meditated upon long after the last echos of that liturgical assembly have gone silent.  Furthermore, it directs us back to the weekly gathering -- the holy rhythm from God to us and us back to God is God's purpose in speaking to us in the first place.  

Studying the Word in a group or alone is no substitute for our weekly gathering around the Word and Table of the Lord.  In fact, except in emergency situation, the liturgical setting is not simply the first in time in the week but the primary context in which God's Word is heard and the people of God respond with faith.  I fear that much of Christendom and some of Lutheranism with it has forgotten what it means to be captive to the voice of God's Word.  I worry that we may be reading the Scriptures but missing the whole point of its study.  I lament that some have decided that a less than weekly Eucharist is salutary enough for them and Bible study is more about what they want to get from Scripture than what God wants to say to us through His Word.  Scripture warns us against those who do not rightly handle the Word of truth and I am not sure we are paying that much attention.  For what it is worth, these comments do not hing to discourage our study of His Word but only encourage it for the serious endeavor that study is.

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