We've all been in that Bible study where we seem to be having a good discussion, people are engaged, the comments are insightful, and then Bob speaks up. Now we all love Bob (bless his soul), but Bob somehow always manages to provide some off-the-wall interpretation about the passage that everyone immediately knows is not quite right. But the question is, how do you know that Bob's comments are not quite right?
What I want to do in a series of posts is address some of the approaches to Bible study that David Platt identifies as dangerous in this podcast. This is vitally important, because one of the defining characteristics of everybody's "Bob" is that he doesn't know that he is the proverbial "Bob." Which means, you could be Bob!
The Spiritual Approach
One reason Bob may be consistently coming up with strange interpretations to the passages you are studying could be because he unknowingly employs the "spiritual approach" to Bible study. This approach usually involves looking for some deep and hidden spiritual meaning. Some will think, or even say things that make it sound like they’re going to find something new that Christians, for 2,000 years, have totally missed.
This view tends to be more informed by elements of mysticism that implicitly, and for many, unknowingly stress bringing earth to heaven. This view of life is such that God is just waiting to interact with people at the spiritual/emotional level (maybe in unintelligible ways), which then makes our goal to be somehow finding a way to tap into his spiritual plain of being. By way of analogy, then, the Bible and the world become like a house with innumerable rooms, closets, cabinets, and chests just waiting to be opened in order to find some profound hidden treasure that someone has yet to find.
Now, this isn’t completely wrong. Scripture repeatedly uses the language of “seeking”, “finding”, “hidden”, or “revealed” in reference to our relation to God. It is not as though we just read one verse, or even all of Scripture, and suddenly obtain clear and unmediated access to all there is to know or experience of God. We could read the Bible our whole lives, and never exhaust the significance of its truths.
Two Fundamental Differences
However, there are two fundamental differences between the spiritual approach, on the one hand, and the approach to Bible study that ought to flow from a right theology of God's revelation. The first is subtle, but it is this: Scripture says that rather than us bringing earth to heaven, God has brought heaven down to earth. Which is to say that he has revealed himself, not fully, but truly and sufficiently in Holy Scripture for salvation. Now God has revealed himself in creation, but only enough to condemn us when we reject him due to our sinful condition (Rom. 1:19-20; 3:23).
This means that I don’t have to listen to the wind, read the stars, or make out the shape of the tea leaves in my cup in order to know God’s will for my life, or to encounter him experientially. God’s Word, working in tandem with his Spirit, is sufficient to make known to me what God desires for me to know and feel about him.
Another implication of the sufficiency of the Word and Spirit is that God is not playing a spiritual game with us in which he is waiting on us to make the next move. Rather, he very much desires for us to know him intimately, so much so that he sent the full and final revelation of himself in the person of Jesus Christ to take on flesh and live among men, so that through his substitutionary atonement on the cross, people from all nations could one day know and experience God without mediation.
His desire for us to know him intimately leads to the second fundamental difference: instead of revealing himself in strange and unintelligible ways, he revealed himself to and through real people with real personalities, real lives, real culture, and real experiences. What this means is that God took the world of experience that the biblical authors had, the things that they would have known, and revealed himself to them so that who he is and what he desires would be abundantly clear!
The difficulty we encounter in the twenty-first century is that we are in the twenty-first century! There exists between us and the biblical writers a gap consisting of culture, language, customs, religion, and on top of all of that, a minimum of 2,000 years. Given this reality, it can be hard to sit down with your Bible and get all that you could get from any given passage in just one sitting. Thankfully scholars who have translated the Bible for us have significantly closed the gap just by virtue of putting the Bible into English, Spanish, German, etc. And don't forget that God is more than capable of communicating to us across the centuries, even in our limited understanding and our cultural distance. Yet there still remains a good bit of work to do in order to understand what has clearly been revealed, because there are still layers of history and culture between us and them.
One implication of this is that while we as individuals may come to the Bible and "uncover" or "discover" something new every time, it is not very often that what we have seen for the very first time has actually been seen for the very first time in the wider context of historic orthodox Christian theology. At the same time, however, this does not mean that all of the Bible's significance, or its implications for faith, life, and practice have been explored or exhausted.
Another implication of this time/cultural gap is that everything we see in Scripture doesn't have to have some "deeper" meaning. Sometimes, certain elements are recorded in Scripture simply because they really happened, or because they are laden with cultural significance that sheds light on the spiritual significance of the passage, without being in itself the spiritual hidden gem.
To Be, or Not to Be ... Spiritual
Ultimately, we are not trying to be less spiritual when we approach the Bible. Reading and praying through the Bible is pointless if it is not a spiritual act. However, we want to approach the Scriptures understanding how they were inspired, what they are as texts written for God's people, and what they define for us as spiritual. If we do this, then we will find that Scripture will come alive to us, not with random little details that we mistake for the point of the passage, but with what God intended for us to see all along, namely, the glory of Christ.
Eric Parker (M.Div., Beeson Divinity) ministers to young marrieds at Johnson Ferry Baptist Church. He has a passion for making Christ known in and through the church. He and his wife, Katie, live with their son, Hudson, in Atlanta, GA.