In the introduction to her new book Bible Study: Following the Ways of the Word (P&R Publishing) Kathleen Buswell Nielson poses these questions: What is Bible study? And why might it be important to ask that question at this point in time?
Over the next 170 pages, Nielson calls Bible studiers “to the crucial starting points and approaches that the Bible itself demands.” Nielson doesn’t establish rigid methods; rather, she provides an approach to Bible study that, the publisher says, “acknowledges the Scripture for what it is and enables [readers] to take in the very words of God and submit ourselves to them.”
ByFaith spoke to Nielson about her book and, more specifically, about the nature and character of God’s Word.
What compelled you to write on this subject at this time?
Why did I write this book about Bible study? Four motivations come to mind—the triggering one being that a remarkable group of women in Dubai kept asking me to do so. The first time I visited the United Christian Church of Dubai to speak at their annual women’s conference, I talked about what the Bible is and what it means to read and study it. (Read more about these Dubai brothers and sisters here.)
That church has a thriving gospel ministry, with people gathered there in the United Arab Emirates from all over the world, including many who know the Bible well but also many who are just coming to faith in Christ. What a joy to fellowship with the women of that church, who are modeling a truly Word-centered ministry. Their excitement about the Scriptures and their desire to have this basic approach to Bible study written down inspired me to use the material from that conference as a starting point for the book. It actually turned out to be a great exercise for me, after many years of writing Bible studies and teaching the Bible, to step back and aim to articulate just what Bible study is all about. I realized again in the process how much helpful training I had received, by God’s grace, both in the study of literature and in churches where biblical training was a huge priority at every level. Writing the book helped consolidate that training and made me even more grateful for it. I’m not an expert or a formally trained theologian, to be sure; hopefully I can offer encouragement for all of us in the body of Christ to come at the Scriptures with intense seriousness and delight.
The second motivation for writing the book was that I had been encountering many different people and groups exhibiting a growing seriousness about studying the Bible. Women especially tell me they’re tired of the “frothy” or “fluffy” (those are the most commonly used adjectives) materials they have seen in years past; many want to dig into the Word more directly and deeply and thoughtfully. My hope is that this book will offer a comprehensive but comprehensible introduction to the main starting points for such study. It also notes a number of resources helpful in further reading and study. Many have mentioned to me that they plan to use the book as part of their training of Bible study group leaders. I am delighted if it can be helpful in that context. More and more churches are realizing the need to train lay leaders and teachers of the Bible, so that study of any particular passage can happen with as full as possible an understanding of Scripture and how it all holds together, passage by passage, and book by book.
Third, I have also encountered groups who are not concerned to dig into the text of Scripture to study it for themselves. The culture around us is teaching us to be happy with little snippets of thoughts at a time—often what we call Bible study reflects that fragmented kind of thinking. We “snack” on bits of the Word, rather like fast food, rather than serving it up in the substantive portions in which it is given to us, book by book. Of course there is a place for all sorts of topical studies and videos, but we will become lazy and malnourished if our regular diet consists primarily of such processed foods. Our tendency these days is to leave the hard study to the “specialists,” without truly taking in the Word as each believer is meant (and blessed!) to do. Or perhaps we think that it’s too hard, or that there’s not actually a clear meaning we should work hard to grasp. My book is just one among many voices that address these issues and call those in the church to remember just what this Word is, and what it means to listen well to it.
The initial claim of the book is that the Bible is God speaking. How should that affect our approach to studying it?
The fourth and perhaps most basic motivation for writing the book relates to this second question. The truth that the Bible is God speaking is indeed a compelling truth for all of us who know that we fallen human beings live only through God’s gracious revelation of Himself to us—ultimately in Jesus Christ and, until we see Him face to face, in the Scriptures through which the Spirit illumines Jesus Christ to us from beginning to end. God chose to unveil Himself through words. If these writings are truly God’s breathed-out voice to us, then there is nothing more crucial during this short earthly life than listening well to His voice. If the eternal God has mercifully spoken, then the only fitting response for each of us is to receive these words with humility, attention, delight, and obedience. All this gets at what my book tries to unpack in a clear way: the implications of what the Bible is for how we should study it. The initial chapters, then, discuss the priority of careful reading and observation of the words, not simply as an academic enterprise but indeed as the most personal interaction we could ever desire—taking in God’s words breathed out to us.
Next week, in part two of our interview, Nielson discusses the Bible’s power. “The words of God’s inspired revelation,” she says, “are meaningful and powerful because they come from Him, through His Spirit which carried along the human writers’” (2 Peter 1:21).