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.”
In part one of our interview Nielson discussed the first claim of her book, that the Bible is God speaking. This truth, she said, is compelling for all of us who know we’re fallen human beings who 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 Him… .
In the second part of the interview we explore Nielson’s second claim, that the Bible is powerful.
The second claim of the book is that the Bible is powerful. You underscore the point that its “foundational power is to make people wise for salvation.” Can you talk a little about why we need to understand this foundational power?
You also emphasize that we should study the words themselves, that we’re not observing concepts or general ideas—we’re observing words. Why the emphasis on individual words? Should this inform our choice of translation?
The claim that the Bible’s words are powerful is the Bible’s own claim—that these words, for example, are “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword” (Hebrews 4:12). In our world today, this is a radical claim—one which assumes that these words have meaning, and that this meaning invades our lives from outside. On the contrary, the direction of our world’s thinking is inward, as many people look within themselves for meaning and interpret words subjectively. Many Bible studies, as we all know, begin by asking “What does this mean to me?” as opposed to “What does this mean?” The Bible asks us to start by looking not inward but outward, in fact, up, to receive these words coming down like rain and snow from heaven. The Bible asks us to understand words in the context of the very beginning, when God created the world by speaking words. God the original word-speaker created us in his image to speak and understand words, which have meaning only because he is the ultimate living source.
The words of God’s inspired revelation are meaningful and powerful because they come from Him, through His Spirit which “carried along” the human writers (2 Peter 1:21). Such a starting point instructs us in a number of ways as we approach Bible study. First, it reminds us that the Bible is given not just to make us feel better and live better; it is given to bring life. If we know that God’s Word by His breath created the universe, then we will expect God’s Word by His Spirit to keep bringing life. Just before the benefits listed in 2 Timothy 3:16 comes the previous verse’s amazing mention of the “sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” Perhaps we don’t focus consistently enough on this ability of the Scriptures to light up the gospel of salvation in people’s hearts and minds. Especially in our comfortable Bible studies within settled Christian contexts, perhaps we tend to forget the saving work of the Word. Clearly, we believers need regularly to be confronted with the power of the gospel; one of the best ways for this to happen is for us to regularly witness that power in the lives of others who are reading and studying the Scriptures for the first time. I’ve been encouraged and thrilled to see women brought to faith and given new life in Christ through studying not only the gospel of John, but also Ecclesiastes, Genesis, and Thessalonians. God’s Word—His whole Word—is that powerful.
To realize Scripture’s power, then, first helps believers to be more outward and gospel-centered as we study, looking not just to feed ourselves but also to offer this life-giving food to many others. Acknowledging the Word’s power also helps us remember that we can trust the Word to speak, as opposed to trying ourselves to make it “come alive.” In our entertainment-oriented world, many have moved away from serious, extended study and teaching toward more easily-digestible and seemingly attractive ways of taking in the Word. Many groups more often study a book about the Book rather than the Book itself. Many spend more time discussing their reactions, opinions, concerns, and personal applications than they do observing the actual words of the text.
Indeed, it is the words that are powerful, as the Spirit applies them. God inspired the words, not just the ideas behind the words. Those of us who hold to the “verbal plenary inspiration” of the Scriptures believe that God so worked by His Spirit that when the human authors wrote, the words they wrote were the very words God intended. Of course we don’t have the original manuscripts, but we have an amazing and divinely preserved collection of increasingly validated ancient manuscripts, from which scholars are able to produce remarkably accurate translations. I spend a bit of time in the book discussing translation in general and the meaning and the value of an “essentially literal” approach to translation. The words are crucial, and so the translation of the words becomes crucial as well, especially in the process of careful study. Certainly God uses all sorts of translations to accomplish His purposes. I never make this an issue or require a certain translation in a Bible study group. But, if asked, I will recommend an “essentially literal” one, like the English Standard Version. At the least, those who study the Bible should consider these issues and be mindful of the significance of the Bible’s actual words, which we can trust to speak into people’s lives with saving and sanctifying power.
All of this clarifies why the first step in Bible study is careful, prayerful reading and observation of the words of the text being studied—not as an academic exercise, but as a kind of submission to and respect for God’s speaking. Initial reading and observation take time but can be incredibly fruitful as we notice, for example, what words stand out, or repeat, or delight, or confuse. In Bible study groups, the sharing of simple initial observations concerning a biblical text is usually fun and helpful, as other people usually notice things we don’t. We also can help each other become better and better observers of the text; those newer to the Bible and those who’ve studied it for years have much to offer each other in this regard. In the process of observing, we begin to listen to what the words are saying. We begin to quiet ourselves and listen to God’s voice. Rather than bringing our own thoughts first and foremost to interpret or to be answered by the text, in listening first to the words we open ourselves to God’s thoughts, which are indeed higher than ours.
In part three of our interview, Nielson says that because the Bible’s words are God’s words, and because they’re given to us to make us wise for salvation, we should come to Scripture expecting to understand it. What are we to think, then, when we come across passages we don’t understand?
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