For me, a key part of Christianity is learning more about who God is and how we can be more like him. Theologians have debated for centuries whether knowledge of God comes primarily from internal sources (like reason, or experience), or from external sources (or ‘revelation’; like the Bible, or traditions). This is a very crude distinction that ignore pretty much every subtlety and nuance there is, but it helps us to see that, broadly speaking, knowledge of God can be argued to come from within ourselves, or from other sources.
Within any discussion about Christian learning, we can’t ignore the Bible. Whether it is claimed that the Bible is the perfect, literal word of God, or simply a human record of experiences of God, it is a hugely important document for understanding who the Christian God is and how we can relate to him. Given its importance, I thought it would be good to have a look at the tools we have to learn more from the Bible, both external, and internal. In this first of two posts, I’ll start by looking at the external tools at our disposal. In a few days’ time, I’ll look at the internal tools.
Study Bibles are incredibly useful tools, giving us insight into pretty much every chapter in there, as well as additional thematic notes, book introductions, and plenty of other features that will vary depending on the particular edition. Study Bibles can focus on one area of Biblical study, such as the Cultural Backgrounds study Bible (which I plan on getting in the next few months), whilst others have no obvious focus, and aim to be a general resource, such as the ESV study Bible lying across the room from me
You hear them at church, you listen to them on podcasts, you see them on the TV, you read them in books; sermons are everywhere in Christian culture, and they are one of the main ways that the vast majority of Christians access teaching on the Bible.
Most of the sermons I’ve seen fall broadly into two categories, and I think it’s helpful to note them, and the different things they bring to Biblical interpretation:
Topical sermons involve the preacher taking a topic and exploring it with the aid of various Bible passages that pertain to it. These sermons are great for learning in depth about themes within Christianity, though watch out for Bible passages taken out of context to say something that they don’t really say at all.
Textual sermons involve the preacher taking a Bible passage and explaining what it says. You tend to get a well-rounded view of the passage in question, but there is, of course, human choice and bias involved in which passage to choose and what to pick out of it.
There are a lot of great books out there by a lot of great Christian authors who are alive today – you can find reviews of some of them on this blog! These books tend to be very good at exploring and applying the Bible in the context of contemporary culture and issues.
In some ways, they function a lot like extended sermons, and so you can apply a lot of what I said in the last section to these books. One of the great things about Christian books in the 21st century is that, if you want to find out more about an author’s views and teaching, you can likely access podcasts or YouTube videos where you can see more of them, and reflect further on what they’re saying about the Bible.
I also think that there is a huge amount of value in reading books by Christians who lived in
centuries past. These authors are writing in very different contexts to our own, and thus allow us to gain insight into the teaching of the Bible that we might never have found in our present context alone.
I’ll forever be sceptical of anyone who claims that there is no value in the historical teachings of Christian writers from any time period, because those claims allow us to see Biblical interpretation in a broad panorama that our sliver of the present cannot give us. Many of the oldest works might seem inaccessible, but all of the most famous writers have been translated in modern English, and there are plenty of introductions and commentaries to help modern readers engage with harder works.
This is a little different to the other external sources I have been talking about, but I think it’s worth mentioning. One of the easiest ways to learn more about the Bible and to gain insight beyond what we have achieved on our own is to talk to other people about it. No two people are the same, and no two people have the same relationship with God, which means that other people will have seen the character of God revealed in the Bible in ways that you simply couldn’t imagine when reading it on your own.
I’m a big advocate of reading, studying and talking about the Bible together in groups, and of making an effort to listen to what other people have to say. I’ll be honest, I struggle with that sometimes, as I like to put my opinion across and convince others of it, but I know that in reality, I’m the one that will benefit if I stop talking and listen to what my friend has to say. I think the same goes for all of us.
That’ll do it for this post, but stay tuned in the next couple of weeks for the follow up, which will look at how we can learn from the Bible with internal tools.