Hearsay Impressions

The wealth of resources for Bible study seems to grow daily, perhaps hourly.  A shelf full of study Bibles provides pages of extensive notes and maps and outlines.  An Internet full of explanations and cross-references delivers a never-ending chain of exploration.  It would seem that studying the Bible in the midst of all that plenty would be increasingly fruitful.

But there is a subtle vulnerability in the abundance.  We may be studying the resources about the Bible more than we are studying the Bible.  The purpose and indeed the benefit of many of the available outlines and explanations is just that – to outline and explain, to simplify and organize and clarify.  By definition we move a step away from the Bible in order to understand the Bible better.  That irony is not all bad.  Resources that help to integrate Bible knowledge and build a consistent world-view based on the whole of Scripture are critically important if our thinking is to go beyond a few favorite proof texts.  Understanding the Bible can be a challenge.  The documents are thousands of years old, and written for cultures that differed from each other as much as they differ from ours.  Reading the bare text of Scripture, even in a modern translation, usually raises questions, and the study Bibles and Internet provide answers.

And therein lies the problem:  quick, easy answers.  Once we have an answer, much of our creative and critical questioning ends, or at least is limited to the boundaries provided by the answers we read on the Internet.  The text of Scripture can easily, subtly become secondary, since the answers are more easily found in the resources at our fingertips.  “When the divine Word is placed next to illustrations, charts, cross-references, life applications, textual notes, and concordances, well-intentioned readers may easily forget which words demand their utmost attention.”[1]

The problem is not the resources (study Bible footnotes or Internet links).  The problem is using them too quickly, before we have genuinely engaged the text of Scripture and seriously attempted to wrestle the meaning from it.  Luther’s conversion began as he “beat importunately upon Paul at that place [Romans 1:17], most ardently desiring to know what St. Paul wanted.”[2]  His diligence led to the Reformation.  Who knows what would have happened if, instead, he casually flipped to a helpful explanatory footnote in a study Bible or found a link to an attention-grabbing blog?  His wrestling with the text itself changed the world.

We need Luther-like Bible study, reading the text, re-reading, praying over, reading again.  Inductive Bible study that concentrates on the text and depends on the Holy Spirit should take up the majority of our Bible study.  Then, after we begin to understand (or at least try to understand) the text, we may be helped by the resources.  Studying the text with the illumination of the Holy Spirt (the Author, after all), often will provide a surprising number of answers without ever looking for a footnote.  The questions that remain after our diligent study will make the outlines and resources more meaningful.  Even the best resources will not always enlighten us if we are not asking (and wrestling with) the right questions.

Without diligent (or as the Puritans would say, “assiduous”) Bible study our knowledge will be limited to what one writer calls “hearsay impressions”[3]  The context of that description originally refers more to our culture in general and the distortions that can result from such superficial ideas about the Bible.  But even devout Christians, dependent more on footnotes and outlines than on their own careful Bible study, can be limited to hearsay impressions.  Methodical inductive Bible study is essential for a robust and enduring faith.

Copyright 2015 by Michael Wiebe

[1] Editorial, “Year of the Study Bible,” Christianity Today, March 2009, 21.

[2] Quoted by John Piper, The Legacy of Sovereign Joy (Wheaton, Illinois:  Crossway Books, 2000), 91;
also http://www.desiringgod.org/biographies/martin-luther-lessons-from-his-life-and-labor

[3] Andrée Seu Peterson, “Remember the signs,” World Magazine, July 27, 2013, 71.