Friday, November 28, 2014

Beating Boring Bible Study

From the October 2011 E-Block.
Daily Bible study is one of the most immediate practical outworkings of the Christian life, yet it is perhaps one of the most poorly constructed. Modern pastors and teachers, having fostered an anachronistic and mechanistic understanding of Biblical inspiration, are compelled to act as though even the most obscure passage in Habakkuk is every bit as relevant to the modern Christian life as 1 Cor. 15:1-20. The results of this are Sunday School lessons and devotionals that strain mightily to find modern relevance in even those obscure passages, and end up doing a massive disservice to the Body of Christ, which in turn becomes more subject to find in Biblical texts messages that simply don't exist there.

In contrast, how might a more relevant and practical Bible study or devotional system look? A systematic consideration of the Bible's contents, correlated with a responsible approach to application, suggests the following principles.

Most of the Bible need not be read more than once or twice in a lifetime. 

This includes substantial portions of the Old Testament (see listings below), which ought to be treated in the main as a sort of "family history" -- texts that give us framing background information about New Testament faith, but otherwise are of little practical relevance or application to the Christian life. Of course this excludes those who becomes serious teachers or scholars, who ought to be far more familiar with this material and should read and study it more regularly.

Before laying out our listings of books, we should say a brief word about order of reading. The plan below effectively avoids the conundrum of those who naively try to read the Bible "in order" and end up giving up halfway through Leviticus. Some reading plans seek to avoid this problem by eg, sandwiching Leviticus as a reading assignment between John and Romans, or using Leviticus selectively where the study author did not have to strain too hard to find a modern application (as least, compared to how much of a strain would have been needed to find applications for other passages). This plan avoids such problems by simply eliminating books of far lesser relevance.

Books that should be read no more than once or twice a lifetime:

In this list is every book of the Old Testament, except those indicated below.

Books that should be read at least once every three years, and why:

Deuteronomy -- as an encapsulation of the former covenant, Deuteronomy is an excellent learning tool for understanding God's interactions with men. It is also sufficient to provide a window into the Old Testament world.

Job, Ecclesiastes -- These books provide excellent encapsulations of, and reflections upon, critical philosophical problems, particularly the problem of evil and the purpose and meaning of life.

Daniel -- relevant for the fulfillment of prophecy (whether you are a dispensationalist, preterist, or something else; but especially relevant for preterists seeking to match Daniel to first century events).

In addition, two books -- Proverbs and Psalms -- may be read sporadically as (respectively) a practical behavioral guidebook and as devotional material.

This leads us to a New Testament reading cycle, and here again, rather than follow the standard devotional cycles which see every book as equally important or relevant, more due attention is given to the books with the most relevance to practical living today.

Books that should be read once a year:

2 Corinthians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, the Pastorals and Philemon, 1 and 2 Peter, 1 and 2 and 3 John, Jude, and Revelation.

The remaining books should become part of a regular reading cycle: All four Gospels and Acts, Romans, 1 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, Ephesians, Colossians, Hebrews, and James. These offer the essential narrative history and doctrine needed for Christian living and understanding. The remaining letters may be read less often, as they are 1) significantly devoted to exhortational material; or 2) mostly personal in nature, or 3) consist of content specifically relevant to the first century.

Of course, each Christian may have individual missions or personal needs that might require more exhortational reading; the above is by no means presented as a legalistic guideline. It is, rather, presented as a practical suggestion for those are seeking a structured and eminently practical approach to Bible study, one that does not get them bogged down in what are contextually non-essentials.


  1. I think the vast majority of those who call themselves Christian already fulfill most of what you have stated except all the bible is read once or twice in a life time ;).

    1. True, it's just "forced" instead of planned. :P

  2. Hi JP! Hope you are doing well.

    Sorry to blast in here when the post is so old, relatively speaking- I just stumbled across it on Google today.

    I have to say, I pretty sharply disagree with what is suggested here. While there are certainly some parts of the Scriptures that are significantly more difficult than others, I don't believe that there is any Scripture fundamentally irrelevant to the life of the Church for all ages- as Apostle Paul says concerning the events of the OT, "these things were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come." Thus, it's not only true that all Scripture is "inspired by God" and thus inerrant factually- it's also true that all Scripture is "profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness." The "all" in "all Scripture applies to all of those attributes.

    Is it true that some popular level work short-circuits this process and makes absurd applications? Of course. But that doesn't mean there is no application. In my view, the short-circuiting usually takes place when the interpreter attempts to moralize everything in the OT to teach abstract ethical lessons, rather than reading the OT in order to examine the organic development of God's covenant purposes for Israel. As Peter Leithart has argued, there is a tropological end to typology. Typology is not merely the correspondence of Old Testament events to New Testament fulfillment, but rather examines patterns of divine activity which are echoed and expanded in the unfolding of the Old Testament itself. Jacob typifies Moses who typifies David who typifies Jesus- it is like a small candle in a lighthouse which is refracted through several sets of mirrors and thus shines across the sea.

    The tropological end is this: when we understand fundamentally how God the Father grew up, disciplined, and matured Israel, we come to understand more deeply the way that He matures and sanctifies His children in the present. Similarly, while Daniel does lay an important foundation for the argument from prophecy, I do not believe that this is its principal intent- the principal intent of all Scripture is to add to the revelation of Christ and His Church. Consider the structure of the genealogies of Chronicles. In examining the literary structure of Chronicles, we find that its heart is the Levitical musicians. Adam's goal, in Chronicles, is to produce a people who make music in the Divine Sanctuary. Does this have an abiding relevance to liturgy? I believe it does- and Chronicles is very rich in exploring a musical theology of holy war.

    Personally, I have found that popular level applicatory commentaries are very shallow- but works of biblical theology are incredibly rich and show the abiding relevance of the entire Bible for the Christian life. I'm thinking particularly of G.K. Beale, Peter Leithart, and especially James Jordan, an obscure theologian but in my opinion one of the greatest biblical scholars in the history of the church. And of course, N.T. Wright.

    1. Yo Kah-Bane! :)

      >>>I have to say, I pretty sharply disagree with what is suggested here.

      I'm not sure you got it quite right. What I'm against is the atomistic approach used by fundies (and fundy atheists) rather than what you're talking about. When Paul says, "these things" do you think he means every verse? No, couldn't be, because verses hadn't been parsed yet. He had to have meant things like books, or maybe even narrative portions. So he'd say and I'd agree, "2 Kings" was written for reproof etc, but not that 1 Kings 16:11's bit about pissing against a wall was.

      I do think that bit about Levitical musicians is somewhat stretchy. But it's not objectionable in the way what the atomizers do is. It's more abstract than what I have in mind.