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How To Do Bible Study Without Chapters and Verses

We’ve been making the case over the last few months for rediscovering the power of Bible reading. In many ways, simple and straightforward reading has been the forgotten practice in the modern era of the Bible. We contend that reading whole books remains the first and most natural thing to do with the Bible.

But what about all the other things we do with the Bible? What about Bible study? Should we still be taking closer looks at smaller parts of the Bible? And does this “read first” approach have any implications for how we preach and teach the Bible? We’ll start this new mini-series of articles by taking a closer look at what it means to study the Bible.

Reimagining Bible Study

Our approach to modern Bible study grew out of the form the Bible was given in modernity and the understanding it encouraged of what the Bible is. Often this has meant pursuing topical studies based on looking up a string of Bible references and then trying to add them together to find their meaning. The very real danger is that this approach doesn’t allow for due diligence to be done on the meaning of all these Bible verses in their full and natural literary context within the Bible’s various books.

Further, even when our Bible studies stay focused on a single book, the numbered verses still imply that each individual statement can stand alone as a self-sufficient unit of meaning. At the popular level, “study” in this case often means a closer look at a verse along with the question of how it applies to my life today. Even in the more serious approach of a preacher or professor, “study” can too easily devolve into the dissection of a verse to the microscopic level of isolated words and finer grammatical points.

Of course, such detailed study has its place. But too often the core point has been forgotten that the meaning of words is found in sentences, and that of sentences in larger units like prose paragraphs or poetic stanzas. These in turn are joined together to create bigger sections which build the messages of whole books.

The place to begin with the meaning of the Bible is at the top, with the overall messages of its biggest building blocks: books.

So read first, study second.

Our definition of “Bible study” should be: consider the parts of a biblical book closely and carefully to understand their place within the book as a whole.

By adopting this definition of study we commit to first reading the largest appropriate level — the letter, the song (psalm), the gospel, the collected prophecies, or the book. Then, within that context, we can now profitably focus in on smaller units to see how they contribute to the bigger overall meaning. We keep working down this way to the smallest units we want to or are qualified to examine (aleph, anyone?) But following this course will prevent us from taking little pieces of the Bible out of context.

Consider the analogy of how we typically engage a film. Is there a difference between watching a film and studying it? Yes, of course. We all begin by simply watching a complete film to take in its overall impression on us. Then, we (or some of us) will slow down and examine smaller parts of the film in a second or third viewing to consider the individual elements (transitions, lighting, dialogue, symbols, etc.) that contribute to the larger experience of meaning.

But nobody starts by dissecting the film before watching it. Same with the Bible. We should begin by taking in the overall story, song, gospel, or letter. What is it doing as a whole book? What’s the big message? How does it work? Only then are we in a good position to take a closer look at the individual parts that make up that whole.

Nobody starts by dissecting a film before watching it. Same with the Bible.Click To Tweet

This is why a fresh format of the Bible like Immerse: The Reading Bible is also a terrific study Bible. The best reader’s Bibles not only take out the modern reference numbers, they also display the natural literary forms of the Bible’s books. Our Bible study should be based on these literary units placed there by the Bible’s first authors and editors. These are the original units of meaning, the actual building blocks of the books. Studying the Bible means understanding how these natural units are doing their work in the whole book.

Also, beware an overreliance on “study helps.” Of course, none of us knows everything about the background, history, and culture of the Bible, not to mention all the fine points of the Bible’s original languages, Hebrew and Greek. So yes, getting help from the experts can greatly contribute to our understanding.

But consider this: consulting the “helps” too quickly can shut down our own reading and prayerful reflection on the text. Study notes and commentaries can be show-stoppers, ending conversation and further exploration. Reading them can tempt us to quit because we’ve just been told the right answer. When our communities gather around the Bible it’s crucial to give our own reading and dialogue ample time to marinate and mature.

So read first and read big. Feast on the sacred writings. Engage the Bible with others-reading, talking, and exploring together.

And by all means study! But study well, in context, in light of the whole, following the Bible’s own indications of its literary structure. Learn how the Bible’s books build their messages from these natural units. Examine closely how the meaning grows.

This is Bible study in the new paradigm.

Pray. Read. Study.

*Adapted from After Chapters & Verses: Engaging the Bible in the Coming Generations by Christopher R. Smith, InterVarsity Press, 2012. Rev. Dr. Smith is a Fellow at the Institute for Bible Reading. Our thanks to him for his genesis of these proposals for rethinking our use of the Bible today.

What Socrates Can Teach Us About Reading the Bible

Though it’s common knowledge that Socrates never wrote a book (just as Jesus never wrote a book), the reason for his abstention is speculative. But the notion is that Socrates had a conviction: that the quest for wisdom could be short-circuited by an authoritarian voice that prematurely interrupted free-flowing conversation and debate. To gain true wisdom, things had to be discussed and sensed.

Commenting on Socrates’ pedagogy, David Malki writes:

“For only through banter, through back-and-forth discussion and rhetorical argument and the working out of problems, can true knowledge be conveyed. Reading mere words, in [Socrates] mind, is akin to looking at a lake rather than swimming in it — or worse, looking at a lake and thinking that now you know how to swim.”

If Socrates were alive today, how might he evaluate the quality of our conversations around spirituality and the Bible? Do our surface-level conversations give rise to what Scott Bolinder calls a “subtle lobotimization”?

It wasn’t writing itself that Socrates renounced— it was “experts” who were too quick to pronounce the final word and thereby prevented conversation and debate. Ministerial journals are replete with tips on better preaching, but hardly anything about creating a culture for better conversations. Where are the tutorials that teach people how to wrestle with the Scriptures in the same way that Jacob wrestled with God?

Where are the tutorials that teach people how to wrestle with the Scriptures in the same way that Jacob wrestled with God?Click To Tweet

The person in the pew, and even those who have exited the pew, are ready for grown-up conversations. In their everyday lives they wrestle with “grey areas” and nuanced matters. Simple living ended with the Industrial Age. In too many instances, they are only invited to search the Scriptures for nuggets of inspiration, leaving the heavy lifting to the professionals.

Another Conversation Stopper?

I also wonder if today’s ubiquitous Bible Studies would pass muster with Socrates. They’re a fixture in modern church life, but are there forms that would serve us better?

Michigan pastor Pete Yoshonis says:

“What frustrates me is that most Bible studies are nothing more than regurgitation studies. We’re going to give you this basic thing in the text, and you’re going to recite to us what you just read as opposed to something in depth.”

“Regurgitation studies” is a severe evaluation, and certainly some studies are better than others. But if Bible Studies promote surfing or skimming the text in place of natural, undiluted Bible reading, then we’ve got a problem. We can’t afford Bible Studies where real study doesn’t actually happen!

A New Way Forward

At The Institute for Bible Reading, we envision a better future for the Bible. Five years ago, with the Socratic approach in mind, we began testing a “Book Club” model against the “Bible Study” model by asking small groups to read through the entire New Testament in eight weeks. The first four weeks looked like a traditional Bible Study. For the second four weeks, we took away the Participant Guides and gave participants a Bible made purely for reading, without chapters, verses, or other interference devices.

In place of “regurgitation questions” we asked open-ended questions like:

What was new or compelling to you?

What questions did you have?

Was there anything that bothered you?

Honestly, we anticipated some form of a “split decision”—folks who like predictability and order would opt for Bible Studies, with the free spirits choosing the Book Club.

We were wrong! Overwhelmingly, regardless of personality, people chose the Book Club. We heard comments like:

The Book Club changed the entire nature of our conversations!

The experience felt more authentic.

Where has this experience been our whole Christian lives?

Five years of observation has affirmed Socrates hypotheses. We’ve learned that:

  • People are hungry for context and history.
  • People have lots of unanswered questions about the Bible.
  • Book Clubs are not breeding grounds for heresy.
  • People are ready for real, open, honest conversations.

It’s not perfect. But given time, people immersed in the larger story start sorting things out, especially when they don’t feel threatened by giving wrong answers. Good book introductions help. Skilled facilitation is always a good thing. The Spirit seems unusually invested.

We shouldn’t read too much into Socrates’ absence at the literary table, in the same way we shouldn’t diminish the need for greater cogency in preaching and writing. But perhaps our most compelling need is for a new reformation of undiluted Bible reading and community discussion—a groundswell of everyday people experiencing the Bible, not in some over-simplified, pre-digested, hyper-individualized way, but in a way that leads to better understanding, better believing, and better living.

5 Tips for Reading the Bible in Community

Bible with coffeeIn a recent survey the Institute conducted, we asked our audience where they usually find themselves reading the Bible. While 92% of them said they read the Bible alone or during their quiet time, only 31% said they read the Bible during their small group or Bible study. Clearly, reading the Bible alone – maybe accompanied by a cup of hot coffee and a pen – is the way most people choose to engage with God’s Word today. There’s nothing wrong with this on its own, but there’s a whole new world of understanding and engagement waiting for us if we regularly experience the Bible in community.

For most of Christian history, the personal Bible did not exist. Reading the Bible was a group activity because most churches only had one Bible. Only with the invention of the printing press in the 15th century did we see the Bible make its way into the hands of individuals on a mass scale. Since then, Bible reading has evolved into a solo sport. And while it’s certainly nice to have Bibles around our house that we can call our own, we’ve unfortunately lost the ancient practice of reading and wrestling over the text together.

If you’d like to try reading the Bible with your community of believers, here are a few tips to get you started:

1. Don’t make it all about finding the right answers

Most group Bible study guides today take a question-and-answer approach to the Bible. How does Paul identify himself to the Corinthians? Why might he do it this way? What does the word “sanctified” mean? All you have to do is open up your Bible and find the answer to the question. This diminishes the Bible into a sourcebook for answering the right questions to grow your faith.

Unfortunately in many group settings this can also lead to the person who is most knowledgeable about the Bible – perhaps they know Hebrew or Greek – taking over and providing all of the “answers” to the study guide’s questions. Other people in the group don’t get a chance to participate in talking about the Bible because they don’t know as much and therefore don’t think they bring value to the group. This situation can be especially intimidating for new believers.

Instead, open the discussion up for opinions and questions about the reading. A question like, “So, is there anything that stood out to you?” opens the text up for discussion at all levels.

2. Read big portions of Scripture

Try modeling your Bible discussions after book clubs. When book clubs meet, they usually don’t only discuss one paragraph or one sentence of the book. While they may dwell on a short passage for a while, they’ve often read large chunks of the book and can talk about how the story is progressing or what shifts they’ve seen in the characters. They can pick out turning points in the story and discuss what they think might happen as a result.

When your community reads the Bible together, read and discuss big portions. Read an entire letter from Paul or an entire story from the First Testament. Don’t be bound by chapters and verses – look at the content itself and determine a good stopping place.

3. Avoid “application” as the universal end-game

Bible StudyMany of us have been conditioned to automatically ask, “Okay, now what does this mean for me?” as we read. If a story or passage doesn’t have direct application to our lives today in the 21st century, it can be difficult to know what to do with it. Large portions of the Bible end up ignored because it’s hard to find something we can draw from it that we can start practicing immediately.

When talking with your community about a passage in the Bible, if you’ve found something you feel speaks to you that you can apply to your life, by all means share it with the group. But if it’s not there, you don’t need to reach for it.

4. Talk about things that bothered you

There are a lot of things in the Bible that are hard to digest. When we read alone we don’t have anyone to process these unsettling passages with, and when we’re in a group setting we sometimes focus discussion on the easier, more manageable parts of Scripture. We have a hard time talking about parts of the Bible that bother us, so we usually try to just push it out of our minds.

Talking through these uncomfortable passages with your community can be extremely helpful and valuable. It will help your group grow closer, and somebody within the group may have some insights to the difficult passage that can help make it more understandable. Even if your group can’t come to a satisfying explanation of a hard passage, wrestling over the text together will bring you all closer to God.

5. Be open to disagreement

Part of the beauty of group discussion is the opportunity to wrestle together over a passage and work together to sort out its meaning. It’s almost inevitable, though, that at some point there will be disagreement about the interpretation of a passage. When this happens, we have the opportunity to learn to see different angles on a Bible passage by listening well to other members of our group. And while we may end up holding different opinions, it’s important for these differences not to become deal-breakers for our relationships.

 

If your community has been in the traditional “Bible Study” mode for a while, I encourage you to try this “Book Club” approach. Read big chunks of Scripture together, then just open it up for group discussion. I think the results will surprise you.