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How to Approach Bibly Study Presuppositions, Method Overview and Resolving Disputes

During a recent Sunday School class, a lovely lady made the comment that when we study the Bible, we should do so with no presuppositions, disregard the interpretations by others, and rely entirely on the Holy Spirit for our understanding.  Now, this lady has a high view of the Scriptures and is very orthodox in her beliefs, but having recently encountered several others who take a similar stance in their attempt to validate whatever meaning is convenient to justify their agenda at the time, I jumped in with both feet.  I immediately pointed out that presuppositional neutrality is a myth, and that we ignore the interpretations of the saints throughout history at our own peril.

So, which of us was correct in our assertions? After much prayer and contemplation, I came to the conclusion that, according to our respective intentions, we both were.  Discussions in class are usually time-limited, so we often don’t adequately explain our intended meaning.  I now believe that she was referring to the initial phase of study where we read the Scriptures and attempt to observe and interpret the author’s intended meaning.  On the other hand, I was referring to the entire process of Bible study.  I think we can clarify the issue with a brief overview on how to approach studying the Bible.

Updated April 2014.

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Before we get to the methods, we should say a few words about presuppositions.  As I inferred above, it is impossible to remain neutral with our assumptions, and stating that we must have no presuppositions is a presupposition in itself.  Even disregarding this fact, it is still impossible not to have presuppositions, some of which influence our findings while others actually guarantee the outcome of our investigations.  For example, we must either presume that miracles are possible or that they are impossible.  If our presupposition is that miracles are possible, then we might find certain passages containing miracles to be either true or false, or we can be left unsure.  If however, like most liberal scholars, we presume that miracles are impossible, we guarantee that we will find these particular passages to be false.  So, the real issue becomes, “which of our presuppositions can be supported by the facts?”

The subject of presuppositions is also associated with the relation of faith to knowledge and understanding.  Since the Enlightenment, many theologians take the position that we must first demonstrate the Biblical text to be reliable in order to justify our belief in it.  This view stands in opposition to the traditional stance of the Church.  Saint Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD) held that we must first believe that we can know.  That is to say, faith given from God is required in order to properly understand the Scriptures.  The motto of St Anselm of Canterbury, the eleventh century theologian best known for his “ontological argument” for the existence of God, was fides quaerens intellectum (faith seeking understanding).  To Anselm, this “faith” was not a blind acceptance, but an act of making a conscious choice or decision to seek a deeper knowledge of God.  Finally, the approach of Swiss theologian Karl Barth was that we first believe, then we attempt to discover and explain what we believe.

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A Bible Study System Overview

There are many excellent methods of studying the Bible that could be discussed.  For simplicity, I’ll outline a general approach that has worked well for me over the years.  If doing a book study, we begin by reading the entire book under the illumination of the Holy Spirit, observing and interpreting the text without exterior materials as my good friend from class recommended.  We should then go back through the book paragraph by paragraph, asking the appropriate questions, doing any word studies, and building our interpretation in light of the context.  Only after we have done our own work should we check our deductions against the commentaries and other external sources.

If doing a topical study of a certain character, theme or doctrine, we begin by consulting a concordance or topical bible to collect all scripture related to our topic.  We then read through the various passages under the illumination of the Spirit (without additional exterior materials) using the “Analogy of Scripture” principle - aka Regula Fidei (Rule of Faith) or Analogia Fidei (Analogy of Faith).  As taught by the Reformers, this rule or principle in its most basic form means that Scripture interprets Scripture; that is to say that we should interpret each passage in the context of the whole because Scripture will never contradict itself.  It also helps to think of the context as being in layers.  We first interpret our passage within the immediate context of the surrounding narrative, then in the broader context of the section of the book and/or the entire book and/or related books, then finally in the ultimate context of the entire Bible.  Many other interpretation principles and suggestions can be found throughout our Bible Study Guide section, but an important one that we’ll mention is to interpret our passages according to the proper rules governing the literary forms being used by the inspired author (see our Genre Analysis series for more information).  Finally, like our book studies, we check our interpretations against other external sources.

Comparing our conclusions with others is a very important step.  The world didn’t begin with our generation and we don’t exist in a vacuum.  The great preacher Charles Spurgeon was especially critical of those who swore by the Spirit’s revelation during their own study of the Word, but would ignore this same Spirit’s revelation to others.  For two thousand years, the saints of the Christian Church have spent countless hours in fervent prayer and discussion, agonizing over similar issues that we continue to face today.  Their loyalty to the faith (many gave their lives as martyrs) led to much great doctrinal literature throughout history.  Most important were the Creeds, Confessions and Catechisms of the Church.  These documents are summary statements of Christian doctrine and principle articles of faith which, while subordinate in authority to the Holy Scriptures, not only help explain the Word, but act as a safeguard against heretical interpretations.  Unfortunately, the teaching of these great documents has virtually disappeared from most modern churches.

Our external aids should not be limited to those from the past.  Paul writes in his letter to the Ephesians that God gave the Church pastors and teachers to build us up in the knowledge of Christ and help us become mature so that we will no longer be like infants being blown here and there by false teaching (Eph 4:11-16).  Thus, we are to avail ourselves of these resources.

After concluding our study, we then begin the cycle all over again with another book or topic.  With each study cycle, we bring additional knowledge to the table, but in another sense, we start anew in that our previous learning should be subject to revision if further study finds our previous deductions in conflict with additional Scripture and illumination.

In conclusion, we should first do our own work under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.  In addition, we must put in the careful and diligent work necessary to develop proper Bible interpretation skills.  This requires an understanding of the original languages, the historical background of Biblical times, a working knowledge of theology, grammatical aptitude, and a grasp of the whole context of Scripture.  Since all readers can certainly improve their skill level, we must always review our findings against Biblical commentaries, the traditional positions of the Church, and the understanding of trusted pastors and teachers.

Finally, keep in mind that all things short of the inspired inerrant Scriptures should always be subject to discernment.  In fact, we’ll often find ourselves in disagreement with some of our external sources or with fellow Christians (such as a Bible study classmate) over certain aspects of a doctrine.  We further address these situations in the next chapter.

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Resolving Disagreements

While the Bible is quite clear on the essential documents of the faith (the deity of Christ, Salvation by grace alone through faith alone, authority of the Bible etc), disagreements are common on secondary points and more than one view is sometimes considered orthodox (for example, various views of the millennium).  As we study the Bible, interpretations will often conflict with that of fellow students and/or an eternal source such as a commentary, handbook etc.  Even Bible scholars often disagree on some topics, and we’ll often find several interpretations contrasted within a commentary.

So, what should we do when we find ourselves in disagreement with others?  If it is a very minor point on which multiple interpretations are consistent with the whole of Scripture, we will usually just agree to disagree (if all parties are relatively certain of their position), or we might hold to our interpretation while remaining open to the possibility of the other explanations.  In other cases, the disagreement can often be resolved (usually in favor of the traditional Church position) by consulting additional sources including our local pastor or other teachers.

If our disagreement is on a major doctrine or important point of Scripture, we should do our best to resolve the differences.  We must approach any dispute with the right attitude and motivation.  The primary goal is not to win the argument, but to gain in knowledge of the truth because of our love for God.  We should not merely hold fast to a position just because “that’s my interpretation and I’m sticking to it”.  We must be willing to explore additional external sources and to debate opponents of our position, particularly if our deduction conflicts with the traditional stance of the Church.  Before we initiate a Martin Luther “Here I Stand!” moment, we must employ every available process in an attempt to solve the conflict, including understanding how and why the Church historically and theologically arrived at her conclusion.  If however, we have honestly exhausted all available means and we still find ourselves in disagreement, we must then stick to our interpretation because, as Luther said at the Diet of Worms in 1521, to go against our conscience is neither right nor safe.

Some of the best advice I’ve heard on resolving disputes comes from John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion.  Calvin is writing about a disagreement with Augustine and others on a particular issue when he advises us not to be overly concerned if his opinion is not consistent with our own on this particular issue.  He writes that “We ought not to so value their authority [the “ancient writers”, referring t0 extra-biblical commentators, not to the divine inspired authors of Scripture] as to let it shake the certainty of Scripture” (Bk 4, Ch 15, Sect 7).  Calvin was saying that we should never place a fallible source (including Church tradition) equal to or above the Holy Scriptures.  The Word of God alone is the ultimate authority on matters of doctrine and practice in the Church and in our lives.

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