At Good Shepherd we are practicing group Bible study in the format of Dwelling in the Word. This format emphasizes listening as we encounter God in Scripture. The format has four parts:
listen to Scripture
listen to God
listen to neighbor
listen to community
When we emphasize listening, we are invited out of our own reactions to the text and into a deep engagement with the text, an engagement that can transform our lives. When we move beyond our own superficial likes and dislikes, we experience the text as a living Word. This living Word is Jesus: the Word made flesh. Here are some core guidelines* for helping us read Scripture together.
Study the Bible as a community, not just individually.
“One must hear the gospel from another person; one cannot simply proclaim it to oneself.”* Together we test our interpretation of God’s Word, discerning the Spirit together (1 Jn 4:1). God may lead individuals or small groups of people to courageous acts of love through Scripture. However, we can also deceive ourselves into believing God has spoken to us uniquely, and thus justify sinful actions. Because of our human tendency to deceive ourselves (1 Jn 1:8), we test our interpretation with other faithful readers.
Lutheran Christians are part of the historical church, which means we are guided not just by the Bible, but by the “cloud of witnesses” in the faith who have preceded us for the past two thousand years. This cloud of witnesses read the same Bible that we are reading, and together the whole church has developed central, reliable faith convictions.
For Martin Luther, a core faith conviction is that we are saved by grace through faith (Eph 2:8). Therefore, if we try to use the Bible to justify a behavior, we are missing something important about this key faith conviction. We use the Bible to guide our behavior, but not to justify our behavior. Our ability to know the absolute right action with utmost certainty is just plain limited (1 Cor 13:12). We stay humble as we read, even as we look with hopeful expectation for God’s Word to guide our lives—which it will!
Study the Bible contextually.
“The words of the Bible do not stand on their own without the God who inhabits them. Particular sentences are not disconnected from the rest of the Bible or from the God who inspires them.... The Bible, after all, is an ancient and complex book. Even with good translations, the language and imagery are often unfamiliar to us.... the interpretive guidance of other Christians can be a gift of God.”
One great source of guidance is a reliable Bible dictionary. At Good Shepherd we have the Harper Collins Bible Dictionary sitting on our altar next to our Bible. This dictionary is a one-volume compendium of ancient information about biblical contexts: words, phrases, places, ideas, institutions, etc…. When we utilize a source like this dictionary we are less likely to try to bend the Bible to serve our own ends.
Have you ever heard the Bible quoted by someone in order to justify a behavior, for example, excluding or condemning a particular group of people? As Lutherans, we do not appeal to the Bible as a justification for our actions, but instead to God’s grace. When we read a difficult passage we ask ourselves contextual questions, like, “What are some other passages that seem to support or contradict this passage? What comes before and after this passage? What does this passage mean in light of our central faith convictions?”
Don’t let disagreement about interpretation derail the process.
“Are we trying to control Scripture and force it to answer our questions, or are we—more faithfully—allowing Scripture to question us? The Lutheran conviction that God speaks in Scripture as demand and promise does not support the notion of a Bible that will answer every question and problem we bring to it (emphasis added).”
We will hear God’s word differently, and this is not a problem. In the same way there are four gospel accounts of the one Jesus, our various readings of a text will open our hearts to a broader and richer understanding of God than if we are told exactly what a text means. Reading the Bible in an attitude of wonder is far more valuable than reading in an attitude of certainty.
Look for both law and gospel.
The law convinces us of our genuine need for God’s grace; it reminds us that we are sinners! The gospel reminds us of God’s embracing love in Christ, despite our sin. As Lutherans, we look for both law and gospel when we open the Good Book.
Don’t leave the Bible unread.
The Bible still has more social and moral force than just about any other book in history. Because of this social power, the Bible can be used for good; unfortunately—for the same reason—the Bible can also be used to justify evil. Biblical literacy (as outlined here) can help safeguard us from making interpretive errors that lead to sin. Biblical literacy can also reveal the narrow road that leads to life, the road that is always open to us.
Read and be surprised. Listen and find new life. Taste and see that the Lord is good!
* These guidelines come in large part from Opening the Book of Faith: Lutheran Insights for Bible Study by Diane Jacobson, Mark Allan Powell, and Stanley N. Olson, published by Augsburg Fortress in 2008.