The danger in studying the Bible alone is that one can get it wrong. The obstacles to correct interpretation are many. They include:

  • An improper understanding of sound biblical hermeneutics
  • Lack of attention to detail regarding the language and structure of the text
  • The infusion of one’s personal and cultural biases into the meaning of the text
  • An over-reliance on a single translation
  • Ignoring nuances of the original languages in which the text is written
  • Approaching scripture with preconceived notions
  • An inattentiveness to the historical settings in which many of the books of the Bible were written and the audience to whom they were intended
  • An inability to reason properly regarding the use of easily understood parts of the Bible to reflect a better understanding on the difficult parts of the Bible

These are just a few of the ways a single individual, a church, or a denomination closed to outside influences can go wrong with interpreting the Bible. That’s not to say that one is guaranteed to walk away with a better understanding of the Bible if one reads and studies it with others as opposed to alone. At the end of the day, if the Holy Spirit doesn’t reveal the meaning behind what is read, the reader will remain in the dark.

That said, I believe there are solid reasons for going beyond studying the text of the Bible and reading other books, commentaries, and works by Christian authors throughout history in order to get a better grasp on the themes and message of God’s word.

One word of warning: One can easily get bogged down in study and lose sight of the spiritual importance of connecting with God through other means of testing. None of the principles I discuss throughout this series should be seen as standalone measures for knowing, understanding, and testing God. These tools work best when used together.

The Mystery of God’s Word

The tendency to err is not relegated to a single individual or group of people. The entire human race is subject to going astray. If the Bible is adamant about any one thing, it is this: That sin, or the tendency to err, either intentionally or by chance, is one of the fundamentally common elements of humanity. We are all subject to being wrong at various times and in various ways.

It is for that reason that we should not rely on our own understanding regarding the interpretation of scripture.

On top of the human tendency to err, the Bible has a mystery to it that often obscures parts of it from human understanding. I believe that is intentional on the part of its Author for His own purposes.

It’s not that the Bible is complex for the sake of complexity. Rather, we are dealing with the infinite mind of God, which is, by nature, eons above the understanding of finite man. By putting His thoughts about creation, Himself, man and nature, good and evil, and the myriad other subjects one can find in scripture into the written form, He has made it much easier for we mere mortals to understand His permanent immutable perfection. While easier, it still is not guaranteed that a study of scripture will get us there. Again, we are fallible, prone to error, and dealing with a mystery.

Therefore, a prudent student of God will consult with others to inform their mind and spirit, confirm their own understanding, and progress in their faith.

Exploring The Deep Roots of the Christian Faith in History

Since I’ve already established the necessity of conversing with others regarding the interpretation of scripture, I want to point out that one need not reduce that conversation to merely the here and now. In other words, I’m not talking about weekly Bible studies. Rather, I’m suggesting that you read great works of Christian literature that have been written down through the ages.

With thousands of years to draw upon, there are many good pieces of literature to help us better understand God. The Bible alone can keep us busy for awhile. But other texts can prove helpful. The following resources are a good place to start.

  • The Apocrypha — The silent period of roughly 400 years between the Old Testament book of Malachi and the New Testament is an interesting time. Works written during this time are not canonical to most of the Christian world, but they can be helpful and often shed light on the canonical texts of scripture. Protestant churches don’t typically include The Apocrypha in their Bibles while the Catholic church does. It’s interesting reading.
  • The DidacheThe Didache is considered by some scholars to be the first Christian catechism. It’s an early church writing, dated to the first century, that includes sections on Christian ethics, rituals, and church organization.
  • Writings of Early Church Fathers — During the first three centuries of Christendom, the church was a loosely organized and decentralized network of churches. That’s doesn’t mean they were ineffective. Quite the contrary. Despite persecutions, hardships, and other obstacles that threatened the church, it quickly grew into a powerful force. Several early church fathers, theologians, and church leaders wrote vociferously to defend the faith and instruct other Christians on the Christian life. These include Clement of Rome, Ignatius, Polycarp, Origen, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and others. There is wide agreement and disagreement among these church fathers, but reading them helps us get a better understanding of how diverse the early church was in its thinking.
  • Commentaries — Theologians throughout history have enlightened the church with attempts to explain the Bible through commentaries. There are thousands of these. I won’t mention all of them, but some of the most historically important include the writings of St. Augustine of Hippo, St. Thomas Acquinas’s Summa Theologica, the writings of Martin Luther, and John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. This is just a few, but they are a good place to start.
  • Bible Handbooks — Bible handbooks can be helpful. They offer archaeological data, cultural information, maps, and other discoveries that can shed light on parts of scripture, the early church, Old Testament Jewish culture, and more. They go into details you won’t typically find in theological treatises and commentaries. A few of the best ones I’ve found are Halley’s Bible Handbook. Unger’s Bible Handbook, and “ What The Bible is All About” by Henrietta Mears.
  • Lexicons — The Bible is written primarily in Greek and Hebrew, with some Aramaic passages. While there are a great many excellent translations of the Bible, it does help to go back to the original languages once in a while. Unless you have a thorough understanding of ancient Greek and Hebrew, your best bet is to use a lexicon, which helps in understanding the definitions of the original words and to offer a better understanding of the text in its original languages accounting for the differences in language nuances and idiomatic expressions between cultures and time periods.
  • Concordances and Bible Dictionaries — Concordances list words found in the Bible and where to find them. Good ones also include dictionaries and lexicons to help us better understand the context of the words within the scripture. The best ones I’ve found are Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance, Young’s Analytical Concordance to the Bible, and Nave’s Topical Bible. I’ve also found Vine’s Concise Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words helpful.
  • Historical Writings — As I mentioned earlier, history is full of well-written works by others who have shed light on the church, the Bible, God, and various other spiritual topics. From the first century into the beginning of the 21st, every historical period has a few standout men and women of faith who have done well to represent God’s word through their enlightened writings. Many of them weren’t theologians in a strict sense, but they’ve left a library of interesting and thoughtful readings. Here are a few I’d recommend starting with: Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis, Hinds’ Feet in High Places by Hannah Hurnard, The Pilgrim’s Progress from This World by John Bunyan, Church History by Eusebius, Dark Night of the Soul by St. John of the Cross, The Deeper Christian Life by Andrew Murray, Fox’s Book of Martyrs by John Foxe, Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton, and many more.
  • The Works of Josephus — Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t include Titus Flavius Josephus, a Jewish historian who lived in the first century, shortly after Christ’s crucifixion. His historical writings serve as very interesting reading and have turned many a skeptic into a believer simply because his histories confirm much of what Christians and Jews have believed for centuries. There’s no evidence he accepted Christ as his savior, but there’s plenty of evidence his histories are well-researched and true accounts of events during one of the most important periods in world history.

I’m not a scholar or a historian, so I can’t vouch for the accuracy and truthfulness of every source listed here, but this list is based on a general consensus among a cross-section of Christian leaders familiar with them. As a researcher and a journalist, I’ve found that whenever I find sources of information that agree on specific facts, even if they disagree on a lot of other things, then those facts are generally reliable.

Getting back to the main point, the purpose in studying these resources, along with the Bible, is to understand God better so that the Christian may be fully armed to put God to the test. If you want to know if He is faithful and able to keep to His promises, it helps to know those promises, understand the backdrop upon which they were made, and the significance of them to history before you can fully appreciate their importance for your own life, and life in the 21st century. Otherwise, if your faith is strong enough, you can simply believe.

Allen Taylor has been walking (and wavering) with the Lord for 28 years. He has served local churches as a Sunday school teacher, a small group leader, a worship leader, a prayer group leader, and a minister of the Word. His journey isn’t over yet, and he still needs discipling.

Feel free to leave a comment below. Do you have any favorite resources that help shed light on the Bible?

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