Methods of Bible Study
Arthur G. Clarke
A DISTINCTION SHOULD BE DRAWN between Bible reading and Bible study, though both are essential to the Christian's spiritual well-being, and each supplements the other. The former is for the devotional hour, family worship and regular spiritual exercise. It is mainly subjective. Bible study is more objective like any work of research but in this case producing subjective results also. Bible reading gives the telescopic view, Bible study the microscopic. In Bible reading it is well to adopt a plan for daily exercise with preference for a consecutive course. One's own plan may be drawn up or one of those well-known in Christian circles, say Smeeton's or that of the Scripture Union. It is a serious mistake to neglect any portion of Scripture simply because it appears difficult to understand. Every book forms part of God's message to man. There is a divine order and a vital connection between each part and the whole. To ignore any part is to lose an important link in the chain of progressive revelation. Coming now to Bible study procedure, seven avenues of exploration are suggested. Examples will be given later.
I. STUDY OF THE VARIOUS BOOKS OF THE BIBLE
The Analytical Method
By this method the student will gain a comprehensive knowledge of the Bible. Each of the sixty-six books is complete in itself, having its own theme and analysis, yet it possesses a distinctive and appropriate place in the organic unity of the whole.
The book to be studied should be read through at one sitting if possible, and several times to become well acquainted with its scope and general structure. When the author's name is given it is helpful to discover from his own writings and other Scriptures what may be known of him and of his times, also his circumstances at the time of writing. When some person or church is addressed (as in the epistles) the character and circumstances of such should be investigated. Secular history sometimes affords help in this. The next step is to divide the book into main and minor sections, giving to each an appropriate heading. This will require a closer application in further readings. Having gained a fair grasp of the writer's purpose and plan and discerned the relation of each section to the whole, the true interpretation of each verse will become more apparent. In making an analysis ignore present chapter and verse divisions, which often obscure the proper connection. Here the Revised Version will help for it introduces each section with a heavy type capital letter. If the student should feel he needs some guidance in analysis, there are several works by well-known evangelical expositors which contain such aids.
One ventures to suggest three main lines of Bible research:
(i) The Historical Aspect, or Primary Association.
(ii) The Predictive Aspect, or Prophetic Anticipation.
(iii) The Devotional Aspect, or Personal Application.
Much will be lost by confining oneself to one aspect only. In following the prophetic track it is a mistake to assume that one fulfilment necessarily exhausts the meaning of the passage concerned. History has a habit of repeating itself. Our Lord Himself indicates this, Luke 17. 26ff. Sometimes a partial fulfilment may be traced in history which leaves the complete fulfilment yet in the future (see Acts 2. 16-21; 4. 25, 26).
II. STUDY OF THE PRESENT CHAPTERS OF THE BIBLE
The Sectional Method
The Bible may be taken chapter by chapter, but it must not be forgotten that the chapters in our King James' Version often break the sequence in the narrative. The chapter headings found in many editions are not, of course, part of the inspired Word and, especially in the Old Testament, are not infrequently misleading when they refer to the Church of Christ what distinctly belongs to Israel. In this method of study the chapter should be read over several times until the general outline is grasped. Note and record the main theme and the subject of each paragraph then choose a key verse. This plan is useful for young believers who wish to memorize the contents of each book.
III. STUDY OF THE GREAT THEMES OF THE BIBLE
The Topical Method
This procedure gives the student a good knowledge of the Christian verities. Choose subjects such as sin, salvation, justification, sanctification, etc., or grace, faith, hope, love, joy, peace, etc., and with the aid of a concordance follow all the references through the Scriptures, classifying them under appropriate sub-titles. Finally, make a summary and synthetical outlines to be entered in the note¬book reserved for this purpose.
IV. STUDY OF THE NOTABLE CHARACTERS OF THE BIBLE
The Biographical Method
This offers a wide scope, is most interesting and yields much profitable instruction. Collect all references to the person whose life is chosen and place them as far as possible in chronological order ready for more detailed study. The main interest will centre in God's dealings with that person, whether exceptional and direct, or providential and indirect. The response to those dealings will also claim attention. In the case of Old Testament saints be on the watch for any typical significance in their recorded history. Hebrews u affords an excellent example of lessons to be learned from the lives of Old Testament worthies. This chapter is a divine commentary upon their conduct in special circumstances.
V. STUDY OF THE RECORDED EVENTS OF THE BIBLE
The Historical Method
Little explanation is needed here. Historic events arc always full of instruction to discerning children of God. The apostle's words, Rom. 15. 4, should ever be borne in mind. The historical books are too often neglected, yet they abound with practical teaching for the Christian. Moreover, they throw much light on the Psalms and other poetical books, also on the writings of the prophets, revealing the nature of the times and sometimes the actual circumstances in which these Scriptures were produced. When studying incidents recorded in the four Gospels the different accounts where given should be carefully compared in order to get the complete view. Witnesses of a street accident will generally give varying accounts of what they saw according to that which made most impression on their minds. One may leave out a detail which another emphasizes. So is it with the four evangelists, with this important difference that each of them was led by the Spirit of God to chronicle only what was in keeping with his divine theme. Together they give us a composite photograph, so to speak, of the one glorious Person. Matthew's Gospel presents Him as the King of Israel, Mark as the Servant of God, Luke as the Son of Man and John as the Son of God.
VI. STUDY OF THE VERY WORDS OF THE BIBLE
The Verbal Method
It is obvious that students possessing some knowledge of the original languages in which the Scriptures were written are better equipped than others for this form of study. Nevertheless by taking advantage of the monumental labours of the scholars whose invaluable concordances have been mentioned already, the average Christian is enabled to cover an intensely interesting and profitable field of Bible research. By taking any prominent Hebrew or Greek word its occurrences may be traced and classified into suggestive groups. Whatever the context we shall most probably discern a definite and progressive line of teaching even though more than one writer's work is included. It is of importance, however, to bear in mind that while etymology may give a valuable clue to the meaning of a word it is use that settles its true significance. For example the Holy Spirit has taken up certain Greek words originally associated with pagan conceptions and used them to express ideas of deep spiritual import, ideas that never entered the unregenerate mind. In Scripture there is perceptible a law known as the law of first occurrence, which seldom fails to give a valuable hint on the meaning of a word as used throughout the Bible. Lastly there is
VII. STUDY OF THE NUMEROUS SYMBOLS OF THE BIBLE
The Typological Method
That this branch of Bible study is so much neglected nowadays is cause for great regret. It has fallen into disrepute, perhaps, because very fanciful ideas to suit pet theories have been read into the symbolic language of Scripture. In light of definite teaching and notable examples furnished by the Word of God itself, however, the importance of the subject cannot be denied. Rightly apprehended there is in the Bible no greater store of precious instruction or a more lasting source of delight for the children of God. A type has been defined as a divinely-purposed illustration of some great truth. The fulfilment known as the antitype is generally found in the New Testament. Ordinary books for the young are not less helpful because they contain pictures. If a child be shown a picture of an elephant he will retain an impression of that animal's form much better than by an elaborate word description alone. So much so that when die circus comes to town he will immediately recognize and delightedly point out the 'antitype' in the great pachyderm. Types and symbols arc God's pictures prepared primarily for a time of man's spiritual immaturity, yet conveying even to die mature believer knowledge not so readily apprehended in other ways. Moreover, God docs not exhibit His most precious secrets to the casual rambler through Bible fields even as many of nature's secrets are not apparent to the careless wanderer in country lanes. Truth discovered after painstaking research is more highly prized, better remembered and more likely to be rightly used. Without some acquaintance with the language of Scripture symbols a large part of the Bible, including most of the prophetic word will ever remain a closed book. Some types are authenticated by New Testament reference while others arc clearly recognizable by analogy. From Scripture itself we learn that
(a) A Person may be a Type
Adam is shown to be in certain respects a type of Christ. As federal head of the human race, Adam the representative man in the old creation signally failed and involved the whole race in ruin. Our Lord Jesus Christ, the 'second man' and 'last Adam', I Cor. 15. 45-471 in resurrection is federal head of a new race, 2 Cor. 5. 17, R.V.M.; Rom. 5. 19 and context. In Rom. 5. 14 Adam is distinctly stated to be 'a figure (Greek litpos) of him that was to come'. Other personal types for which we have scriptural authority include Melchizedek, Heb. 7. 1-3, Hagar, Sarah and Isaac, Gal. 4. 22IT; and by analogy Moses the mediator, Aaron the high priest, Joseph die world ruler and preserver of Israel, and others. It should not be forgotten that those persons who are types of Christ are not so in every respect. In the Hebrew epistle, for instance, Aaron's office and service in several ways prefigure our Lord's present ministry in the heavenly sanctuary, but in other respects strong contrasts are drawn between the two. Imperfect and sinful man never could be a complete type of the sinless and perfect Son of God. Moreover, such are the infinite glories of His person and work that all the types combined cannot fully set them forth.
(b) An Event may be a Type
Many incidents in Israel's history for instance serve as 'ensamples' (Greek tiipoi—types), I Cor. 10. n. The people's protection under the cloud, passage through the Red Sea, partaking of the manna, and provision of the water are all types. Israel's discipline and judgement are also said to be 'examples' (Greek tupoi), w. 5, 6, of God's dealings with erring saints and unrepentant sinners. Our Lord Himself cites Jonah's experience with the great fish as analogous to His own death, burial and resurrection, Matt. 12. 39-40; Luke 11. 30 (see also 1 Pet. 3. 21, R.V.M.).
(c) An Institution may be a Type
The epistle to the Hebrews, particularly chapters 9-10, clearly shows that the tabernacle with its furnishings, its sacrifices and its ministry presents a large group of types, 9. 24 (figures, lit. antitypes). Two synonymous words are also used to support this concept, 'copy' or 'copies' and 'shadows' of heavenly things, 8. 5 and 9. 23, R.V. At Sinai Moses not only received minute instructions from God concerning the construction of the tabernacle but he was shown a model (Greek tupos) further to guide him. Acts 7. 44; Exod. 25. 40. According to Numbers 8. 4 even of a detail like the lampstand a pattern was shown, so we may safely assume that all the furnishings have a typical significance. Careful study of the tabernacle throws much light upon other parts of Scripture and the many chapters devoted to the subject are particularly rich in teaching concerning the person and work of Christ.
(d) A Ceremonial may be a Type
The Feasts of the Passover and of Unleavened Bread are proclaimed to be types. 'Christ our passover hath been sacrificed for us; wherefore let us keep die least . . .', I Cor. 5. 7-8. Christ the antitype of the paschal lamb in all its precious significance having been slain, Christians are exhorted to keep the counterpart of the unleavened bread festival by purging out of their lives all leaven of malice and wickedness. Since these two feasts are typical the other divinely appointed feasts, Lev. 23, must be so. New moons and sabbaths, also legal permissions and prohibitions are all termed 'a shadow of things to come', Col. 2. 16-17. They point to Christ who is the body, or substance, in whom all are fulfilled. A similar statement is made in the Hebrew epistle, to. I, so that the whole of Israel's ceremonial law is now unnecessary and futile as a system of religion, yet it is still of unspeakable value in its typical teachings.
(e) A Thing may be a Type
The rock smitten by Moses, 1 Cor. 10. 4, the uplifted serpent of brass, Num. 21. 9 with John 3. 14-15, the ark constructed by Noah, 1 Pet. 3. 21, and the rent veil, Heb. 10. 20, all have scriptural authority as types. The symbolic and parabolic language of the New Testament should not be overlooked in this connection. Especially in the latter period of His ministry our Lord frequently taught in parables to enforce both ethical and prophetical truth. He Himself placed into the hands of His disciples the key to the Mysteries of the Kingdom, Matt. 13. 11, when He explained to them die parables of the Sower and of the Tares, Matt. 13. 18ff; 36-43. Symbolic language and actions meet us everywhere in the Gospels and the Acts, and the book of Revelation abounds with them.
7. THE ACCIDENTALS OF BIBLE STUDY
Sooner or later every Bible student will meet obscure and difficult passages. If after careful reading and prayerful meditation the meaning is not understood, it is well to pass on, waiting in a humble spirit for further light. With increased study of the Word will come greater aptitude in probing such problems, and a wider knowledge of divine truth enabling him to interpret the passage aright. Need it be emphasized that we have in mind only true believers as Bible students. Unbelievers are gravely handicapped in reading the Bible for 'the natural man receives not the things of the Spirit of God; for they are foolish unto him; and he cannot know them, because they are spiritually discerned', 1 Cor. 2. 14. Nevertheless the Scriptures 'are able to make wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus', 2 Tim. 3. 15.
Hasty generalizations based upon one text or passage of Scripture are to be avoided. Serious doctrinal errors have arisen from this cause. If the student discovers something new to him let it be well examined in the light of the whole Bible. Only when fully satisfied that it passes the test should he pass on the thought to others. It is thoroughly dishonest, of course, to force any Scripture to fit private theories, or to quote it in support of preconceived notions. It is wise not to jump too readily to the conclusion that an error has been found. Suspend judgement until a more thorough investigation has been made. Many alleged discrepancies and seeming contradictions have been cleared up by a more careful comparison of the passages.* A valuable hint is given by Augustine. He said, 'Distinguish the ages and the Scriptures harmonize'. In other words, if the different dispensations of God's dealings with mankind be recognized, noting their progressive order from the Edenic State to the Eternal State, many difficulties to a right understanding of the Bible will be removed.
* The advice Mr. Clarke gave with regard to commentaries and other works of reference was appropriate to the unique circumstances of his lectures and the special character of his audience (see explanatory Note in the Jan.-Feb. issue of this magazine). It is a matter of very considerable difficulty to suggest suitable books to the many and varied types of would-be students among our readers. So much depends on the individual's particular situation that we gave up the attempt. We are very happy, however, to be able to offer our readers a unique service in that Dr. David Gooding, who is a Lecturer in Greek and Latin at Queen's University, Belfast, has very kindly consented to give personal advice to any keen young believers who will write to him explaining their particular circumstances and needs. Address: David Gooding, Esq., M.A., Ph.D., 14 Richmond Park, Belfast, 9. Stamped addressed envelope please'.