BUT IT ISN'T BIBLE STUDY
By Bernard Ram
(This article appeared in Eternity Magazine,
I hurried to the morning hour
hungry of soul. It would be the "Bible"
hour. Amidst the high-pressure appeals of the conference for personal
witnessing, world missions. and consecration, this would be one glad
hour in which we would shut out the appeals of man and contemplate
the inexhaustible Word of God. The Scriptures were opened and read.
My soul now drew near, eager for the exposition of the Word of God.
But down my open throat was stuffed another sermon! It was a good
and proper sermon, but it wasn't Bible study. The speaker wheeled back
and forth like an eagle over the text, but he never came to rest upon it, I
left the hall as hungry as I came and quite sure that the speaker could not
distinguish between-a sermon and a Bible study. Sermonizing is not Bible
The honorable reverend stood
before the audience and announced that
he had the responsibility for the Bible study and would we all turn to a
certain passage in the Old Testament. I thanked the Lord for a man who
took his Bible study seriously, and eagerly anticipated a fruitful 45
minutes of real Bible exposition. After the text was read there issued a
torrent of words exhorting us to five different things. God knows that we
needed at least ten exhortations, but God also knows that the
relationship of' the text to the exhortations was completely accidental.
Although I left the auditorium completely equipped with exhortations my
added insight Into the text was zero. Whipping up three or four good
exhortations from a text is not Bible study.
I crouched low in the pew.
It was eventide Bible hour and I was praying
for grace to endure another sermon or a fist full of miscellaneous
exhortations falsely known as "Bible" study. The first paragraph of the
speaker brought me snappily out of my crouch. I was not going to get
various and divers exhortations but real, honest, undiluted Bible study!
He opened the Bible and went after the text!
But at the third paragraph
I was dismayed. From Bible study we slipped
into exegesis. "The jussive means this" was followed by "the aorist
participle means that." The housewives present did not know the
difference between the jussive and lemon juice and their blank faces
were rather faithful counterparts of their minds at this moment. For the
first time in their lives the laymen heard the word "aorist" and surmised it
was one of the pagan gods of the Hittites. Next we were hurriedly pulled
past the opinions of Robertson, Denney, Cullmann and Broadus. By this
time most of the little group was wool-gathering or daydreaming or
thinking how to damn with faint praise in the post-benediction chit-chat.
Academic exegesis is not Bible study.
I mingled with a crowd of university
students as we retreated from the
hot sun into the cool auditorium. Certainly this crowd would put the
speaker on the spot and force him to give out with good Bible study. The
reputation of the Bible teacher preceded him like the runners preceded
the ancient chariots. Away from the warm southern sun I sat smugly in
my seat and said to myself, " this is it--real Bible study!" At last, no
sermons, no sheaf of exhortations, but Bible study.
The great Bible teacher strode
across the platform, like a great musician
and putting His Bible upon the pulpit waited for the audience to quiet
down before he played the first note. The concert began. Like the
lingers of' the pianist race up and down the keyboard, so his fingers raced
through the Bible finding the relevant verses.
Plunk, ping, plunk! It
did not take long before I realized that we were
not having Bible study but a party line. The Bible was the keyboard and
the teacher was playing his own tune upon it. The melody was not that
of the Scripture but one imposed upon it by the Bible teacher. When the
last embellishments were over, and when we were assured with a
certainty the papacy could envy that we had the truth we were
I did not feel blessed nor
fed nor led deeper into the Scriptures. I felt
brainwashed. I felt my share in the priesthood of the believers as it
pertained to Bible study had been violated by the arrogant dogmatisms of
a party line. Propagandizing is not Bible study.
Every church has its Bible
study time at the prayer service. Here there is
no urgency to evangelize or exhort. The Pastor may unhurriedly open
the Sacred Text and feed the flock from its riches.
But as I watched the good man
I almost cried. He announced his
passage for the study and went to work--but what work! In his attempt to
explain the text he was like a chicken with defective pecking aim. The
poor hen pecks all around the corn but never hits it. She squints with her
beady eye, she cocks her head, and then she pecks - and misses. She
over-shoots or under-shoots.
So the poor man of God does
everything but explain the text. I got 30
minutes of various and divers unrelated and uninspiring pious
observations. Each observation was a worthy one. But each passage
itself remained untouched. We had been all around the text but never in
it. Pious observations are not Bible study.
Now, the tragedy is that Bible
study is so simple, yet so elusive. It is
unfortunate that there is so much tamping around the Scriptures with no
real Bible study. Let me set down a few principles of what I believe
constitutes real study of the Bible.
First, Bible study is in
the language of the people, and in a fairly common
translation. Bible study intends to acquaint Christians with the contents
of the Bible in their language, and in the Bible they read. An expert Bible
teacher will know his Hebrew and Greek and will have consulted the
authoritative works of reference. But when he stands before his class all
this must be veiled or cloaked. The bones of his basic research must not
protrude. He must translate all his learning into the common language.
Some reference to the original languages is not objectionable but the
main burden of the study must rest upon the English language and a
If Bible study is to have staying
power it must be in the common language
and in a common text. The people will grasp the content of Scripture
only as it is taught to them in the language in which they converse, pray,
read and sing.
Exegesis is for the scholars
and Bible study is no substitute for scholarly
exegesis. But academic exegesis is not for the popular platform. Here
God's people must he fed in their mother tongue.
Second, the actual goal
of Bible study is to convey the meaning to the
people of a set number of verses. Unless a manageable length is
determined in advance the Bible study will be frustrating. Too much will
have to be said in too short time. Care must be taken to limit the scope
of the study unless the teacher is giving some sort of general survey.
Third, the Bible teacher
must attempt to convey the essential meaning of
the text or passage. This is by far the most difficult task in Bible
study--this is Bible study! Here is where the men are separated from the
boys. Here is where fuzzy thinking is unfortunately put upon public
display; or where real skill in handling the Word of God, blesses the
It is the presupposition of
all interpretation of documents that the authors
of these documents intended to set down a meaning in writing.
Therefore, if sufficient pains are taken the meaning of the author may be
recovered. All interpretation of documents--be it a fragment of the
pre-Socratic philosophers or a page from some medieval mystic--has as its
goal the recovery of the meaning of the author.
Bible exegesis is the recovery
of the meaning of the writers of Holy Writ;
Bible study has the same goal only is less technical and less scholarly, and
more popular and more devotional. The heart of Bible study must
always be the matter of meaning. The first question of Bible study is not:
“What is devotional here?” nor “What is of practical importance here?”
nor "What is inspirational here?" but “What does this passage mean?”
If the Bible teacher has no
sensitivity to the question of meaning, there
will be no real Bible study, but only a series of pious observations or a
quiver full of exhortations or some interesting but pointless story-telling.
The one trait all great teachers of Scripture have in common is their
sensitivity to the meaning of the text.
Fourth this means sensitivity
to words. The good interpreter never looks
a word without a question mark in his mind. He may consult his Greek
lexicon, or his Webster's dictionary, or a commentary, or a concordance.
But he fusses around among his books till the word upon which he has
fixed his attention begins to glow with meaning.
An experienced doctor has a
wonderful sensitivity in his fingers. He has
spent a lifetime feeling lumps, swellings, growths, tumors, and wens. He
knows their textures, their shapes, and their peculiarities. Where our
fingers tell us two things, a doctor’s fingers might tell him a dozen things.
Just as a doctor's fingers have a feel for lumps and growths so a Bible
teacher must have a feel for words. He must pass the fingers of his mind
over their shapes, textures and peculiarities.
Fifth, this means sensitivity
to phrases, clauses, paragraphs and idioms.
A good Bible teacher is restless; he takes nothing for granted. He is the
detective whose victim is the meaning and the words in their various
combinations of phrases, sentences, and paragraphs are the clues. Out of
the various configurations of the words he delves for the meaning. He
looks for the train of thought (i.e., the sequence in meaning) and tries
to follow it throughout the passage. He works, digs, meditates,
ruminates, and studies until the meaning of the text shines through.
It is right at this point that
the poor teacher fails. He is content with his
efforts even though his thoughts are vague, and his impressions are
indistinct. As soon as he gets a good exhortation or practical application
he is content and rests at that point. He does not sit with a restless mind
and dig and sweat till he has achieved the meaning of the text. He does
not reconstruct the brief of the Biblical text so that he can recite it to his
audience. Failing to recover the essential meaning of the text, all he can
do is offer a series of religious observations or a sermon in the place of a
Sixth, the good teacher,
to the contrary, keeps up a running flow of
questions about meanings. What does this word mean? What is the
import of this phrase? Is this expression an idiom? What figure of speech
is this? What is the connection of this verse with those before and after it?
Who is this man? What is this city? What Jewish custom is behind this
practice? Where else in Scripture is this person or this theme treated?
And certainly the good teacher will surround himself with those books
which can answer these kind of questions.
Seventh, Bible study always
includes the relevant application of the text
to the lives and times of the hearers. The Scriptures are the milk for
babes in Christ and strong food for the men in Christ. Bible study is
feeding the people of God. But this feeding looks in two directions: (1) it
looks to the truth of Scripture as it is in itself; and (2) it looks to the actual
concrete situation of the listening audience. The meaning of Scripture
must be meaningfully applied to the lives of Christians if Bible study is to
be a meaningful activity.
A good Bible teacher will make
the proper doctrinal application. He may
call attention to the doctrinal importance of a passage. If, for example,
he is discussing 11 Corinthians 5 he can readily explain the great
doctrines of reconciliation and atonement found in the chapter. Or, he
may show how a cult or a sect abuses the doctrinal content of a passage,
or he may indicate hold the passage rebuts some view of a cult
A good Bible teacher explains
the correctives for our spiritual life or
Christian work found within the passage. If the section is about prayer he
will point out how our present practice of prayer needs the correction of
A good Bible teacher calls
attention to the comfort and encouragement
for God's people found in the text. It may be the invitation to prayer, or
the certainty of the divine hearing. It may be the power of the
intercessory work of Christ, or the enabling of the indwelling of the Holy
Spirit, or the consolation of the providence of God.
Eighth, a good Bible teacher
calls attention to the devotional elements of
the text. He shows wherein we should love God, or why we must follow
Christ. He dwells upon the wonders of God's love, or Christ’s death or
the Spirit's ministry to the saints. He attempts to excite our love and
adoration, and seeks to lead us to a deeper spirit of consecration.
In conclusion, I feel that
I have experienced a good session of Bible
a. When I felt that the teacher
took me right into the text and not around
b. When I felt we interacted
with the text itself and not with the
party-line beliefs of the teacher.
c. When I felt that I had a
better understanding of the text than when I
came into the session.
d. When I felt that the time
was basically spent in meaning and not in a
miscellany of religious platitudes.
e. When I have felt doctrinally
rebuked, challenged, comforted,
encouraged, and practically instructed.