Tools for Biblical Research, Part 1: Toward the End of Bible Study as Most Think of It

Posted By on September 16, 2011

In addition to my day job at Logos I’m an adjunct distance ed professor of biblical studies at the seminary level. One of the more common questions I get from students is about sources for biblical research papers. Poor sources are the bane of both the student who wants to learn something about the text (as opposed to those who just want the credits) and anyone unfortunate enough to read the work produced through their use (that would be us professors). To give you an idea of the battle, here are some guidelines I have created over the years (based on real life experiences) that I have posted for online students.

1. Sources for the paper must be graduate level. This means that any source that has words like “introduction”; “survey”; “overview”; etc. are not allowed as sources. Additionally, I will not consider any source produced for use by lay people in the church or by undergraduates to be a graduate level source. Part of being in seminary means getting acquainted with academic resources. This isn’t Sunday School. By way of example, I do not want to see the following as a source in your paper: sermon anthologies, church bulletins, sermon notes, websites with no author attribution, your pastor, etc. Rule of thumb: if it’s sold in a local Christian bookstore, it isn’t a graduate level source.

2. Commentaries that do not engage the original languages of the biblical text in some way are not permissible sources. Sources that amount to only commenting on the English translation with no apparent interest in drilling down to the original text (e.g., examining the usage of a Greek or Hebrew word, making some observation of grammar or literary structure) are not allowed. By way of example, I do not want to see the following “commentaries” (loosely defined) in your paper: Matthew Henry, Everyman’s Bible Commentary, J. Vernon McGee’s notes, Warren Wiersbe’s commentaries, etc. Rule of thumb: if it’s sold in a local Christian bookstore, it isn’t an academic commentary and won’t be acceptable. These sources are homiletical and devotional in nature; they are not exegetical. They might help you think about some item in your English translation, but they won’t penetrate that translation to produce nuggets from the text in its original language.

One of the hardest lessons I’ve had to learn as a professor and in my role at Logos is that most Christians think Bible reading is Bible study. It isn’t. This is followed by the corollary that what most people do beyond Bible reading isn’t going to get them very far into the text, either. That is, what most people think of as Bible study isn’t real biblical research. That’s why seminary students occasionally get annoyed when I won’t accept the kinds of sources noted above. They actually believe they’re “digging into the word” when they read Chuck Swindoll. It’s part of my job to convince them otherwise. In fairness, I remember reading Swindoll’s character study on Joshua when I was a teenager and really liking it. But after one or two of those things, I realized I was just reading ABOUT the Bible. I wasn’t really penetrating its content. I wasn’t discovering anything that couldn’t be learned through only a close reading of my English translation. That was a step in the right direction, but soon failed to satisfy.  My next step in high school was taking commentaries to study hall (that’s something I recall telling my wife about only after we were married). Looking back on that, it’s easy to see that those tools still barely scratched the surface (and that it was a truly nerdy thing to do). I wanted more.

If you claim to be serious about studying the biblical text or are responsible for teaching biblical content to others, you should be using grown-up tools. As indispensable as biblical language study is, even if you don’t know Hebrew or Greek there are many scholarly books and commentaries whose content is accessible. Lest I be misunderstood, it’s not a sin to use devotional and homiletical tools for personal Bible study if that’s where you’re at. I started out that way. Everyone does. But you should know that’s what you’re using — and not be misled into thinking that the content of those tools is really digging into the text and giving you a clear, coherent understanding of what the text means. That criticism is not designed to say that non-academic tools will lead you astray into bad exegesis and theology (at least not every time — simplistic would be more on target than heretical). Rather, it’s to say that you shouldn’t consider those tools to be more than they were intended to be by their authors. Resources aimed at lay people (and even some for pastors) are simply not designed for any real depth. The problem is that many people think they are because they don’t know better.

So, I hope to help a bit. I’ll be writing a series of posts that will hopefully illustrate the difference and show you what you’re missing with lay-level material. Stay tuned.

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23 Responses to “Tools for Biblical Research, Part 1: Toward the End of Bible Study as Most Think of It”

  1. Mark says:

    Thank you for all the work you put into your teachings, writings, research and studies.
    Thank you also for constantly challenging my preconceived notions and assumptions.
    I am a fan of all your work and appreciate all the links and files you share with your readers. I just finished watching your excellent presentation on end times at Grace.

    Do you believe that the Holy Spirit may play a role in interpreting some or all of end time prophecies to an individual or group of individuals who are consistently in the center of God’s will, seeking the truth in spirit? Will God (or could He have already) choose some one or many who will be enlightened to the meanings of prophecies? The reason I ask is that many times I give more spiritual credence to someones assumptions or beliefs if I can judge their fruit to be very good and or plentiful (Matthew 7:16). I know that that is not the way of a scholar – but is it the way of God at times? Especially concerning some of the black holes in discerning which position is correct or more on track than the others. Could some of the assumptions or beliefs on how the end times will unfold actually be interpretations by the Holy Spirit?

    Would love to see a reply. Thanks. God Bless You!

    • MSH says:

      I don’t think one can identify among a group of believers who disagree on end times interpretation, some who are more spiritual than others. Disagreement on these things has nothing to do with spirituality (I’ve actually heard people say, “oh but for the grace of God I would be wrong.” BUNK). Sincere believers disagree because the Bible itself lacks clarity in many passages — their implications, their original intent, their precise context, etc. I think the Spirit’s role is likely keeping believers from heresy and using other Christians to rebuke them when they cross that line.

  2. Nobunaga says:

    Oh but wont people cry that you are asking people to put their trust in academic studies rather than be guided by the Holy Spirit.

    • MSH says:

      I suppose – then they just need to explain how it is that the Spirit doesn’t make it clear to all godly believers, or give us all a way to know who’s more godly than someone else by virtue of their exegetical conclusions.

      • SDB says:

        I agree that bible reading is not bible study. And I think that neither bible reading or bible study necessarily has anything to do with spirituality or anything necessarily with pleasing God. It’s not about doctrine, it’s about righteousness, a righteousness that comes from obedience to conscience, an ever-awaking conscience that is alive by the Spirit and, yes, fed by the Word, but not force-fed. I see spirituality as maturing in virtue, the foundation of which is motivation from love, a love that grows from the humility that naturally develops from the ever-awakening reality of who God is and who and what we are, or are not. As we become more fruitful we become more righteous. We are, in this process, “knowing” God. If we are not “knowing” God we are not saved, not born-again.

        Having said that, I see a parallel between biblical scholarship and other sciences that paint a more detailed picture of something fantastic. In natural science I learn about the hummingbird or the jellyfish, I am amazed, and give glory to the Creator. Scholars likewise reveal amazing details of an already incredible story, a story that no descendant of the apes could ever dream up, and what I glean from their hard work often moves me, moves me to give glory to the Lord.

        But I think the really important stuff is right on the surface; I think we can get what we need to be spiritual and please God right from our english bibles. In fact, even less than that. I think we can learn about loving God, loving our neighbor, loving our brothers, and loving our enemies, without knowing alot about the bible. I’m pretty sure I see a lot of examples of knowledgable people who don’t have love. Sometimes I wonder if they are contradictory, but I know they do not have to be.

        I think there is a reason that the bible is often vague, particularly the old testament (Genesis), and particularly many prophecies–it doesn’t matter. I mean “doesn’t matter” in the scheme of things. Those writings have the fingerprint of God, and its not wrong to try to understand them, but not at the expense of our virtue.

        • MSH says:

          Since I’m not equating the things you don’t want to equate, we’re in agreement. But does the truly spiritual person *not* want to throw themselves into the Word?

          Unbelievers and believers with serious doctrinal flaws can have strong affection for God and neighbor. I don’t see either component as a substitute for the other, or as an excuse to not be serious about the other.

          • Anonymous says:

            Bart Ehrman is not spiritual but throws himself into the word. And I think Zacchaeus did not. People read their bibles for different reasons. Spiritual people read their bibles because the Spirit gives them that affinity, with the overall intent to cause the reader to gravitate toward a certain image. But not to do with it what we do with our academic books.
            I think we (moderns) have done with the bible what we do with everything else in our culture. With the same two-dimensional thinking that gives front-page space to basketball scores, diet pills, richest person, best looking this, fastest or tallest that, statistics, and all the who’s who and all of that, we approach the scriptures, only looking for the beginning and end of the doctrines therein, some more obvious than others, until our lot is bigger and better than those of another group with which me make comparisons. So for 30 years we’ll attend the ritual of church- stuff thinking we’re growing spiritually or pleasing God but never giving a dime to the poor or submitting to the conscience.
            Apparently the bible is an ancient history book, complete, but disorganized, our job being to rearrange things for a full and coherent list of applicable statutes and stories for us to rehearse and obey, and for us to judge the world regarding salvation. The more complete and coherent the end result the more “righteous” is that person or group, because, after all, western success will be measurable, and those with the “most and best” diplomas get to frame the game.
            So the Spirit, the biggest subject in the new testament, is left out, as are the beatitudes and parables, and usually in that order, because they lend themselves to a certain level of subjectivity that doesn’t play well with fundamentalist moderns. They need black and white. They need measurable. They need Paul.
            This all scares me because I think it’s to those in this group that Jesus will say He never knew. Not all of them, but those who fell for the religiosity that so often results from black and white theology, who mistake work for fruit and duty for love but never find the humility necessary to really know God.
            By their standards I see the bible as incomplete and incoherent. I’ll never understand Genesis 6 or Hebrews 6, whether I should speak in tongues or tithe, or whether John’s revelation is complete or not. Those are fringe issues and incidental compared to the gigantic issue of sin and ego I must deal with as I try to live up that loving standard that Jesus has put before me in His teachings.
            So to me the bible is a cosmic big-bang with the crescendo coming from Christ Himself and all the paradox from His teachings that keeps me forever digging down to humility as He forever rewards that effort with peace and knowledge. He will make clear to me everything that I need to know or do but without that Spirit any knowledge is worthless. And unless I act on the latest prompting of my conscience I will not grow toward that image.

            • MSH says:

              Not sure what to do with this one; parts of it are incomprehensible. I’m not sure how the dozen or so topics included in it somehow relate to each other (Bart Ehrman, diet pills, etc.). It seems to equate the conscience with the Spirit at the end. It also assumes a great deal about other people (or maybe just me) that amounts to a presumption of omniscience. “The Bible is important where I understand it, and isn’t where my conscience (= the Spirit) says it isn’t. Whatever.

              • SDB says:

                Please delete it then. I would help if the spaces were in there when I pasted it from word, and it would help if I didn’t try to put so much in to one reply. I had read the entire blog and replies over and over and was trying to address all the concerns and issues brought up by you, Matt, Nobunaga, etc. I’ll rewrite it.

  3. Richard Brown says:

    thank you Prof!
    I had two thoughts just jump out at me on first pass:
    1. Wasn’t brother Swindoll the head of one of your schools? or is? and I admire his brief summaries of books of the bible, among other labors. I seem to remember him utilizing scholarly sources before rendering into language for the vulgar…
    2. The second thought was – “right on”! why would I want to learn Italian if I have an Italian native with me on my journey? I have a career in high tech: why would I want to become an EE with doctoral studies in chip design if I can hire such a one to advise me on my patent? Why would I want to go through the rigor of becoming an Energy Sector expert in order to trade Energey Sector security options if I can hire someone who is noted for expertise in that field [and actually publishes his results... ]???
    We’re living in a new era where expert sources can be marshaled toward an outcome in one lifetime that previously would have required 9 lives.

    • MSH says:

      Yes, you’re right about the source availability thing. We live in amazing times (making it more challenging for people to still ignore good resources, but many manage to do so).

      Chuck Swindoll was head of DTS after I went there (I took classes there one year – Don Campbell was president as I recall). I wouldn’t care if he was president anyway. Chuck would be the first person to tell you he wasn’t an academic. He produces material for the lay person and the pastor (and those are somewhat blurred when it comes to the sort of things he does).

  4. DT says:

    Mike,

    This line of thought is really exciting to me. I’m getting a lot out of your recent recommendations. Also, I just discovered the Rev 12 Astral Prophecy powerpoint you did (whenever that was). I was absolutely blown away by how much I didn’t know about John’s writing. I hate to bother you constantly, but are there solid sources you could point me to regarding Astral Prophecy in Israelite/Jewish and Early Christian culture?

    After sharing with a friend, her response was, “Why would he (John) bother to write something looking backward so far after the fact?” My uneducated response was that I felt John was saying something to an audience that had knowledge of the symbols used, and that those symbols would be very compelling to that audience either as a verification or confirmation of the identity of the Messiah, but I let her know that this was just my best guess. What gets my interest sharpened even more is the continued use of the symbols throughout the rest of the chapter.

    I deeply appreciate your time spent here helping folks like me. It means a lot.

    DT

  5. Rafa says:

    Thanks for shinning a light! Please include some recommendations, specially NT commentaries, I’m tired of 18th century relics.

  6. Matt says:

    ugh…this is exactly why I stopped going to church. At the church my wife and I were attending, there was a growing Sunday-School crowd that would do some bible study or Christian philosophy, and evening bible study groups (now called “small groups”) getting together and studying a particular topic. The church eliminated adult Sunday School and informed all small-group leaders that there would be no more independent study, that they would only be discussing the previous Sunday’s sermon by the pastor.

    I had enough of liturgy theatre and evening small-group social sessions so I left. It seems like church for people my age is just young mothers comparing baby stories and the men talking about their jobs and golfing. It’s just about making social connections.

    Sorry for the rant. Your post made me miss studying actual theology and the word of God.

    • MSH says:

      I’m sorry, but this comment actually made me laugh — though I know you were serious and this is a real problem. It was just so pithy. I hope you have alternatives. As B.B. Warfield said to his students, when there is no fire in the pulpit, it has to begin in the pew. And since he was a scholar, he wasn’t talking about fiery pablum.

  7. Reader says:

    I enjoy reading your works but you personal strike of being an snob.

  8. Reader says:

    **personally**

  9. [...] To continue with what separates a good commentary from a lame one (with respect to engaging the original text), we’ll look at a New Testament example this time. For newcomers, please see my first example, as well as the post that started this trajectory about ending Bible study as most think of it. [...]

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