Back in 2011 (hard to believe it’s that long ago) I posted a short list of what I called “Heiser’s Laws for Bible Study.” It was a popular post, perhaps because it was prompted by questions I get all the time related to how to study the Bible. I’ve been working on another writing project over the past year (aimed at the “average person in the pew” again) that sprang from that post. I’ll be posting a few things from it through the remainder of the year. This is the first. Let me know if you think it hits the target audience or not.
Bible Reading is not Bible Study
You should read your Bible. That’s axiomatic for Christians, but I’d dispense that piece of advice to anyone. That said, reading the Bible is not where our engagement with the Bible ends. It’s where it begins. You eventually need to go beyond reading the Bible to serious study of the Bible. The first step is to realize there’s a significant difference between reading and studying.
Reading is casual, something done for pleasure. The motivation is personal gratification or enrichment, not mastery of the content. Bible reading has as its aim private delight or personal application for our lives and relationship with God. Bible reading is inherently devotional and low maintenance.
Bible study, on the other hand, involves concentration and exertion. We have an intuitive sense that study requires some sort of method or technique, and probably certain types of tools or aids. When we study the Bible we’re asking questions, thinking about context, forming judgments, and looking for more information.
It’s not hard to illustrate the difference. Practically anyone could manage to make a cup of coffee, but they’re not baristas. We know instinctively that both perform the same basic task, but what distinguishes the barista is a lot of time, effort, research, and experience in learned technique. It’s the same with Bible study.
Let’s try another coffee illustration. Let’s say you and your friend were from the moon and didn’t know what coffee was. You’re only mildly interested in the topic, so you decide to look it up in a dictionary. You read that coffee is “a popular beverage made from the roasted and pulverized seeds of a coffee plant.” Good enough. You learned something. But your friend wants to know more—a lot more. How is coffee made? What’s the process? Is there more than one process? If so, why would there be different processes? Is there more than one kind of coffee bean? Where are the beans grown? Does that make any difference in color, aroma, or flavor? Is climate a consideration? How is coffee different than tea? If it’s a popular beverage, how much is consumed? Does consumption vary by country? State? Gender? Age? IQ?
Whoa. Your friend is way over the top. And we know why. Her interest, intensity, and willingness to expend effort tell us that her aim is studying, not just reading. Big difference—one that translates well to what we ought to do with the Bible.
I think it will. My own experience in bible study relates to your coffee analogy. My study was like a person buying coffee then complaining about the coffee not tasting to my liking. After many years of complaining I then decided to purchase a coffee maker (bible study version of scripture)then complained the coffee maker would not brew coffee correctly (lack of actual study). Which brought me to realize I am a “Juan Valdez” who never took any actual responsibility to his own spiritual accountability. Never stopping to consider what I was actually complaining to or about w/respect to the care of planting, growing & watering the garden.
Thank you for helping me, still a work in progress.
Vincent S Artale, Jr
Thanks for the note!
Hi Mike, I was looking at your list of laws for Bible study fairly recently and thought it was very good. I would be very interested in you going into more detail on those points – sounds like something that would be very helpful to me and others readers as well.
Thanks; I’ll be posting a few more of these and then (likely in early 2015) giving everyone the wider context for what I’m working on.
When I started reading the Bible, it wasn’t anything like studying. I think proper study is preceded, at minimum, with a sincere prayer that you will be led to the real meaning. And you do read it somewhat slowly, not skimming. What I did was read kind of absent-mindedly and quickly, without a great deal of respect for the plenary inspiration of the text, picking apart the text to get what I liked to hear out of it, and pretending as if the English translators were somehow constantly erroneous, even intentionally so (as if I knew something on the matter!). But that was college! Hopefully what I do now is a little more like study. But just yesterday I got the epiphany that studying the New Testament in Koine Greek may be a splendid undertaking (and the LXX in Greek also, as the Apostles knew it).
Yep; when I started reading Scripture in high school, I just read it — with intent, but not like I was going to be tested over it. After a half dozen or so times through it, I knew I had reached a plateau in a sense; that I’d need to move beyond what I was doing. My sense is that many never get to that point, or get tired just thinking about how to go further.
Anything on this topic would be welcome and is much-needed.
Personally, I am interested in the value of bible reading, as compared to bible study or integrated with bible study. On the one hand, a lot of ground can be covered in little time and some of the meaning is “plain” and on the surface (the glory and power of God, the gospel, etc), but on the other hand, it can be easy to form misconceptions and misinterpret things…
Study Bibles can help with this (though I have yet to find one that helps as much as I would like — not because they’re not long enough, but more because too much room is too often devoted to detailed issues in each verse instead of focusing on bigger picture movements and context (historical & literary) of the text). Single-volume commentaries like Robert H. Gundry’s can also help, but these also slow down the reading to varying degrees.
Another option is to integrate the reading and the study (focusing on, say, Luke and the Pauline epistles, for a while, or Mark and the Petrine epistles), so that the study informs the reading.
Another related topic I am very interested in (though I don’t know if others will share the same interest) is the role of the Spirit in “illumination” — what that even means and how it relates to Bible study.
Thank you for your efforts in the cause of biblical literacy, it is much appreciated.
Thanks, Peter. I’ll post a few others to get some thoughts. I’ll probably explain the context of what I’m doing sometime early in 2015.
Bernard Lonergan wrote a book my preacher read(Insight) in which he posited that there were several areas of research/study that needed to be accessed for the church to really move off the “dime” we were on in 1965.
With a preacher(accessed by technology, not local) who himself not only studies the text, but, has accessed many researchers/theologians like Lonergan, Barth, Aquinas,Pannenberg, NT Wright, Bauckham’s, I’ve been given a gift that is unbelievable, IMO.
I think He also placed your blog in my path to answer specific questions I had via some of your writing and/or courses that my preacher would not know yet because it isn’t where he’s majoring right now.
God has made it easy for me using all the hard work of you people whose life’s work is research and teaching. Thanks for it.
I know it wasn’t your trajectory, but your reply prompts me to ask the question that appeared in the post “Online Bible Teaching.”
Yes, this seems well-aimed, with one caveat:
Saying reading is for “pleasure” may be off-putting for some who feel that reading the Bible is an opportunity to encounter God through his word — spiritually, not necessarily intellectually. You might consider rephrasing the second paragraph slightly.
I hear you, but I was trying to strike a (more) stark contrast. I’ll make a note in the MS.
What are we to do with the Bible..?
The Bible itself has an instruction on how to handle it’s content:
Listen to it, speak it, meditate in it day and night and put it into practice…
This is the kingdom way Joshua 1:7-8
For me Bible study has become part of my meditation…
Shalom again, Dr. Heiser!
I’m personally waiting with baited breath for this project to come out. Your “Heiser’s Laws” and “Biblical Context” Naked Bible podcasts were fantastic, and are the most re-run mp3s in my collection.
I’m thinking about using this for our teen group’s study. Do you have any idea how long the finished product will be?
Thanks and shalom again.
No idea, but stay tuned. Thanks!
Once again thanks for this.
I’m at the stage where I’m seriously considering bible study, and need all the good advice and structure I can get.
Being dyslexic means it’s going to be a slog, but I just feel that I need more understanding and insight to accompany my faith.
This is interesting (the dyslexia). I know you’re referring to the writing project that was the point of this post, but it tookmy mind to the online Bible teaching and post – audio and video advantage.
So, looking for some advice on Bible Study methods.
1. I have 3 semesters of Greek/Hebrew under my belt, and I am doing my best to practice what I’ve learned in my daily devotions. For example, here is the process I’m going through while studying Ephesians:
A. Read through the whole book in English, make my own outline, compare with others who have done the same
B. Read the background of the book (using a commentary and some general-use tools)
C. Read through one section (paragraph) in Greek and make my own translation
D. Read through some lexical/linguistic tools (like some of the semantic commentaries published through Wycliffe or the Baylor Handbook on the Greek Text) and compare it to mine, look at how I’ve done my translation vs. theirs, evaluate whose is more likely
E. Read through a more general commentary (using Peter O’Brien’s Pillar commentary for Ephesians) and make notes, look at his argument and evaluate it
This is taking me quite some time, but I don’t really know a better way to integrate what I’ve learned with Greek and stuff into my study. Am I doing too much, or are there better ways to do it? How would you go about integrating original language study, background study, and all the pieces you’ve learned in school into your devotional life?
2. What are the basic resources that you would recommend to a layperson for guiding them through studying?
3. Say you were placed in a culture that didn’t have any bible study helps available in their own language, and nobody had advanced training. How would you adjust your methods, and what other advice would you give?
OK, I’ll shut up now.
Carl – can you send me this in email so it stays on my radar? I’ll have some specific recommendations.