Personal Prerequisites for Bible Study — The Master’s Seminary Blog

Personal Prerequisites for Bible Study — The Master’s Seminary Blog

All the talk today is about personal identity. A growing number of people are convinced that what qualifies or disqualifies a person to lead a corporation, to teach second graders, or to hold public office is not ability, achievement, or expertise but one’s ethnic, social, or sexual identity. This obsession was vividly illustrated by White House press secretary Jen Psaki’s answer to a question submitted to a February 16 online forum. Suffering from the government’s Covid-19 restrictions, a business owner asked, “What is President Biden doing for my small business?” Psaki responded, “First and foremost, he nominated a woman to lead the Small Business Administration.” While Psaki did attempt to provide other details in the rest of her answer, her “first and foremost” comment is indicative of the transformation taking place in our culture. The greatest causes of and solutions to society’s problems are believed to be located in ethnic, social, or sexual identities.  

Prioritizing Identities

This preoccupation with identity is not limited to a world in rebellion to Christ. It has now become the preoccupation of many within the evangelical church. A growing number of leaders are sounding just like Jen Psaki. When asked about how to interpret the Bible, they may give some helpful advice. They may talk about the role of historical and literary context. They may emphasize a balanced approach to word studies, or the influence of authorial intent. Yet mixed in with their responses are troubling “first and foremost” statements. With increasing frequency, seminary professors, denominational leaders, and local church pastors are saying, “First and foremost, you have to read the biblical text from a particular ethnic, social, or sexual identity in order to understand it accurately.” And to clarify, these leaders are not speaking of the identity of the writer or even his original audience. They are referring instead to the identities of contemporary communities.

An example of this can be found in Esau McCaulley’s recent book, Reading While Black.1 As a testimony to its reputation in evangelical circles, The Gospel Coalition gave the book an honorable mention for its 2020 “popular theology award.”2 Christianity Today conferred on the book its 2021 award for “beautiful orthodoxy.”3 Dallas Theological Seminary called it “one of the most important books published this year on the subject of race and Christianity.”4 And Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary awarded it its 2020 “For the Church Book Award,” boldly stating that it “grounds the answers to the questions asked by the culture in the Word of God.”5

To be sure, the book in places gives helpful insights on biblical interpretation. Nonetheless, it has several “first and foremost” moments that call into question the importance of those very insights. For example, near the close of his first chapter, McCaulley writes,

But if we all read the biblical text assuming that God is able to speak a coherent word to us through it, then we can discuss the meanings our varied cultures have gleaned from the Scriptures. What I have in mind then is a unified mission in which our varied cultures can turn to the text in dialogue with one another to discern the mind of Christ. That means in the providence of Godneed Ugandan biblical interpretation, because the experiences of Ugandans mean they are able to bring their unique insights to the conversation.6

What is the problem? McCaulley does assert that God is able “to speak a coherent word” through Scripture. We can be thankful for such an affirmation of Scripture’s clarity and objectivity. But his assertions go downhill from there. After referring to “the meanings our varied cultures have gleaned from the Scripture” (thus situating “meaning” in the perspective of individual cultures, not in the single intent of the writer), McCaulley ends by asserting our “need” for another culture’s perspective if we are to understand the Bible correctly. 

Without question, we are sharpened by anyone in the universal body of Christ who labors diligently to study and explain the biblical text. When the apostle Paul’s command to “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth” (2 Tim 2:15) is applied by any believer in any culture and at any time, the result of such study will be beneficial. But the moment we begin to speak of the necessity—the “need”—of a perspective from a certain contemporary culture, be it African, European, Asian, or American, we have canonized that perspective. We have identified that “experience” or “identity” as a prerequisite for understanding divine revelation. That is dangerous.

Our Identity in Christ

Is personal identity then completely unimportant when interpreting Scripture? What does Scripture itself say? A thorough search will yield a clear answer. There is only one identity that is necessary—the reader’s identity in Christ. Whether one is Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, barbarian or Scythian, what matters is that one has been immersed into the Lord Jesus Christ. Paul states this clearly in 1 Corinthians 2:14–16,

But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised. But he who is spiritual appraises all things, yet he himself is appraised by no one. For who has known the mind of the Lord, that he will instruct Him? But we have the mind of Christ.7

Beyond this unique status, Scripture never elevates a particular social experience as necessary to God’s people for understanding His Word. Neither does it ever eschew a particular ethnicity as problematic, calling on those who are members of it to “be less ______.” Instead, what it does emphasize are spiritual qualities—internal characteristics that have nothing to do with the flesh—with skin color, physical anatomy, or economic status. These are qualities that must be returned to their rightful place as “first and foremost” when it comes to qualifications for the faithful study of Scripture. 

The Necessary Spiritual Qualifications

1. Commitment to personal obedience.

God has given His Word not merely to be pondered but also to be practiced (Deut 29:29; Josh 1:8; Ps 119:4; Jas 1:22–25). Obedience to Scripture’s message is never a given among readers from any culture, gender, or economic class. It is something that all believers must actively cultivate if they are to grow in the knowledge of God’s Word. As Robert Thomas writes, 

Only Christians are indwelt by the Spirit and therefore capable of experiencing His guidance in discovering the meaning of the Bible. But His indwelling does not automatically entail a correct understanding of Scripture. His filling of or control over the believer is necessary for this. Believers too can be blinded by sin. This blindness hinders a full appreciation of God’s Word, because the Spirit is hindered from teaching as He otherwise would. Only a Christian’s total commitment to the will of God can provide him this spiritual dimension of interpretation.[8] 

2. Cultivation of sincere desire.

Success in interpretation follows closely on the heels of desire. Fruitful Bible study will manifest itself in a life marked by an increasing hunger for God’s truth—the kind described by the apostle Peter in 1 Peter 2:2. As John MacArthur writes, 

Halfhearted Bible study is a bore. It you come to the Scriptures legalistically, ritualistically, or because you are intimidated by your peers or your pastor, you won’t get much out of it. What you need is a hunger in your heart, a passion for knowing God through His Word.9

3. Consecration to Disciplined Study

The apostle Paul provides the standard for faithful Bible interpretation in 2 Timothy 2:15, “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth.” The verb translated as “be diligent” means “to be especially conscientious in discharging the obligation.”10 The obligation that deserves this maximum effort is that of “accurately handling [lit. cutting straight11] the word of truth.” Once again, this applies to any Christian in any culture.12 Study is never a cultural preference or a demand invented by the privileged. Laziness, refusal to study, or confidence in personal intuition or experience is universally disqualifying—whatever one’s sex or skin type. 

4. Continuation in earnest prayer.

To study Scripture without direct dependence on God through prayer is the essence of cold, lifeless orthodoxy. But to pray as one studies—to study on one’s knees—is to follow the example of the writer of Psalm 119, whose prayer for enlightenment comprises the longest continuous literary unit in the Bible (note his requests especially in vv. 12, 18, 33, 38, 66, 68, 108, 135, 144, 169). It follows the example of Huldrych Zwingli, who would begin his lectures in exegesis with these exemplary words:

Almighty, eternal and merciful God, whose Word is a lamp unto our feet and a light unto our path, open and illuminate our minds, that we may purely and perfectly understand your Word and that our lives may be conformed to what we have rightly understood, that in nothing we may be displeasing unto your majesty, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.[13]

5. Contemplation in fearful reverence.

Fundamental to fruitful Bible study is not a “healthy appreciation of one’s community of shared experiences” but a fearful reverence for the voice of God. The biblical text is precisely that which mediates God’s voice to us. As Yahweh declares in Isaiah, “For My hand made all these things, thus all these things came into being. … But to this one I will look, to him who is humble and contrite of spirit, and who trembles at My word” (Isa 66:2). J. I. Packer explains this kind of contemplation well when he writes, 

God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, and the God-centered approach which the Bible makes to problems of life and thought is in the highest degree unnatural to the minds of sinful and self-centered men. It calls for a veritable Copernican revolution in our habits of thought, and is slowly and painfully learned.14

Eyes to See, Ears to Hear

Sadly, the primacy of these spiritual prerequisites is often ignored in discussions about Bible interpretation. The Gnostics of our age are contending that special qualities related to ethnicity, sex, or social status are needed for Christians to discover the true meaning of the biblical text. The problem is, these “first and foremost” prerequisites are fleshly, not spiritual. 

[1] Esau McCaulley, Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise of Hope (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2020).

[2] The Gospel Coalition 2020 Book Awards

[3] Christianity Today’s 2021 Book Awards | Christianity Today

[4] Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope – DTS Voice

[5] For the Church | The 2020 FTC Book Awards

[6] McCaulley, Reading While Black, 22; emphasis added.

[7] For more on this essential “identity,” see Can the Unconverted Rightly Interpret Scripture? (tms.edu).

[8] Robert L. Thomas, Introduction to Exegesis (Tyndale Seminary Press, 2014), 24.

[9] MacArthur, How to Get the Most from God’s Word (Thomas Nelson, 1997), 153-54.

[10] BDAG, σπουδάζω, 939.

[11] BDAG, ὀρθοτομέω, 722.

[12] For a summary of the steps involved in disciplined study, see the four-part series entitled, “Practical Bible Study.”

[13] Cited in Gregg R. Allison, Historical Theology: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine (Zondervan, 2011), 175.

[14] Packer, “Fundamentalism” and the Word of God (InterVarsity, 1958), 70.

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