A recent post on “quality” and “better methods” prompted a thoughtful challenge. Here, I responded in general terms about the nature of, and impulses behind, contextually aware, high-quality (for me) Bible study. Today I want to spend some time with specific commentary on the Rick Warren methods.
There are other things
I first want to acknowledge that activities other than Bible study are important and can result in growth, better feelings, and other positives. Some of these other thoughts and experiences have great value. I haven’t dealt, for instance, with prayer, worship, or mutually accountable “discipling” relationships. Here, I intend only to be addressing Bible study methods—and those, only in summary fashion.
Yet a text orientation is crucial
To “live out faith capably” is a wonderful aim, and I appreciate that crystallization. My position is that rationally based standards must exist as we try to hone in on the role Bible study plays in the living out of faith.
The best standards and methods I’ve seen lean heavily on literary context and historical context (in that order). I suppose that, in using the expression “the best . . . I’ve seen,” I am again putting myself in the position of one who can judge what is better than something else. In this case, I’ll own that with only a tiny bit of embarrassment. It appears self-evident to me—and I doubt seriously that anyone reading this far will disagree in concept—that a) contextually aware study is inherently better than b) study that moves easily and non-judiciously in and among various documents, bodies of texts (e.g., the entire Bible) and theologies. Sadly, most Bible studies seem to head in the (b) direction, whereas the practice ought to be brought into alignment with the conceptual, mental assent.
Premise: Any “study method” that doesn’t at least attempt to base its substance and conclusions in one textual document isn’t as viable as one that does.
It bears stating here that the Bible is a library, not a single book per se. No matter the particular vantage point re: “inspiration,”¹ it must be acknowledged that the Bible is a collection of documents, not a single document. It follows that “context” must properly be thought of as residing in the particular book/document one is studying, not the collection called “Bible.”
With the above premise in view, although not confining myself to it, I’d like to address some of . . .
Rick Warren’s Bible Study Methods
- The Devotional Method
- The Chapter Summary Method
- The Character Quality Method
- The Thematic Method
- The Biographical Method
- The Topical Method
- The Word Study Method
- The Book Background Method
- The Book Survey Method
- The Chapter Analysis Method
- The Book Synthesis Method
- The Verse-by-Verse Analysis Method
Based on general experience with Christianese and with many public teachers through the years, I could have pretty safely claimed that #1 and #6 are not really “Bible study” methods at all. After skimming a bit, I stand on that presumption.
I didn’t know exactly what #3 and #4 referred to, but they were questionable, so I looked them up. . . .
#3 (“character quality”) turns out not to be a study method per se. Rather, it majors in devotion and “personal application” as does #1. While this might provide intriguing and valid insights, here’s a guiding truism: we all need more thorough, contextual study before jumping in to “apply” our “take-aways.”
Neither is #4 (thematic) viable as a “study method”—not for anyone with less experience than I have, anyway. I wouldn’t trust myself with it very often at all. It jumps around in different texts, and that is always dangerous. Any purported method that makes application prior to coming to a solid understanding of a discrete text is likely very well intentioned and may well lead to benefit, but such constitutes a thematic or theological thought train, not Bible study, and the resulting applications might turn out to be less than valid.
I would assert that several of the 12 “methods” should not be viewed as stand-alone methods but instead should be considered and employed together. When combined, they could in fact constitute a holistic, relatively effective, viable Bible study methodology.
#10 (chapter analysis) appears pretty good to me, and if I were ever “forced” (not that that would or could happen in my case!) to use Warren’s book, I might point to #10 as a basis, complimenting it with material from many of the other methods and being careful not to allow chapter divisions always to determine the limits of a section.
Method #s 8 (book background, including archaeology, geology, history, and culture) and 12 (verse-by-verse, observations, personal paraphrase) could well supplement #10, as long as the cross-reference part of the latter is either ignored or used extremely carefully.
#4 (“themes” in scripture) starts with the investigative “friends” who, what, where, when, why, and how . . . but it goes awry when it shows a wide-open field for investigation. Step #1 is “choose a theme.” Step #2 is “list all the verses you want to study.” (And here, my wife is cringing, when I read the draft of this post aloud to her!) The “personal application” a few steps down the road will be compromised if the student has not limited his study to a theme in a specific document or smaller context. #5 (biographical) approaches the investigation of a Bible character similarly, but I find this method more likely than #4 to bear good fruit, insofar as it goes—namely, because the student will likely be dwelling in single texts for longer periods of time as s/he tries to glean insights into a Bible character.
#9 (book survey) and #11 (book synthesis) have good merits and probably ought to be combined. Comprehension of the book-level context is oh-so-significant, and perhaps especially so when the book/document is possible to read in one sitting and/or isn’t composed of multiple, major sections that potentially complicate the literary aspect of the whole.
In my case, method #2 (chapter summary) was the one being used in a small group. This method is rather insidious: it combines a few generally good ideals (contents, caption, crucial words, challenges, and central lesson) with some horrible ones (“cross references” and “Christ seen”), leading to a false sense of security.
My recent experience (and this was to an extent a function of the leader’s choice) of #2 was more or less confined to one aspect of that method—a sub-method that produced marginal results. When a “Bible study” ends up consisting in people going around the room saying, “Well, I liked the word _______” because the word seemed like a crucial word, or because they just wanted to be different from the last person, I twitch. Every other person might turn out to be onto something noteworthy, but students must recognize the inherent credibility of a source (human or otherwise) with real knowledge of the text. The ensuing discussion must be shaped knowledgeably, rather than a scene in which everyone gloms on amicably to all comments as though they have equal value.
In Bible study, a democratic paradigm isn’t always best. Neither is a monarchy, yet those who have some capabilities of digging into the text and interpreting based on sound exegetical principles ought to be given credence and opportunity. Those with mere opinions deserve to be heard—with the aim of across-the-board senses of value and belonging . . . but often, their opinions, views, and take-aways need shaping and honing, so they will ultimately line up with what may actually be read—when one is reading contextually, that is—in the texts.
Personal note to Steve: I deeply appreciate your challenge and your asking for more thoughts. (And more thoughts you have received!) My two-part response surely seems even stronger than the original post, but I have at least intended to acknowledge some value in methods I don’t personally gravitate to. In all this, I have actually been assuming that you and I would see about 80-90% of this eye to eye, but I could be wrong. I have written mostly for the sake of clarifying my own thoughts and scruples, and more, for less experienced readers.
How about this—I’ll give you the last word if you want to respond with another comment. Rebuttal is totally OK. Or, if you want to write a guest post, I’m all ears. I suppose I might respond briefly, for the record, if in fact it turns out that I disagree much, but I promise not to argue specific points further!
¹ Statements about scripture that use the word “inerrancy” are suspect. Some folks that claim to believe in “inerrancy” haven’t thought or studied enough to be using the word, and others seem merely to have had the wool pulled over their eyes by past dogmatics. Views of inspiration that claim what the ancient documents claim (and no more) turn out to be “higher” views than some traditional, dogmatic views based on wispy notions of inerrancy.