Reprise: quality in study methodology (2 of 2)

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 judwpid-img_20151023_090040_001.jpgge 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

  1. The Devotional Method
  2. The Chapter Summary Method
  3. The Character Quality Method
  4. The Thematic Method
  5. The Biographical Method
  6. The Topical Method
  7. The Word Study Method
  8. The Book Background Method
  9. The Book Survey Method
  10. The Chapter Analysis Method
  11. The Book Synthesis Method
  12. 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.

Logos screen shot


5 thoughts on “Reprise: quality in study methodology (2 of 2)

  1. Gary D. Collier 10/29/2015 / 10:07 am

    Another good article, Brian.

    Missing from the list you explored is the all time favorite: #13 The Aladdin’s Lamp approach. (I wish I was kidding.)



    • Brian Casey 10/29/2015 / 10:11 am

      Oh, my goodness. I know you well enough to know that when you say “I wish I was kidding,” you absolutely are not kidding. I imagine this “method” to be something like letting the Bible open up randomly/magically to see what the “Lord-genie” has to do for us today. I’ll take my Aladdin from the clever Disney movie writing, letting Bible study be a bit more reality-based, thank you very much. 🙂


  2. Steve 10/30/2015 / 4:09 pm


    Thanks for the extended discussion and opportunity to respond. Your overly-kind descriptives of me are certainly goals, not achievements, and are unfortunately inaccurate in ways I’d rather not have to confess to, but nevertheless, are sincerely appreciated.

    Also, Dr. Collier, thanks for your contribution. I can understand how the word “context” would be a most important word for you as I did a brief search for you online. BTW–I had forgotten about an article you had written a while back on “divorce” published in Restoration Quarterly–a very fine reflection and thought-provoking study. And your stated desire to “not slam/disrespect” anyone was also appreciated. I take it you did not have opportunity to read my original response to Brian. Although just a few sentences in length, that might have been helpful to provide…shall I say…’context’…for your comments.

    So–let’s clarify a few things.

    1–Yes, Brian–I’m sure we both are strongly sympathetic toward a responsible engagement with the Bible. And there are some approaches that are more ‘historically-critically/contextually’ accurate when proper exegesis is done–no quibbling here, rather–mutual endorsement!

    2–Apparently there is some consternation with R. Warren’s book title “Bible Study Methods” when — in your evaluation, half of these methods are either marginal at best or inaccurate at worst. I’ll let you take that up with Mr. Warren (as to why he decided to call all his methods “Bible Study”) Recall in my comment that I offered his book as an option (not the one best source) for approaching and engaging scripture (not as an authoritative guide for top shelf Biblical hermeneutics). It provides a variety of approaches, and as I will say later, that is important. BTW, you do realize that Warren’s Purpose-Driven Life (devotional) touched at least 30 million people (that is a 2007 number!)…do you think God may have used that (in Dr. Collier’s assessment: non-encouraging contextual Bible study tool) for good as it set records of longevity on the NY Times and Wall Street Journal best seller charts?? This leads me to a nuancing of “better.”

    3–My primary question was: “what is better?”– and “how do you define ‘better’?” Twenty years ago I would have answered pretty much word-for-word as you did to me. From that perspective, “better” always has to do with a correct/accurate understanding of the Text. In fact, if I understand you, this method is heavily based on a ‘one document’ contextual understanding. That is important, but limiting. Brevard Childs’s method-shattering approach to a more healthy Biblical engagement/interpretation via canonical criticism is worthy of much consideration here.

    In my definition of “better,” I do not limit “better” to that meaning. One advantage I probably do have over you is that I’ve lived a few more years than you–and experience has altered my perspective on, say, what “better” means. Briefly, the “best” Bible study method is the one that (as I said in my comment) “informs and moves one to live out faith.” And that could very well be the devotional approach, or an inspiration developed by doing an autobiographical assessment of a person of faith found in the Bible. My concept of “better” does not allow merely the initial foray into Scripture (in whatever way it is done) to be the complete definition; rather, my understanding is the effect/outcome the Text has on a person as demonstrated in a life of faith, hope and love.

    In that sense (although I did not use the word “academic” in my comment), I see a distinction between Bible study methods. Jesus fought “academic” in the sense of one knowing the intricacies of the text but it never having it’s intended outcome/purpose: “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God.” Paul agrees: “(These people) have a form of godliness but deny its power…always learning but never able to acknowledge the truth.” My point is this: to God, Bible Study and godly living are not really different aspects but are seamlessly connected–at least, that is the intention of having the Scriptures (“you know all about my teaching — my way of life”, Paul says, cf: 2 Tim. 3:16-17). In this understanding, whatever method of Text engagement that produces this type of faith-engaged life is the “better” method.

    4–You may have noticed that it is politically incorrect to say that women are different than men. “Inferior” is not what is under discussion; “different” is under discussion. You may have noticed your wife (who cringed when you were reading your response to me) is more acclimated to social/community than you. If not, she–and you–would be exceptions to the general rule of gender distinction. What speaks to a woman can also speak to a man, but often it is done/conveyed in a different manner that touches him/her more effectively. That is not good or bad; it is reality, contrary to our current culture’s insistence that gender is a false concept. (see the recent U of TN debacle concerning gender terms) So, contrary to professor Collier’s assessment that “this has got nothing to do with women vs men,” I would suggest that at times it has a lot to do with you we are. (You may have noticed women’s retreats are structured differently [there’s that “d” word again] than men’s retreats. There is a reason for that…) Good Bible study methods are needed for both sexes (e.g., your wife–Beth Moore), but what touches my heart and catches my attention will often be quite different than my wife–who is in her own right a very fine student of the Word. (Those who publish the NIV aren’t ignorant when the offer a Bible for women and a Bible for men.)

    5– You said, “my position is that rationally based standards must exist as we try to hone in one the role Bible study plays in living out faith.” and “The best standards and methods I’ve seen (how old are you??) lean heavily on literary context and historical context.” Well…what are we to do with the mystics and the pietists? These folks are not known for their ‘rational’ intercourse with the literary/historical contexts of texts. Our American Restoration faith heritage doesn’t do anything with them, because our John Locke/rationalistic approach to the Text doesn’t allow this type of engagement. The problem with that is when one reads Thomas Merton and Henri Nouwen and many others like them, if one is in their right mind (!), they see these approaches to the Text have viability and bear fruit from God’s Spirit. Are these approaches to the Text sub-par? Compared to what?? In fact, is not worship a type of “irrational” entwinement with the Other that involves the mind but is so much more than that?! As a man trained in music, you know this to be true. That is why some of the songs you deplore (some–rightfully so!) are the same songs that propel some folks through their difficult life on this earth. Why–because we are different. I really didn’t intend to write all of this–sort of a stream of consciousness response, so forgive me for some rambling. To boil it down: I am urging a more wholistic approach to the concept of Bible Study–and how we determine what is better (i.e, more effective, not simply accurate). Are Bible study and lifestyle the exact equivalent? Obviously not, but I’m suggesting they should be more related than they often are. As you know, you can be academically sound in contextual exegesis and a practical atheist in living–not helpful. Well, sort of helpful–if I only have his/her’s excellent commentary and don’t know about their life.:-) Do I distain an academic approach to the Bible? Not at all–you should know that by my referencing some of my reading sources. Do I tend to bristle some when the definition of the better/best Bible study methods have to do only with an exhaustive contextual product apart from the Word becoming flesh? Well…apparently. :-0

    It’s “better” when it’s all about transformation, not merely information.

    All the best, my fellow student. (And, Dr. Collier, blessings upon your online study opportunities.)


    • Brian Casey 11/05/2015 / 7:26 pm

      Steve, I have waited to reply because I wasn’t sure how I would (having promised not to debate point by point but to allow *you* to conclude this particular discussion). The main thing I want to say is *Thank you so much for your demonstrated concern over taking what’s really in the Bible and putting it into living. *“Responsible engagement” (your phrase) is a wonderful phrase, as is the idea of transformed living.

      To clarify a couple side-points. . . . 1) My wife winces at the same things I wince at, basically, and she doesn’t get into typical “lady” programs (nor would she purchase a women’s NIV or any study Bible, for that matter—she feels stronger against the study notes in the margins of those than I do!). 2) I only dealt w/Rick Warren because I was introduced to his 12 methods through what I felt was a less-than-adequate study method that represented other inadequate ones. I’m aware of *The Purpose-Driven Life* but never read it because the first pages didn’t interest me. (That’s all I remember. I gave my copy away.) Pretty much anything *that* popular will leave me on the sidelines, waving bye-bye to the bandwagon . . . and yes, I’m sure I miss some good things because of my at-times-extreme aversion to charisma and popularity and marketing.

      I want you to know—beyond doubt—that I completely agree that Bible study should be inextricably related to living. I just have a more pessimistic view of the transformation possibilities when the Bible information is faulty information. Basically, I don’t believe many people will actually end up living out authentic faith (not for very long, at least) through all aspects of life without more responsible engagement with the text. I might summarize our difference here by saying you appear to have a higher, more optimistic view of human nature. That could simply be a function of your having been around a different set of folks through the years. You’re probably also more content, in general! Thanks for some provocative, honest, familial debate here. I appreciate you.


  3. Gary D. Collier 10/30/2015 / 4:50 pm

    Great reply, thanks for the words of encouragement (“Gary” is fine.). I’m all about good, wholistic bible study–as long as it really is.


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