We often hear of being an “honest” Bible student, but what does it actually mean to study the Bible honestly? I would argue that being an honest Bible student means examining the Bible to draw conclusions, while recognizing that our human limitations can cause us to be wrong in the conclusions we’ve drawn. God’s word contains numerous examples of people who were wrong in the conclusions they drew from Scripture and their mistakes serve as a warning for us. God’s word is absolutely perfect, but we are absolutely not. Recognizing this fact should cause us to approach the Bible with a little more humility than is sometimes displayed by brethren (myself included). Because of these things, we should constantly be examining ourselves to consider whether our own imperfect human tendencies are undermining our claim of being honest Bible students. What follows are some ways that, in my opinion, will help us to be honest students of Scripture.
One of the fundamental characteristics of an honest Bible student is the realization that we are all, indeed, flawed students. Regardless of how long we’ve been studying the Bible, none of us have or will ever achieve a perfect knowledge of God’s word that would manifest in flawless interpretation of Scripture. As human beings, we all suffer from biases, preconceived notions, and limited perspectives which influence our reading of the Bible. Consequently, being an honest Bible student means being willing to check our own conclusions by carefully considering the ideas of others and/or new evidence or discoveries that shed light on biblical passages. Since we’re human and flawed, we should expect some of our biblical interpretations to shift and change over time. If we knew of a Christian whose biblical interpretations never changed from the moment of baptism until their death, would anyone consider that person a true student of God’s word? We should never be afraid (or make someone feel afraid) to discuss differing interpretations. We are all in the process of learning together. I am not arguing for an acceptance of multiple truths, but only that we need to have enough humility to re-examine our conclusions from time to time in the light of other ideas, new evidence, and further study.
Being an honest Bible student also means being willing to consider extra-biblical information that has an effect on biblical interpretation, such as biblical scholarship, archaeology, knowledge of biblical cultures, etc. Since God chose to deliver His word to mankind within a set historical time period, in a particular geographic location, and within a distinct culture, then we must recognize the challenges Bible study poses to any believer separated from the language, culture, and time period of the biblical documents. Thus, if we’re to have a clear picture of the ancient Near Eastern and first century documents that comprise God’s word then we need to recognize that extra-biblical information from other fields of study can illuminate the ancient documents of Scripture. English translations and maps in our Bibles are two obvious ways we have to rely on the work of extra-biblical fields to make the Bible understandable to us. To be clear, I’m not saying that fields such as archaeology, anthropology, etc. hold some magic key to interpreting Scripture correctly, nor am I saying we should always make our interpretations subordinate to those of scholars. We must use our reason and the Word itself to test the contributions of scholarship the same way we should use our reason and the Word to test what our preachers teach us every Sunday. What I am saying is that extra-biblical fields of study that complement the Bible’s message help clarify and shed light on documents that were written between 2,000 to 4,000 years ago on the other side of the world. These fields of study and the knowledge they give us of the biblical time periods do have an effect on extracting the meaning of biblical passages in their original historical/cultural context. If we’re to be honest students of these ancient documents, we would do well to incorporate the contributions of these fields into our interpretations of Scripture.
Being an honest Bible student also means that, when teaching others the Bible, we’re not only teaching them the conclusions we have drawn from Scripture, but also how to draw conclusions from Scripture themselves. There is, of course, nothing wrong with teaching our brethren the conclusions we ourselves have drawn from Scripture. But since we are fallible, and since new information or further study may cause us to revise our interpretations, we need to make sure that in addition to teaching our conclusions we are also helping brethren learn how to draw meaning from Scripture on their own. The best Bible teachers don’t seek to make their brethren automatons who can only give rote responses they were programmed to say. The best Bible teachers are those who teach their brethren how to draw their own biblical conclusions based on sound exegetical approaches. Certainly teachers and preachers can’t teach exegetical methods in every lesson, but encouraging and equipping brethren to interpret Scripture on their own shouldn’t be consistently absent from our classrooms and pulpits. If teaching brethren how to interpret Scripture independently of their preacher or teacher results in them questioning our own conclusions, rather than resist their challenges, we should welcome them as an opportunity to re-evaluate the viability of our conclusions.
Finally, being an honest Bible student means refusing to use stigmatizing labels in lieu of a genuine study of the biblical text. If a brother or sister expresses a view or question they gleaned from their personal Bible study, we owe it to them and ourselves to respond to their inquiry with a true investigation of God’s word. Instead of this approach, it’s easy to fall into the trap of responding with facile rejoinders, such as “that’s Calvinist thinking,” “that’s pre-millenialist,” or “that’s a liberal view.” Dismissing genuine arguments with such shallow denunciations closes the door on true discussion by forcing the initial questioner to escape the stigma that has been placed on them rather than have their inquiry tested against God’s word. This will have the natural result of alienating those who seek to fulfill their responsibility of studying the Scriptures for themselves to test the conclusions they have been taught. When confronted with the issue of whether Gentiles needed to keep the Mosaic Law to be saved, even the apostles did not resort to labeling tactics but rather “met to consider this question” and “after much discussion” gave an answer based on the Scriptures (Acts 15:6-7). We must remember that our goal as Bible students is not to remain true to a “Church of Christ” creed and limit ourselves to conclusions that fall within party lines. Rather, our goal is to study God’s word for ourselves and to follow that Word wherever it might take us. A conclusion from Scripture rises or falls based on the merit of the exegesis behind the conclusion, not on whether it can have a label conveniently slapped on it. Our interpretation of Scripture cannot be guided on how it will be labeled by our peers. We must be dedicated to being honest Bible students by responding to each biblical question and issue with a true investigation of Scripture, not only for the benefit of our own growth but for the growth of those doing the questioning. Let’s leave the labeling to political parties and let’s foster a spirit of inquiry among the brotherhood so that Christians can feel safe to study, question, and grow in an environment free from alienating stigmas.
Being an honest student of God’s word takes humility and effort, but it is imperative if we are to be true to the principles we claim to hold. May we never forget that even the apostle Paul was not above having his teachings tested against the Scriptures and that the Bible’s estimation of those who tested his teachings is that they were “noble” (Acts 17:11). We cannot bemoan the lack of studiousness among much of the denominational world and then stifle the study of our own brethren because we’re afraid of the questions their study is generating as they seek to “make their faith their own.” I want to stress that there will be times when we must reject certain doctrines or interpretations as unscriptural. But we can only make that judgment if we have tested the interpretation or doctrine against the biblical exegesis that produced the conclusion. Charging a conclusion as unscriptural simply because it’s not what we’ve always been taught, not what my preacher said, not what my parents taught me—or some other similar reason—undermines our claim of being honest Bible students who seek to be true to nothing but God’s word. In my next article, I’d like to address the side of those who are questioning or challenging currently held conclusions. May we “grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18).