Barriers to Bible study?
I would like to share with you some thoughts concerning what I see to be a growing problem in our Bible study today. It concerns the incidence of barriers which appear to arise between our world today and the world of the Bible. The Word of God is our only rule for doctrine and conduct. Therefore there should not be any barriers between the Word and ourselves. Yet cultural forces of our day can exert such pressure upon us, that, if we are not watchful, we will unwittingly meet barriers in our Bible reading and Bible study. Only a diligent program of study can keep us from derailment.
What do I mean by barriers to Bible study? I am referring to norms and attitudes promoted in our culture which become so common place and so prevalent that the world of the Bible becomes increasingly strange to us. I have put these into four categories: specific cultural barriers, barriers related to gender, economic barriers and scientific barriers. In effect, all of these barriers can be termed cultural barriers in the broad sense of the term. But I have tried to localize them into specific categories in order for us to get as clear a picture as possible of them.
My objective is to look at some of these perceived barriers to Bible study, then to outline the dangers we face with respect to them, and finally to suggest ways in which we can overcome false perceptions concerning them. Hopefully we will be encouraged by this all to see how important the regular study of the Scriptures is for us.
When I refer to specific cultural barriers I am thinking of a passage like 1 Corinthians 15:29. There Paul speaks of baptism on behalf of the dead. What are we to think of an expression like that? How must we interpret this verse? There are perhaps more explanations of this verse than any other one in the Bible. But some insist that, to understand it, we must assume that there was some kind of a custom in the ancient world related to the burial of the dead to which this text alludes. Prof. Van Bruggen, for example, says that the Greeks had the custom to bring various offerings and votive gifts to a burial, and to place these gifts in the grave of the departed. The word “baptize” was also used in figurative sense, and so can be taken as descriptive of these kinds of actions. This was a custom that Paul himself does not condemn. Yet it was a custom clearly limited to the cultural world of that day. Unless we know something about that cultural world, we cannot understand the passage.1
Another example is the veil of 1 Corinthians 11:10: “That is why a woman ought to have a veil on her head because of the angels.” I think we all realize that the text is not meant to state that all women must wear a veil in church today. According to most interpreters, the veil was a symbol of humility and reverence in Greek culture, the culture of the day. The same holds for a man who ought not to have long hair, or pray with his head covered, (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:14). This was considered to be shameful in the culture of the day. Some of this has carried over into our culture as well. But the language of Paul is clearly couched within a specific cultural framework, and that frame work must be understood in order for us to rightly understand the text.
A third example, also introduced by Prof. Van Bruggen, is the language of Scripture about the Pharisees.2 On the basis of the gospels, we normally take the Pharisees to be a very bad group of people, people the likes of which we at all costs must seek to avoid. Yet Paul himself was a Pharisee, and although he casts off the specific aims of this strict party after his conversion, he does not renounce his connection to it, Acts 23:6, Acts 26:5. From a consideration of sources outside the Bible, it appears that there were many good things to be said about the Pharisees as well. We cannot let the statements about the Pharisees in the gospels lead us to form a thoroughly negative picture of them. This does not do justice to the facts, and so ultimately does not do justice to Scripture, as well.
Another area of increasing tension between Scripture and our culture is the area of gender relationships. For example, Paul says in 1 Timothy 2:12 that the woman is not permitted to have authority over men; she is to keep silent. And: “she shall be saved through bearing children, if she continues in faith and love and holiness with modesty,” 1 Timothy 2:15. In a world of increasing gender equality, it is increasingly difficult for us to see that women are saved through bearing children. And in a world in which women are increasingly articulate and vocal, it is increasingly difficult for us to understand why they must be silent. In 1 Corinthians 14:34ff, the apostle says the same thing:
“As in all the churches of the saints, the women should keep silence in the churches.”
If there is anything they desire to know they must ask their husbands at home. While the language of the text is clear, who cannot perceive a barrier arising here? Human nature being what it is, many have their difficulties with these words, not the least of whom are many women themselves. And anyone might ask: is this meant to simply keep the mouths of the sisters closed? What about 1 Corinthians 11, which speaks of women prophesying in the church? How can we put these texts together? And in what way do we have a message for believing women in our society?
Particularly in the economic area we meet a world in the Bible considerably different than our own. For example, Paul says that slaves must obey in everything their earthly masters, not with eye-service, as men pleasers, but as serving the Lord, Colossians 3:22. Today slavery no longer exists, and workers – even in the church – hardly think in terms of total or comprehensive obedience to their employers. The entire job world is different from the economic order in the New Testament, to say nothing of the Old Testament. Most workers today think in terms of maximizing wages, and attaining job security with good employee benefits. Can we squeeze this world into the language of Scripture? Another factor concerns the poverty and hardship of the early church. In Hebrews 10:32ff., the writer says:
“But recall the former days when after you were enlightened you endured a hard struggle with suffering, sometimes being publicly exposed to abuse and affliction, and sometimes being partners with those so treated. For you had compassion en the prisoners and joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession, and an abiding one.”
In 2 Corinthians 8 he says “We want you to know brethren about the grace of God which has been shown in the churches of Macedonia, for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of liberality on their part”
These are only two examples – to which we could add many more – which indicate that there is a marked difference between our world and the world of the Bible. In the early church the believers were heavily persecuted by the surrounding Roman world, including the authorities. Not until the third century, under Constantine, did freedom of religion become a reality. We still share the fruits of the order introduced in Constantine's day. Besides, we live in a climate of prosperity. We think in terms of job security, mortgage rates, cars and houses and school payments – balancing incomes and expenses, and in the main, expanding, rebuilding, and beautifying the properties we have. We do not think in terms of the plundering of our property, but in terms of the upgrading of our property. Neither can we say that this in itself is wrong. It is part and parcel of the society in which we live and the world in which we work. But who cannot perceive a barrier arising here? If we turn away from the letter to the Hebrews and go back to the business of the day, we can soon forget the sense of the passages which speak about the loss of everything and about situations of extreme poverty and hardship.
For the sake of brevity I will not dwell too long on a final category I mentioned, the scientific barriers to Bible reading which we in different measure experience today. These actually belong to a category by themselves and require separate treatment. Let me give some examples,
In Exodus 23:28 the LORD says that He will send hornets in front of His people in order to assist them in the battle. What kind of animals are these? Were they ancient mythological creatures, used to represent great leaders?3 Or were they real bees, like the hornets we see today?
In 2 Chronicles 14:9, it says that Zerah the Ethiopian came out against Asa and his country “with an army of a million men, and three hundred chariots.” Can this be the accurate number of men? And if one has that many men, would one not think of adding a few more chariots?4
These are a few examples of so-called scientific barriers to the reading of Scripture. We have our ideas about the order of the world, and what is possible or conceivable within that order. Therefore, texts which call into question our preconceived view of the world naturally meet with an instinctive barrier. We must look twice at the text before we can determine what it means in our world today.
Dangers with barriers
There are a number of dangers that face the congregation today with regard to these barriers that we easily perceive arising in our Bible reading and Bible studying. The first is that we fail to direct any questions to the text. For example, we may assert that since the Bible says that women must keep silent, they should be absolutely silent, that is, in every church context. We might even promote that their heads be covered. Or if the Bible speaks of conditions of severe hardship, we may simply state that it was the misfortune of the people of the day to be a part of a poor economy. Or if it says a million men, we may simply state: a million is a million, and close the Bible.
If we take this rather effortless alternative, then we may think that we are upholding the Bible, but in effect we are shelving it. We can all easily assert that it is inspired, and that whatever it says is true. Indeed that is the frame of reference in which we all work. But if we use this statement to stop ourselves from asking questions about the text, we are in effect raising, rather than removing barriers to Bible study. For although we acknowledge the truth of a statement in the world of the Bible, we at the same time implicitly declare that it cannot speak to us today, since our world is so completely different. So we have a pertinent danger: never to ask a question at all.
Another danger is that we erect barriers ourselves, simply because we allow ourselves to be prejudiced by our surrounding culture. This happens in liberal explanations. For example, it is common today to take 1 Corinthians 14 as a specific address of Paul to a specific situation. It is said that the women in Corinth were a particularly rowdy lot, somewhat boisterous and unruly in their public behaviour. To counteract this tendency Paul says: Let the women be silent. But he is counteracting a particular Hellenistic cultural trait in the text. Therefore the text does not say anything to Canadian or western women today about silence in the church.5
An extreme example of this approach is seen in the position of Dr. H. Hart of Toronto on homosexuality. Interpreting Romans 1:18-32, he says that this passage is not a condemnation of homosexuality, but a condemnation of those who condemn it. He says this is a passage of Jewish theology which Paul quotes in order to bolster his statement in Chapter 2:1: “Therefore you have no excuse, O man, whoever you are, when you judge another.” In other words, the verses 18-32 were not written by Paul, but only quoted by him as an example of wrong judgment in the church.6
These are examples of strategies of interpretation by which one takes his norm in the culture of the day around him, and then short-circuits the language of Scripture by demeaning and essentially misconstruing the cultural world of its day. For example, Hellenistic women are pictured as being particularly loquacious in public; the Hellenistic world is portrayed as being a patriarchal structure with no room for free expression by women, and so on. These are approaches we must avoid in Bible study.
A committed approach
Today we require a committed approach to Bible study and to our daily reading of the Bible. This means that we must read the text and ask questions concerning the text, all the while treating it as a text normative for our lives. The only way we can overcome perceived barriers to Bible study is by more exerted effort. We must also let the Bible be normative for our culture, rather than allow our culture to be normative for the Bible.
This will have its implications for all the types of barriers we discussed. For example, with regard to specific cultural barriers, we will always look for that which is the essential or abiding lesson in a specific custom. This, in the case of the veil worn by the women, we must see that the attitude of submission, respect and honour to the husbands is the essential message of the text.
In regard to the barriers of gender, we must read each passage carefully in its context. In 1 Timothy 2:15, for example, alludes to the continuation of the paradise mandate in the new covenant. And it is phrased in stark and pointed language to accentuate the importance of this mandate even for the church of the last days.
With respect to the perceived economic barriers that so easily arise in Bible study, we are to allow the text to determine our perspective on our own economic situation. There's no denying that to a great extent our lives are filled with the transfer of goods, property and resources. We buy and sell, feed our children and ourselves, and generally take the time to manage our affairs. But the picture of extreme poverty which stamps much of the New Testament should keep us from taking our possessions too seriously. We can enjoy the things of this world, but only in the framework of being obedient servants in the Kingdom, working primarily for the good progress of the kingdom of God all around us.
To me this translates into several practical rules.
- The first is humble prayer. We can only understand what we read in a spirit of humility and obedience, asking God for wisdom and insight into His Word every day.
- Second, Scripture requires careful reading. One must never read Scripture without thinking. The words should speak to us as we read, and if they do not do so, we must slow down our reading to let the words do their work.
- Third, Scripture demands diligent study. We cannot be satisfied with easy answers. For example, in the passage of 1 Corinthians 14, Prof. Van Bruggen argues that the call to silence does not concern prophesy as such, but strictly the call to pass judgment over prophesy.7 I do not mean to say that I agree with his explanation of this passage. But I do think that his explanation shows that we can only interpret by carefully considering all aspects of a text and if necessary, getting further help on specific passages Bible study is particularly rewarding when we are forced to do some independent study of our own, and then be permit ted to pass this on for discussion in our society.
It is only by living close to the Word in daily reading and regular study that we can keep ourselves from erecting false barriers to understanding the Bible. We are more influenced by our culture than we readily admit. Let us be sure that we are stamped by Scripture, so that we can endure trials, and inherit the blessing.
- Deddens, K. The Service of Women in the Church, DK Design Graphics, Richmond, B.C., 1991.
- Plantinga, T. Reading the Bible as History, G.R. Welch Co., Burlington, ON, 1980.
- Van Bruggen, J. Het lezen van de Bijbel een inleiding, Kok, Kampen, 1981. Emancipatie en de Bijbel, Kommentaar uit 1 Korinthe 11, Ton Bolland, Amsterdam, 1974.