By Nigel Cross, Major–
As Christian believers, we are called to love God with all of our heart, soul and mind, and our neighbors as ourselves (Matthew 22:37-39). We, as Salvationists, also believe, according to our first Doctrine, that the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are our source of information about God and how we are to live in a redeemed relationship with him.
It is imperative, therefore, that believers read the Bible to the best of their ability, as part of their devotions, to learn information and to study it, leading to the process of transformation guided by the Holy Spirit. The Tools for Interpreting the Bible, developed by The Salvation Army International Theological Council, provides an excellent tool for self or group study.
Handling God’s Word means we have the responsibility to interpret it correctly, without taking verses out of context, especially if an isolated verse is descriptive rather than prescriptive, or if the gospel counters a previous issue of religious practice.
Prayer, inviting the Holy Spirit’s guidance and discernment, is always recommended when studying Scripture. Similarly, as a person studies Scripture individually, it is always beneficial to share conclusions with other believers for input and, if necessary, correction. We are blessed with reason, the resource of Scripture and our traditions to help guide us through our experiences. These components make up what is called Wesley’s quadrilateral.
Once a Scripture is identified for study, the text should be read in different translations to give insights from a literal translation (NASB, RSV, KJV), a dynamic equivalence version emphasizing meaning over literal word translation (NIV) and a free translation (NLT, GNB).
Following this, the world behind the text should be discovered. This is called the historical context. What was the culture, events, language, place and values at the time being depicted or addressed in Scripture, and at the time and place of the author being inspired by God to write the words?
Context provides insight into the meaning of the text and why certain issues or events are stated. The time and cultural thought of the British Empire expansion set a tone for the nation in the nineteenth century, just as World War II and the Nazi regime influenced Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s theology.
The influence of culture affected individuals and people groups in the Bible at their particular time in history, with one example being Moses, being raised in Pharaoh’s court located in Egypt, and then discipled in Midian by Jethro as a priest. Both cultures and values would influence his decisions and actions.
Once the world behind the text is understood, then a study of the text itself can happen. What genre did the author choose to express their thoughts—as a poem, narrative, parable or letter? Does the author use any literary device to show structure or provide emphasis? Where in the writing does the selected text appear, and how does it influence the whole?
Is the text programmatic, an important point leading to a climax, or a resolution? Does a letter follow established guidelines or is something missing or added? Certainly Paul’s letter to the Galatians misses a thanksgiving section due to the urgency of how faith was being perverted. For some individuals who have access to added resources, choosing to examine particular words, especially key theological words, and even take into account any text criticism issues, could add to the Scripture study.
By this stage, an individual studying God’s Word is able to draw conclusions on what the original author was conveying to the original audience. Now a wider study is needed to see if the idea gleaned is consistent with other Scripture and church tradition, including our own Salvation Army Doctrine. Besides doing these checks individually, this is where other trusted believers can assist in checking conclusions or refining them.
The idea gained through study should have a personal application— something to know, do, or to work on in daily life. Fellow believers can assist with accountability, to ensure the study has relevant application and personal follow through towards change. Ultimately, the personal change will influence others, as believers grow in their faith together.
We are blessed people to have the Bible, both the Old and New Testaments, to direct our attention to God, know his perfect love story for us, and our appropriate response of love to God. The task of studying takes time, intentionality to study the full scriptural account, being open to the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and accountability of fellow sojourners exploring Scripture together. May the Lord bring us joy on the journey and excitement in reading the truths in his Word, so that we can love with a perfect love; loving God, self and others.