Recently I got to play my favorite sport—ultimate Frisbee—twice in one week. The first game was just about the best I’ve had in my 14 years as an ultimate player. Pretty much every time I threw the disc toward the end zone, it snuck just past the defense and hit my receiver in stride. My team destroyed our opponents, and I had what exercise physiologists call “fun.”
The other game, however, was maddeningly awful. Half my tosses hit the ground. My team got destroyed.
What was the difference between the two games?
I’m sure I bear some blame (more on that later), but the major difference I could see was in the “language skills” of the people I was playing with. In the successful game, my team knew the language of ultimate—my receivers knew how far I could or couldn’t throw and where and when to get open. I, in turn, could anticipate their actions. I could actually throw without looking and they would be in the right place. They made me look good. In the other game, I and one other guy (who was on the other team) were the only “native speakers”; everybody else on my squad was running around helter skelter doing things you just don’t do in ultimate. They weren’t playing by the written rules or the unwritten “grammar” of the game, and I therefore had no idea what they were going to do next.
The “language” of Bible study
Bible study has a “language,” too. There are things you just don’t do, like allegorize the teeth of the bride in Song of Solomon 6:6. With all due respect to the superior intellect of St. Augustine, I simply can’t follow his exegesis here:
I feel greater pleasure in contemplating holy men, when I view them as the teeth of the Church, tearing men away from their errors, and bringing them into the Church’s body, with all their harshness softened down, just as if they had been torn off and masticated by the teeth. It is with the greatest pleasure, too, that I recognize them under the figure of sheep that have been shorn, laying down the burthens of the world like fleeces, and coming up from the washing, i.e., from baptism, and all bearing twins, i.e., the twin commandments of love, and none among them barren in that holy fruit. (II, 6, 7)
When you really start probing into why we just don’t do that, things get super deep, and really complicated. Where does the Bible’s meaning reside—in the author (who is now dead and therefore inaccessible), in the text (which is subject to multiple interpretations), or in the reader (who carries his or her own agenda and social location)?
Every time evangelical Bible students pick up the Scriptures they assume answers to those questions, even if they’ve never read a scholarly monograph on hermeneutics. The more astute Bible studiers may observe that allegorizing (as in the passage above) allows for “unfettered subjectivism” and disregards “authorial intent.” But long before you pick up such buzzwords, you absorb from the tradition of evangelical Bible study that you just don’t allegorize. You learn the “language” of biblical interpretation by seeing it done—before (and whether or not) you do any formal study of the principles. Like ultimate, biblical interpretation is caught as well as taught.
So how do you learn the language of Bible study? How do you learn that the right way to interpret Song of Solomon is to avoid allegory and take the work as it is, as a love poem (with implications for Christ’s relationship to his church)? Going beyond the issue of allegory: how do you learn that appeals to a word’s etymology are generally but not always illegitimate? How do you develop the ability to detect themes in Daniel? How do you resolve apparent discrepancies between Gospels? How do you apply Levitical laws to your modern-day, post-New-Testament life?
I think of the words my typography teacher in college said to me once: “Experience is the best teacher, but education’s quicker.”
You necessarily start with Bible study experience (you’ve already done so, just by showing up at church even once), and you continue with education. There is no substitute for sitting under the preaching and teaching ministry of a gifted pastor. He will show you how to “use” the Bible faithfully, according to the intent of the divine and human authors. He will pass over certain seemingly possible interpretations without comment, and you’ll pick up over time even the implicit rules of interpretation he’s using. He will bring in historical background and teach you when and how—and when not and how not—to do the same. Joining a Bible study, small group, or Sunday School will provide similar experiences. The better the examples you have, the better you’ll learn.
But the people who grow most, and grow quickest, in their skill interpreting the Bible are those who supplement good Bible teaching with education: with schooling and/or with good reading on their own. One of the major points of Reformation Protestantism is that people who are not called to pastoral ministry can still be “mighty in the Scriptures” like Apollos (Acts 18:24), and they can be taught by others—like Priscilla and Aquila (Acts 18:26).
Priscilla and Aquila lacked movable type printing presses. We don’t know what they told Apollos. But their heirs through the centuries have produced a volume of excellent, written “training” materials that will teach you the language of Bible study. Logos Bible Software is one of them: we exist to serve Faithlife’s mission of equipping the church to grow in the light of the Bible.
I do bear some of the blame for my second ultimate Frisbee team’s loss. I didn’t show it on the outside, but I felt pretty frustrated by their failure to speak my “language” and I kind of gave up on playing hard. It wasn’t my place to tell them how to play, of course; I was a guest on their field. But I knew they’d have more fun if they weren’t making crazy throws (like a volleyball game in which the ball never goes back across the net more than once—can anybody really enjoy such a game once they’ve played at a higher level?). What I should have done was adjust somewhat to their level of play, play hard for the team, but demonstrate without a word a better way.
So I tried that strategy the next week. I promised my wife I would only offer advice on how to play ultimate “correctly” if I were asked. And I was asked—a little. If I play with this group of beginners for a while and yet don’t raise their level, I’m probably setting a bad example.
Likewise, Bible teachers ought to aim to increase the proficiency people have in reading their own Bibles. Exhortations to do quiet times aren’t enough; modeling is the order of the day. I’d even like to see Sunday School classes that demonstrate the use of quality Bible software for serious students of Scripture. I know that engineers, moms, bankers, and welding technicians can learn the language of Bible study. I’ve seen them do it.