There are many ways to go about studying the Word of God. With the wealth of resources online, you can easily learn what a particular passage of the Bible really means. You may use ebooks and articles on a specific topic, sermon transcripts or podcast from a well-known preacher, commentaries, or use study bibles. But with the wealth of information, also comes the flood of misinterpretation. Determining what to read is as crucial as how to properly interpret the scripture itself. Not only that, knowing when to read resources from others is also vital for unbiased interpretation.
Now don’t get me wrong, when we come to the scriptures, we all have our presuppositions. We must recognize that at the beginning in order for us to test them. The people who think that they don’t have one, are blinded by their own presuppositions and biases. So what I’m saying is that one must come to terms with the text first by himself before reading others. You must lay aside all your cards; prejudices and assumptions, then read and try to wrestle with the passage first before consulting others. Most of the time when you read commentaries, and you found the first one to be plausible, you’ll ignore what the text is really saying and what others has to say about it. It’s like eating dessert before the main course. You’ll lose your appetite. Make the scripture your main course, that way you can still enjoy different desserts.
You will say to me then; “But I need to know the historical and archaeological background first or the etymology of a word.” Here’s the thing, majority of the scriptures does not require you to have a working knowledge of certain historical and archaeological findings and learn some old usage of a particular word before you can understand them. The real issue is not that you don’t know some arcane words but that you don’t know how a simple conjunction works, how a prepositional phrase functions, who or what is the main subject of the sentence or what are coordinate and subordinate clauses. That’s the real problem! Most people don’t know how to read. The best commentaries out there are exegetical commentaries that deals with the grammar of the text in their original language and if you don’t know your English, you will definitely have a hard time reading and studying them.
Practical Steps in Studying the Word of God
So how should we begin to study the word of God? Here are some few simple steps:
1. Read. Nothing beats good old reading. If you don’t know Greek or Hebrew, read the passage at hand in different translations. I usually read from a more formal or literal translation to a more dynamic and thought for thought translation. NASB and ESV for the literal, NIV for the dynamic and NET is kind of in between.
2. Slow Down. Reading slowly will help you notice things. You will notice words like conjunctions, prepositions, and their placement and lack thereof in a sentence. You will also notice differences in translations. For example in Ephesians 1:17, ESV translates the greek genitive phrase as “the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation”, and NASB has “a spirit of wisdom and of revelation”, while NET construed the genitive as an attributed genitive meaning “spiritual wisdom and revelation”. You will only notice these differences if you slow down and have different translations with you. Now these differences may have some exegetical significance which can only be addressed by knowing the context. This leads us to number 3.
3. Repeat. Read the text repeatedly and go back to the preceding verses if necessary. This is how we will notice more things. Again if we use Ephesians 1:17 as an example, notice from the preceding verses that Paul was talking to Christians. They already have “the Spirit”, so it really doesn’t make any sense that Paul would pray for them to have “the Spirit” again. And to translate it as “a spirit” doesn’t make it less ambiguous, but by taking the word “spirit” as an adjective(spiritual), it makes more sense in the context.
4. Learn your English or perhaps your native language. Learning different languages can be very hard if you don’t know how grammar works in one of your primary languages. The best way to learn is by seeing how the Greek language differs from English or by determining their similarities. For example: English have at least three noun cases; subjective, objective and possessive cases. However, Greek have at least five; nominative(similar to the subjective case), accusative(direct object in English), dative(a bit similar to the indirect object), genitive(a bit similar to the possessive case) and vocative noun cases. English have an indefinite article while Greek doesn’t. In English we know how a noun or a group of words functions by their place or order in the sentence, not so with Greek. We will know how a noun functions by its case ending. There’s more to be discussed in this subject, so I’ll dedicate a separate article for it.
5. Word Study. Do a word study of repeated words primarily by asking how the same author use the words or phrases in different chapters of the same book, and different books of the same author, or different books from the same testament(Old and New). It’s good to have a bible dictionary but always remember that it’ll just give you the nuances of a particular word. You decide which fits best based on the context. So context is king!
6. Read Exegetical Commentaries. Though every commentary has its own theological bent, an Exegetical Commentary tends to deal more on the data than making conclusions as compared with theological commentaries. It will provide you with textual critical data(e.g. list of manuscripts containing the same reading, other viable readings ), grammatical, and literary analysis and options for interpretation that you can weigh in and test with your prior reading of the passage. It explains why certain words were omitted or added in a particular manuscript or why such interpretation is very unlikely in light of the grammar and etc.
7. Read Theological Commentaries. One way to confirm if you’re on the right track is if you share the same conclusions with some of the great theologians in the past or even in the present. If what you learned from scriptures is true, it is never new. Other Christians, mostly dead Christians, might have seen it already. But make sure to remember that you should not read their commentaries for their conclusions but for their arguments. Just because you share the same conclusions with a known theologian, doesn’t necessarily make it right. Test their arguments just as you test yours with the lens of the scriptures. Don’t confuse your laziness to do the hard work first with “humility” when reading and just relying on theological commentaries.
8. Read Systematic Theology. Another way to find out if you’re on the safe tracks is if your conclusions are consistent with the rest of the teachings of scriptures. If one explicit teaching of the Bible contradicts yours, then you have to reread the passages again and again. Go back to step 1. Most misinterpretations were caused by missing some important words(sometimes a difference in conjunction used or in just a single letter!) or by making unnecessary inferences from a very limited material. Arguing for example that angels can procreate with human beings based only on Genesis 6 is risky. There’s not enough material from the bible to substantiate such claims. One of the best rules of thumb in studying God’s word is to let the unclear and implicit passages be interpreted in light of the clear and explicit passages, but without enough explicit information you go blind. So be very careful in building your theology based on implications after implications with very little to no explicit solid foundation.
This is not an exhaustive list, but a good one I hope, to start studying the word of God. Also, last but not the least, do your study prayerfully and rely on the Spirit to guide you in your study. Thanks for reading and God bless!