Guiding principles for students of Scripture

Today, I am working on material for a teaching series that I am going to give at Church180. We are going to be studying a letter that St. Paul wrote to the Christians in Colossae around 60 A.D.

As I am working on this material, I keep thinking about basic principles that guide my approach to Scripture. I needed to write them down, and figured that this would be a good place to put them.

These are the principles that guide me as I read and prepare to teach Scripture.

  • There is a God.
  • He has told us who He is and what He wants in multiple ways. His most detailed revelation is through the Scriptures.
  • The Scriptures were written over multiple centuries by a diversity of men, in a diversity of circumstances.
  • The Scriptures were given by God to men to address specific, historical circumstances.
  • Many of these circumstances have changed since the time when the Scriptures were written (e.g. how we travel, how we communicate, the means of war, the introduction of global organizations, etc.).
  • While much has changed over the course of time, there is much that has not changed (e.g. basic human emotions, good, evil, etc.)
  • The work of the student is to determine what is timeless, and then apply it to 21st century living.
  • As we “correctly handle the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15 NIV) we will understand God and how to live “righteously” in the 21st century.

Much sloppy and destructive teaching has been done because of a disregard for basic hermeneutical principles. With that in mind, here are a handful of questions that guide me as I seek to “correctly handle the word of truth”:

  • Who wrote this? What was his point of view (e.g. Luke was a doctor. Amos was a farmer.)
  • To whom was it written? (e.g. Matthew wrote to a largely Jewish audience. Paul wrote to a largely Gentile audience.)
  • Why was it written? What issues are being addressed? (e.g. Proverbs is a collection of “wisdom sayings” collected over a period of years; Paul wrote to address specific issues and questions in various local churches)
  • What historical, geographical, cultural distinctives might influence this letter? (e.g. when Paul writes that women should not speak in church… is there something cultural going on that might help me understand this and properly apply it in the 21st century?) 
  • When I am studying a particular verse, I pay attention to what is said before and after that verse! In other words, pay attention to the context! Much harm has been done by teachers/preachers who have ignored context. There are multiple levels of context:
    • Immediate context – what is said in the sentences before and after the verse
    • Letter context – how should I understand this verse in light of the entire letter? To whom was it written? Why was it written? What is said at the beginning and end of this letter? How does that influence my understanding of the verse in question?
    • Author context – If I am studying something that Paul said, I ought to inquire as to whether he has addressed this topic in his other writings. 
    • Testament context – If I am studying something in the New Testament, how do other New Testament authors address this topic? Do they even address it?
    • Broader context – does my understanding of the verse in question agree with the broader teaching of Scripture? If my understanding of a particular verse is in conflict with other verses of Scripture… I am probably understanding it incorrectly.

The study of Scripture is a serious matter and ought to be taken seriously. There is great reward for the one who does this work seriously. One of my favorite quotes regarding this matter comes from St. Paul:

All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right. God uses it to prepare and equip his people to do every good work. (2 Timothy 3:16-17 NLT)

 

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