Friday, April 9, 2010

I am Thankful for a Word About the Word

[This is a second entry for today, making up for yesterday.]

Inductive Bible Study changed my life. I was introduced to the method under Howard Newsome in my master’s program at Wheaton College. The method was pioneered by Wilbur White in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. White was a world renowned Bible teacher who went on to found New York Theological Seminary.

The method was developed at the height of the modernist/fundamentalist controversy in Christian theology. The Enlightenment and scientific reasoning caught up with the study of the Bible in the late nineteenth century. One movement, the modernists or liberals, built their interpretation of the Bible around a scientific study of the origins of the text, the school of religions approach. They gave us the Social Gospel movement which declared the essence of Christianity is the work for the betterment of society.

The Fundamentalists or conservatives argued there are certain fundamentals that must be believed if one is to be considered Christian. The cornerstone of the fundamentals was faith in the Bible as the inerrant, verbally inspired Word of God. This group applied the deductive component of scientific reasoning to the defense of the Bible and other key doctrines. The scriptures could thus be divided into historical books and doctrinal books. All were factually true but only the doctrinal books such as Paul’s epistles were to used for doctrine.

Wilbur White offered a third way of approaching the Scriptures. His method, which first gained popularity under the name “Scientific Method of Bible Study,” began with the assumption that the Bible was a living book which could speak for itself. The challenge was to study each Book of the Bible as a text that contained its own clues for interpretation.

The inductive method moves from specifics to general conclusions. The student makes observations about the facts and how the facts are connected before moving to interpretation and application: observations before interpretation before application.

The process begins with reading a book through in one setting looking for its internal structure. Additional readings allow the student to see more details in the structure creating subdivisions and sub-subdivisions allowing the learner to work through the book paragraph by paragraph always seeing each paragraph as a section of the whole. Once paragraphs are identified and named, the student begins a careful analysis looking for repetition of words and ideas, progressions of thought, regressions. Looking closely at the details one can begin to see how the details are connected. Meaning, the basis for interpretation, is often found in the connections.

Inductive Bible study requires that the student be willing to set aside preconceptions and let the Bible say what it says. No one can do this completely. We all bring our assumptions to the task. These assumptions guide the questions we ask and the conclusions we reach. What we can do is look closely at the text trying to find all of the internal connections that we can make and discipline ourselves to not jump to conclusions.

The inductive method moves the task from interpreting the Bible to letting the Bible interpret us. Bible study becomes exhilarating and convicting. I quickly found my core beliefs being reinforced once I was willing to let God’s word sit in judgment over them. I found some of my understandings of the Bible to be built on mere human tradition; they had to go. The beauty of the method is that anyone with basic reasoning skills developed in early adolescence can do it if they are only willing to practice the discipline.

I loved this method and I wanted to teach others the method. I was at the time the Minister of Education at the Indian Trails Church of God in Aurora, Illinois. I couldn’t wait to introduce the method to my Young Adult Sunday school class. Or, could I?

As I began to prepare for the new series it hit me like a corn cob to the side of the head that I wasn’t teaching my peers in graduate school. I was teaching young adults in a blue collar congregation. Let me clarify. My class was comprised primarily of high school drop-outs. The youngest members of the class were a fourteen and fifteen year old couple that had been married for over a year. (Their parents had driven them to Mississippi so they could get married and it wasn’t a case of have-to; she wasn’t pregnant!) These were not people who failed to appreciate education; these were people who despised education. [Within the church were some wonderful people who really cared for Cheryl and myself whom we will always cherish, but on the whole we were as odd to them as Martians.]

As I sought God about changing directions from what I had announced, I became a plaintiff. “Father, I just don’t trust them to rightly divide the Word of Truth.”

His response was brief and to the point as usual, “I have taught you out of My Word haven’t I?”

One simple question took me to the woodshed. The issue was not that I didn’t trust the members of my class. The issue was that I didn’t trust God. I didn’t truly believe God was present in His Word; that He was speaking to whoever would listen. If He had taught me, He could teach anybody. My view of Scripture was high, but not high enough. God does not need me to mediate his Word for the less educated. He can do that for Himself if I will just bring people to the Word and help them look for themselves.

There is a place for teachers, instructors in sound doctrine and righteousness, but when it comes to Bible study, the only good teaching is that which brings people into an encounter with God in His Word. Anything else is an exercise in vain glory.

Cleveland, Tennessee
April 9, 2010

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