What I’m about to write probably won’t make me popular among churchgoers.
I grew up with an open Bible near me virtually my entire life, hearing on many occasions the KJV command to “study to show thyself approved” and the story about the “noble” Bereans who studied the scriptures daily. Although I didn’t have a word for it at the time, I was taught by example to be a textualist—that is to say, to interpret the Bible with an extreme emphasis on it’s actual text without regard to outside sources. Later, however, I would appreciate how extra-Biblical sources help develop a more complete meaning of many scriptures. Branching out this way has exposed me to the mountains of existing Biblical commentary.
Yet, something bothers me about all of this. Let me be clear, it is not the fact that people write commentary on the Bible. Instead, what bothers me is that the story of history is a story of overwhelming illiteracy. Even at the height of the Greek and Roman empires respectively, literacy was the exception. If studying shows that you are approved, what happens to people who can’t read? (the overwhelming majority of all people in all history). I refuse to believe that receiving an education is a component of salvation. As readers of the Bible, we struggle with interpreting things from an American perspective. We subconsciously assume that the people we are reading about went to school like we did. They didn’t.
So allow me to present an argument that, if it doesn’t excommunicate me, might label me as a heretic: Bible study is way overrated; we study the Bible too much.
I do not mean that you should throw away your Bible. I do not mean that you should avoid going to your small group. I do not mean that you should never learn the Bible or even that you should discontinue reading if you have learned it. I do mean that what we need to know for this life and the next is not complicated. Once you learn it, spending hours and hours with your nose to a leather-bound Bible will not get you closer to God. Once you have learned the word of God, you will either act on it or you won’t.
When Jesus came to the Earth, he was very critical of the religious leaders who characterized their lives by study. Obviously, he wasn’t critical of them because of their knowledge; Paul was brought up among the Hebrew religious leaders and knew the Torah and the the writings of the prophets backwards. Instead, Jesus and other New Testament leaders were critical of them for their pride.
“You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.” Jesus
“Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” The Apostle, Paul
Further, the Bible seems to treat the most knowledgeable with seemingly the most precise and unforgiving scrutiny. James warns: “Not too many of you should become teachers . . . because we who teach will be judged more strictly.” To a religious group called the Sadducees, when asked a nit-picky, legalistic question about remarriage according to the Torah, Jesus answered demeaningly, “You don’t know the scriptures.” Yet to a criminal who was crucified next to Jesus, a man who lived in sin his whole life until the day of his death, and who did nothing more that confess his sinfulness, Jesus told him that they would see each other in Heaven. Did that man know 1/1ooo of the scripture known by the Sadducees? No chance.
One scripture in particular would seem to directly cut across my argument.
“Make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” The Apostle, Peter
This is where it is important to for me to precisely state my case. The word of God is life and an utterly dominating universal power. You really do need to know the word of God: illiterate people in the Bible had to hear the word and incorrect teaching had to be corrected. However, whatever Peter meant by increasing your knowledge has to be interpreted within the narrative of an illiterate humankind. Further, I’m not convinced that studying the Bible over and over is the best way to add to your knowledge. Until you see and experience love, you will never know what that word means.
Perhaps then, our lives need to be characterized by more doing rather than more studying.