(5) Text: The Prime Directive

Mar 23, 2024

“What does Bible study even mean?” Strange as that may sound, not everything that calls itself “Bible Study” is.

What It's Not

Unfortunately, this phrase gets attached to just about everything:  

  1. topical studies that bounce from text to text;
  2. small groups that barely crack open a Bible;
  3. pamphlets that might quote a single verse in a daily meditation;
  4. light and airy devotional fly-overs of topics found in the Bible;
  5. internet newsletters;
  6. personal meditation on a given verse for “what this text means to me.”

There’s more, of course, and that’s the problem: when everything is “Bible study,” nothing is. It becomes a slogan that refers to just anything that might mention the Bible, even if remotely or barely. 

The above list might include valuable topics. But that is not the question. However valuable the things listed might be, confusing them with Bible study allows the tail (our goal) to wag the dog (the text) so that the phrase Bible study ends up meaning virtually anything anybody wants to do while holding a Bible.

Prime Directive

It is for that reason that I will, from this point on, often use the phrase biblical text study (instead of Bible study) as a way of emphasizing what is of prime interest. That is to say, it is my belief, practice, and constant emphasis when teaching, that, as much as humanly possible, the following is a prime directive:

Our primary concern when handling biblical texts is to respect and be guided by the purposes and intentions of those texts and their authors. Our ultimate concern might be "What does this mean for us now?" but that is where we end up, not where we start. [1]

All approaches that call themselves “Bible Study” should seek to get in touch with that prime directive—and then stay in touch with it; it is both the starting point and parameters for all readings of biblical texts that would on any level call themselves “Bible study.”

And I would call this a matter of decision and conscience: namely, to pursue a text for what it is overtly trying to do.

If we are not willing to stay in close touch with what the texts are trying to do, then like Paul in 1Cor 11:20 (where he says “It is not the Lord’s supper you eat”), we should be clear that “It is not the Bible we are studying.” The Bible is merely the diving board that we jump up and down on a few times, so we can jump into the pool of self-reflection. Now on a personal level, that might be a very valuable thing to do, but it is not Bible study. [2]

I wish to emphasize strongly here that I am in no way belittling introspective or meditative interests—I will get to those in a couple of weeks. Instead, we need to keep the tail from wagging the dog. Clearly, we are going to have an array of specific interests, needs, and sensitivities depending on our immediate situation or state of mind. But anything that calls itself “Bible study” should be keenly interested in what a text (i.e., a biblical author through a text) is trying to do.[3]

The Bedpost Bible Study Method

It is well known that we can make the Bible say anything we like. In fact, it is always possible to use it for purposes other than what it was designed for and thereby to gain personal benefit from it.

As in the 1988 movie Without a Clue. Sherlock Holmes (Michael Caine) proclaims, “It’s in the Bible! I have one at my bedside.” So, running into his room, he reaches down to pull a Bible out from holding up the bedpost of an uneven bed. He was using this Bible for a personal reason: to prop up his bed. Was it doing him any good? Yes! Did this have anything to do with the intent of any author in that book? Of course not.  

People do this all the time: prop up their lives by using the Bible in all kinds of strained ways that have nothing to do with the intent of the authors. They use it as a book of magic, or secrets, or even worse, a club for beating other people over the head.

These are clearly abuses of biblical texts by people still fumbling around in the dark. It's like that verse in John:

“It had already grown dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them.” (Jn 6:17)

This quote from John is not about the dangers of careless devotional Bible reading; it is about disciples of Jesus who are, at that point, still in the dark. And in the Gospel of John, “dark” implies more than just nighttime.

Next week we'll look at what responsible Bible study is, and is supposed to be. 


[1] I will speak next week of what the text and/or the author is trying to do or say. When we respect the details of the text, that is how we respect the authors. So I will often talk about the two as one. 

[2] I specifically pursue this concept of what a text is trying to do in a detailed academic way in Collier, I, Paulos 2017/2023, chapter 4.  First, yes it is possible, valid, and necessary to talk about textual intention in biblical documents, and I have dealt with complaints against this fully in that chapter. Second, biblical literature is far more complicated than a simple statement about “intention” can cover. This opens up a wide variety of possibilities for the value of multiple reading approaches—as long as it does not negate or displace the concern for what the text is overtly trying to do. Clearly, this may apply fluidly since different genres require different agendas. For example, the Song of Songs is not the same as a Pauline letter and may rightfully be open to a variety of reading agendas. No one “rule” applies to all biblical texts. Even so, it is possible to pursue the question “What is this text trying to do?” even within different genres. 

[3] Even in texts that we don’t know who the author is. Somebody wrote the text, and through that text we can, as readers, pursue what that text is trying to do.

Series Intro: 
Power-Reading the Bible

1. Reading By the Spirit
Week 1: What Does It Mean?
Week 2: The Letter Kills
Week 3: What Could Be!

2. Reading the Text
Week 4: Methods

Week 5: The Prime Directive 
Week 6: Text Methods: Highs and Lows

3. Self Disciplines
Week 7: Methods for the Self
Week 8: Specialty Tools
Week 9: The Self and DBS

4. Summary
Week 10: Spirit, Text, Self:  Our Repertoire


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