Bible Study Clichés that Must Die Now (1)

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A medieval hand-copied Bible with the "Ordinary Gloss" and a rich harvest of personal annotations from a scholar of long ago.
A medieval hand-copied Bible with the "Ordinary Gloss" and a rich harvest of personal annotations from a scholar of long ago.
A medieval hand-copied Bible with the “Ordinary Gloss” and a rich harvest of personal annotations from a scholar of long ago.

I have some things to say that I’ve wanted to say for 35 or more years. I have hesitated, though, because they are things typically said by someone who has just heard a sermon or Bible study that has touched their lives and inflamed their love of the Bible. So they want to compliment the speaker/teacher, and so they say something that is, well, wrong. Or maybe they’re talking about what Bible study and preaching ought to be, and they say some of these things… and they are just wrong enough for it to hurt.

Another medieval Bible, glossed and annotated by hand, apparently by several hands!
Another medieval Bible annotated by hand, apparently several!

“You really make the Bible come alive!” Variant: “You bring the Bible to life!”

Wrong. The Bible is God’s word, given through human singers, preachers, historians, poets, prophets, priests shepherds soldiers and scribes… but it is still God’s word. He used these human agents, weaving his purpose through their free and dizzyingly diverse ways of expressing themselves, to produce a book chock full of excruciatingly fine detail, but also teeming with divine life. The Bible does not need to “come alive” and it doesn’t need me or any other teacher to bring it to life. The Bible is already very, very much alive. Disconcertingly alive. Destabilizingly alive. If we’ll just drill down and listen, we’ll discover it has been quite alive for quite a long time. It is WE who need to be “made alive,” brought to life, or whatever.

We are dead, dull, ignorant, stupid, guilty, evasive, unbelieving, lazy and arrogant. And that’s on good days. We need the miracle of the Holy Spirit’s enlivening in our own spirits to even be able to heed the word that came to St. Augustine: tole lege, take, read.

We need the Spirit of God to make us honest, so we don’t smother the text with our own agendas (about which, more later). We need the Spirit of God to break the pride we actually feel about being ignorant. “I don’t need no stinkin’ book learning, the Holy Ghost just speaks to me!”

The oldest text of a passage of scripture every found, faintly scratched on silver, the Aaronic Blessing
The oldest text of a passage of scripture every found, faintly scratched on silver, the Aaronic Blessing, 7th cent. BC

It’s humbling to realize that we might actually need (gasp!) someone with training, an academic, with languages, historical training, literary finesse and spiritual sensitivity to help us discern the message of scripture.

But we are proud of our ignorance. Proud of all the things we don’t know. We are dead, and so when we look at the Bible, rather than admit our dead, dull stupor, we decide it’s the Bible that needs sprucing up. We need someone to “bring it alive” for us. Ironically, when they do, we suddenly become enamored of this amazing teacher, or scholar, or preacher who “makes the Bible come alive” for us. But still, to the Bible itself, we’re dead, insensible of its life and liveliness, its power to bring us to life. And we also have given glory rightly belonging to the God of the Bible to one who at best, is an unworthy servant and messenger of the Bible. Instead of focusing on scripture, we focus on the teacher.

I recall an experience from a conference we used to have at Asbury Seminary in the week between the January term and the Spring Semester. “Ministers Conference” it was called, and then we got a little to sophisticated for that and started calling it “Ministry” conference… whatever.  Anyhow, there were two speakers who came off and on rather frequently. I was always impressed listening in on what the conferees said about each speaker. For one, the conferees loved they guy! They re-told his stories in their sermons, talked excitedly to each other about buying all his books, tried to find out how to get him in their church… his name was heard about every 15 words. He was a fine servant of God, and a very effective speaker. But I couldn’t help but notice all the talk… circling around him and his gifts. There was another speaker. Also very effective, very widely respected. But when folks came out of his sessions, you almost never heard his name. They came out talking passionately about God, about Jesus, about the Scriptures, about the Holy Spirit. About revival and prayer. Instead of “How can I get him to my church” it was “Why didn’t I see that in Scripture? It’s been there all along and I just missed it!” They didn’t order all his books because, at the time, he didn’t have any! His legacy was the hearts of his hearers that burned as he … did NOT “make the Bible come alive,” but showed them its true inner life, and touched its hot embers to their souls.

Yes, the Bible is alive. Has been. Always will be. A good teacher, a good preacher, doesn’t “make the Bible come alive.” They enliven us to see its ever-living, evergreen message as the Spirit of God blows gently over the pages, as our minds become stocked with the kind of good information that helps us see what the writers were talking about, as we step out of our ignorance, sloth and pride… and come alive. Yes, good study, good interpretation, good exegesis… is a miracle of the Holy Spirit!

Not only do we not make the Bible come alive… in the end, it brings us new life. Every time.

I got some more of these… stay tuned. What are some of your “favorite” Bible clichés that perhaps should be retired?

The Bobbienser Codex-a Copy of the Latin Vulgate's OT Book of Judges dating just a generation after Jerome translated it, overwritten later with another text.
The Bobbienser Codex-a Copy of the Latin Vulgate’s OT Book of Judges dating just a generation after Jerome translated it, overwritten later with another text.

 

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I’m 60 years old, professor of Old Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. I love my wife of 36 years, my three adult children and children-in-law. I love our three horses, two cats, and whatever other creatures decide to call our place home. I hate mowing grass, hanging pictures or shelves, or anything involving punching or drilling holes in walls. I love my job of studying and teaching the Old Testament. I’ve recently contracted a fierce interest in archaeology. I also enjoy guitars, jazz, vintage firearms, airplanes, photography, drystone masonry and, visiting the lands of the Bible.

9 COMMENTS

  1. Love it; really looking forward to the series..a great balance of “not holding back” and sensitivity.
    Oh, mine? “God said it, That settles it” and “The Bible says…”

  2. Lawson, I don’t need no stinkin’ semitary. Jes put yore han on a rock and lok into a kloud.

    Lawson, I could hear you in every word (well, almost every word). I was always (yes, always) amazed at the way you could reach into the OT and bring forth wonderful things. I was an eager listener to your sermons. And I will be reading your additional blogs and putting them in a folder. This discovery of Facebook, which I dreaded, is a wonderful thing for me, although I spend too much time on it. Peace, my good and faithful brother.

  3. “The Bible is God’s love letter…” While I can appreciate something in the metaphor, I think it can also dangerously oversimplify some very important activities performed by God through Scripture.

  4. […] “The Bible does not need to “come alive” and it doesn’t need me or any other teacher to bring it to life. The Bible is already very, very much alive. Disconcertingly alive. Destabilizingly alive. If we’ll just drill down and listen, we’ll discover it has been quite alive for quite a long time. It is WE who need to be “made alive,” brought to life, or whatever. Read on here.  […]

  5. After a lifetime of being a good Methodist and the best I got was a muddled understanding as to who God is and who I am, I finally reached a point that I had to find “something”. I eventually landed on the Heidelberg Catechism–which is a pretty enlivening piece of work on its own. But I happened to couple it with M. Craig Barnes’ book about it, “Body & Soul”. He blew the lid off with his ability to talk about the Heidelberg and fold me into the Bible story–both the catechism and Barnes had an uncanny knack of using first person singular in regards to crucial points. The two became one long question of “Why has nobody ever had this conversation with me before?” I went against my norm of not dwelling on one author and ended up reading three of his books back to back because they crawled inside my head, met me where I was and grounded me as a person in God’s story as told in the Bible in a way that many Sunday School sessions and Bible studies had never been able to do. Problem is, church now feels horribly lame! And articles like this on seedbed help contribute to that feeling. Keep up the good work!

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