Along the Way: The Unsettling Bible

Once in a while someone will say, “The Bible says it. I believe it. That settles it.” There was a time when I spoke the words. They almost always are said in a defense of Scripture and as a declaration of our commitment to its inspiration and authority.

Problem is, the statement is not true.

I will use a simple illustration to begin this post.

Suppose I said, “Today, I am going to write about trunks.” I said ‘trunks,’ and you believe what I said, but saying it settles nothing.

You would be quick to say, “You’ve got to tell me more. What kind of trunk do you mean?”

Your question is valid…and…necessary. What I said does not tell you what I mean. I might be referring to the base of a tree, the back of a car, the snout of an elephant, or a large container. Saying something does not settle anything. It’s no different with the Bible. We may sincerely believe what the Bible “says,” and still be sincerely wrong.

This is not a controversial critique. In fact, we have a phrase which teaches that believing what the Bible says settles nothing: “A text without a context is a pretext.” You’ve likely heard the phrase, maybe even used it. It means that to understand the message of the Bible, we must go beyond what it “says.”

Inductive Bible study methodology is a way to get beyond the erroneous “the Bible says” statement and into an informed understanding of Scripture. It begins with the question, “what does the text say?” What it says is important. But IBS methodology follows that question with five others….

–What does the text mean?”
–What other passages in Scripture help interpret the text?
–What insights from other sources help interpret the text?
–How has this text been evaluated and used since it was written?
–How can we apply the text, so that it comes alive today? [1]

To say, “The Bible says it. I believe it. That settles it” asks, the first question and stops there, leaving the other five questions unaddressed. Richard Foster has offered a way forward that he calls reading the Bible with the mind and with the heart. [2] He includes the following elements in a reading of Scripture with the mind…

–recognizing the literary forms of Scripture (e.g. law, prophecy, gospels, letters)
–reading “from cover to cover” to get what John Wesley called “the whole counsel of God”
–exploring the context of the particular text
–interfacing the text with other passages of Scripture
–seeing what others have said about the text.

In addition to reading with the mind, Foster rightly notes that understanding the Bible also means reading the Bible with the heart—what is referred to as lectio divina. This is a form of prayer that includes these phases…

–listening to the text
–reflecting on the text
–submitting to the text
–applying the text

Taken together, inductive methodology and Richard Foster’s teaching conclusively show why it is insufficient to say, “The Bible says it. I believe it. That settles it.” But there is an even greater revelation.

It comes from Jesus himself. Six times in the sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:21-48) he reinterpreted biblical passages with the opening phrase, “You have heard that it was said….but I say.” And in Matthew 9:13, he quoted Hosea 6:6, but then told his listeners, “Go and learn what this means.” As a Wisdom teacher in good Midrash form [3], Jesus was saying, “Do your homework. Don’t read and hear Scripture passively.”

When we do this, we will not come away from our reading of the Bible saying, “That settles it.” Instead, we will find the Bible very unsettling, as the it punctures our preconceptions, slays our sacred cows in ways that turn us every which way but loose…until we are transformed.

[1] These questions, and other Interpretive questions like them reflect the inductive method’s phases: observation, interpretation, correlation, evaluation, and application. Robert Traina’s ‘Methodical Bible Study’ (1952) is a classic book about inductive methodology. He and David Bauer updated and expanded it, publishing it under the title, ‘Inductive Bible Study.’

[2] Richard Foster uses this phrase to describe a full reading of a passage. He goes into detail about this in his book, ‘Life With God: Reading the Bible for Spiritual Transformation.’

[3] Midrash is a way Jews study (Hebrew: investigate) their sacred Scripture inductively, with a resulting diversity of interpretations that enrich and expand the text. It is a method (like lectio divina) that can be used by individuals, but is meant to be used by groups.

About Steve Harper

Dr. Steve Harper is retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 43 books. He is also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
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