My first semester of teaching hermeneutics is almost over, I have three papers left to grade. However I was pleasantly interrupted by an email from one student. He asked for advice regarding how to continue to develop his skills as a Bible reader. His attempts to find the “Main Idea of the Text” were often close, but not quite where he wanted them. He was hoping I could point him to some class, or book, or something that could help him to continue to develop.
Emails like that make me so excited. I love to see guys long to read the Bible better. I love that he is taking his education seriously. I love that he is willing to put in the work it takes to understand God’s Word better and to communicate it more clearly. Emails like that make teaching an exciting profession.
I responded to this student like any good preacher would, with three points. I will include them below. I would love to hear if you have any other advice.
- It is important to remember that reading this way takes practice. Most of us were not trained to look for the author’s main point when we read the Bible. Many preachers seem to work from model of reading the text that we would not accept. Rather than first asking, “what is this text saying,” many pastors start with “what does my congregation need to hear?” Then they pick and choose what parts of the text to emphasize based on what they think will most powerfully or effectively address their audience.
What we are asking you to do this semester is vastly different and can seem foreign to many students. However, if you are convinced, as I am, that meaning should come from the author, then you will have to retrain yourself to read with the author’s main point in front of your mind at all times. Just like any training that is worth doing, it will take time and practice. So, be patient and keep pressing toward a better way.
- Another important thing to do is to practice your own writing skills. Do as much writing as you can. Try to keep your arguments succinct. As you become a more proficient writer you will begin to find it easier to get in the mind of the Biblical writers. It’s true that they use genres that will be different from your own. However, as you write you will begin to identify with the struggle over what sentence should go where, and how to order your paragraphs. These types of questions are common to almost all writers.
Also, you can begin to read books on writing style and sentence construction. I am personally hoping to begin reading Stanley Fish’s book, How to Write a Sentence, in order to continue to train myself in this area. Howard Hendricks suggested a similar strategy, recommending Mortimer Adler’s How to Read a Book.
- Regarding classes to take, you should be aware that there is no single class you can take that will make you a good Bible reader or help you correctly find the main idea every time. However, you will find certain classes more helpful than others. Bible reading is, at its heart, simply reading. Therefore you are well served by taking as many English and literature classes as possible. Pay special attention to teachers who discuss issues like grammar and genre as these issues translate exceptionally well to Bible reading. College students at Southeastern should take classes with Dr. Michael Travers whenever possible. He is well known for his work in various genres, especially poetry. If you get to take his class, beg him to teach you how author’s use their genre to communicate their points, not only to our minds but to our hearts.
In my own experience, my Greek classes contributed to my understanding of Bible reading more than any others. The first two semesters are hard work, and the main payoff is really just a little bit of grammar. However, if you are willing to push through, the 3rd, and especially the 4th semester are much more helpful. Plus, once you finish the third semester you are qualified to begin taking book studies in the original language. I don’t mean to suggest that “practical” classes, or even theology classes, can’t be helpful, however, I decided, when I started seminary, to spend almost all of my electives in Greek. I have never regretted that decision. Learning to read the Bible well was worth all the work.
Perhaps no single class was more influencial that Dr. David Black’s 4th semester Greek class. The opportunity to work through the entire book of Philippians with Dr. Black was an invaluable experience. Additionally, that semester he introduced me to a book that profoundly influenced the way I read the Bible. Dr. Black’s, Linguistics for Students of New Testament Greek, provides a clear guide for analyzing the authors words, sentences, and style in order to locate the main idea. Even if you haven’t had a single Greek class, it would be worth buying, however it will obviously be much easier for students who have taken some Greek. Regardless, you should not miss out on his chapters on syntax, semantics, and discourse analysis.
If you have any other advice, I’d love to hear it!