Theology in 3D

Blogposts to My Students: Thoughts on Bible Study

Layton Talbert | August 18, 2022

The outside of my seminary office door displays two items for public cerebral consumption. The basic menu remains essentially unchanged: a brief, pithy quotation (the plat de jour) and a Calvin & Hobbes comic strip (the dessert). The specific dishes, however, are changed religiously every week. (Technically that makes the quotation the plat de la semaine, but few would know what that means without looking it up, including me.)

By the way, if you think Calvin & Hobbes is mindless comedy for the busy student’s passing amusement, you have never read the strip seriously enough. Bill Watterson was a wealth of insight which I find quite useful, especially when teaching Ecclesiastes. A color Sunday print from the series (a gift from a good friend) hangs on my office wall with the caption: To the only theologian I know who, when he quotes Calvin, you have to ask, “Which one?”

The quotations are the real focus here, however. I have dubbed that menu item Rhēmata, sayings culled from a wide array of sources on a variety of subjects—from theology to history, from prayer to politics. Judging from the feedback I’ve received from students (and faculty), both direct and indirect (hearing reactions through my door), most readers seem to appreciate the dessert more than the entrée. I suspect many skip the entrée and go straight for the dessert, which is unfortunate.

So, I thought a sampling of themed sayings (on Bible study and reading) might provide some healthy food for thought as we launch into a new academic year. Bon appetit!

Dr. John Hannah opened his 2007 Distinguished Scholar Series Lecture on “Readings in the Life and Writings of Jonathan Edwards” with advice that I like to echo to my own students:

The first book you need is a Bible. I recommend reading it. Many don’t. They study it. . . . I didn’t read my Bible when I was in seminary because I was too busy exegeting it.

Along those lines, Rosaria Butterfield reminds us that pedestalizing the Bible is not the same as knowing it.

It is not unusual to have a high but also flawed view of something. . . . The same is true for Scripture. A high view does not guard against low literacy.

Openness Unhindered

Low biblical literacy, in turn, feeds theological ignorance, which rarely remains a purely private problem.

Ignorance of Scripture is the root of every error in religion, and the source of every heresy.

J. C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts on the Gospel of John

And while we are reading our Bibles, Derek Kidner’s commentary on Jeremiah 33:3 is another valuable reminder especially to seminary students, who can get so focused on the study of the text that they lose sight of the Author.

To reveal all that he wants to say, God desires a hearer who is already reaching out to him. This is why prayer is never superfluous to the study of Scripture . . . . God is then speaking to an upturned face, not a preoccupied back.

To borrow James’s analogy, as the body without the spirit is dead, so the Bible without the Spirit is dead.

For a man solemnly to undertake the interpretation of any portion of Scripture without invocation of God, to be taught and instructed by His Spirit, is a high provocation of Him; nor shall I expect the discovery of truth from anyone who thus proudly engages in a work so much above his ability.

John Owen, Discourse Concerning the Holy Spirit

There is an illumination, Divinely bestowed, without which theological truth is information and nothing more. While this illumination is never given apart from theology, it is entirely possible to have theology without the illumination.

A. W. Tozer, Renewed Day by Day

With all that as foundation, the rest need no introduction or explanation.

True exegesis is “seeing what is before your eyes.”

Adolf Schlatter

Read the world from the Bible’s perspective rather than reading the Bible from the world’s.

James Hamilton Jr., What is Biblical Theology?

There is nothing in Scripture so plain that some men have not doubted it.

W. Whitaker, Disputation on Holy Scripture Against the Papists (1588), cited in Mark Thompson, A Clear and Present Word

You must faithfully give yourselves to your studies, if you wish to be religious men [and women]. No religious character can be built up on the foundation of neglected duty.

B. B. Warfield, The Religious Life of Theological Students

Finally, Bible reading and study should be

preceded, accompanied, and closed by . . . heart-felt prayer. This is the most effectual means ordained of God for discovering that heavenly wisdom for which we are seeking.

John Owen, Theologoumena

May God give us all an enriching autumn in his Word, whether we are in seminary, in the pulpit, in the work force, or in the home.

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