A college dormitory floormate of mine named Dan took part in all of our dorm Bible studies and prayer times. One day in a Bible study our group’s leader was explaining the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ beliefs. Their first problem, he said, is that they don’t believe Christ was God. Dan spoke up and said, “He wasn’t.”
That was when we found out what Dan had been hiding from us. (I use the word “hiding” advisedly; I cannot go into the whole story.) He was a follower of a cult known as The Way International. He explained to us that The Way had been founded by a man, Victor Paul Wierwille, who decided to go off on his own, set aside everything he had ever been taught about the Bible, and find out for himself what it really was teaching.
If I had time I would tell you what followed Dan’s anti-confession of Christ. It was quite an experience in Christ-centered conflict management, but that’s not my topic today, so I’ll refrain. The point for now is that it’s dangerous to go solo in our study of the Word. We are members of a community, and we ought to be learning as part of that community.
Protestant Christianity especially suffers under an illusion that is all the more dangerous for its seeming so real and good: “The Bible and me, that’s all I need.” Besides being unscripturally self-focused, it’s also historically uninformed. While it’s true that many of the great doctrines of the faith are just as plain as day in the Bible (Christ’s crucifixion and Resurrection are chief examples), other core Christian beliefs are less easy to uncover from the pages of Scripture. Consider the Trinity, for example. It took literally centuries for our early forebears to develop a coherent statement of the Trinity and to establish it as foundational to the faith.
The Trinity is certainly biblical. I have no doubt of that. It seems fairly obviously biblical to me, in fact. But oh, if only it had been that way from the start! The only reason it can seem obvious to us now is because we are the beneficiaries of our predecessors’ hard work on the question—labor accomplished through much conflict. It wasn’t easy. It took years upon years of hard work before the truth of the Trinity could become “obvious.”
The same thing could be said of our understanding that Christ was both God and man, two natures united in one Person. The history of Christian doctrine is a far more fascinating study than you might think, and it’s not over yet. The painful and sometimes combative process of hammering out our beliefs continues today.
That should be sufficient warning to any serious student of Scripture: don’t go it alone! I do not accept anything like a Roman Catholic magisterium pronouncing authoritatively on doctrine. Still there is something to be said, in a different though related sense, for the idea that the Church universal holds the keys to interpreting Scripture. We learn, we study, and we decide as members of a community stretching back in time to the earliest Christians. We dare not isolate ourselves from that fellowship of learning.
For that reason the serious student of Scripture must expand his study. The Bible is the core. The Bible is the touchpoint. The Bible is the authority. Nevertheless we must pay attention to how others have treated the Bible as core, as touchpoint, as authority.
Commentaries, historical studies, and other related books are our best friends in that endeavor. Thankfully in today’s world it’s not necessary to fork out a lot of money for this kind of help. There’s a lot that’s in the public domain and freely available on the Internet. The list is nearly endless: Matthew Henry’s commentary, Calvin’s commentary, the Jamieson-Faussett-Brown commentaries, Aquinas, Augustine, Edwards, and on and on, all of them easy to track down through a simple search. Various online Bible sites provide convenient verse-by-verse links.
Still there are considerable advantages to using a commercial Bible software package (Accordance and Logos are the two I know well enough to recommend). They provide much, much more by way of resources—especially more recently written works, not yet in the public domain. (Which ones you have access to depends on which size “library” you acquire.) These applications make the materials easier to use, too. It’s a simple matter, for example, to line up various viewpoints on a passage together in one screen, to see where they agree or diverge from each other. Outlines and notes are readily accessible on a book-by-book or verse-by-verse basis. It’s an easier way to study.
The Logos and Accordance packages I’ve used both contain more reading material than I’ll ever have time to read. There’s nothing wrong with that. What I need is there when I need it, and it’s there in a format designed for serious study.
Still to come in this series: Electronic aids to presenting what you learn from Scripture, living what you learn as an electronic student, and specific software recommendations.
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