by Dr. Scott Swanson, Professor of Biblical and Theological Studies
“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom…” Colossians 3:16
How much Bible study do we Christians need? And how are we expected to go about it? In the verse above, Paul calls the Colossians and us to a serious and ongoing study of the Bible, building it into our lives to the point of saturation, and from there being equipped to help our fellow believers. The Reformers also called the church back to the Bible, and taught and modeled how to read and study it. As it turns out, key principles commended by both the apostles and the Reformers are those we learn in the disciplines of the liberal arts.
The role of the liberal arts is evident in God’s providential provision of a revival of classical learning through the Renaissance. Luther discovered the gospel of justification by faith alone as he was studying and teaching the Greek text of Galatians and Romans. His skill at philological analysis was evident in his carefully translating the whole Hebrew and Greek Bible into German. Calvin’s training in the humanities and literary analyses of texts prepared him not only for effective teaching and preaching, but for writing a series of biblical commentaries that remain unparalleled. The same was true at the time of the great “doctors” of the early church in the fourth and fifth centuries. From Athanasius to Augustine, this period of doctrinal refinement and defeat of heresy was fueled by an extraordinary flowering of classical education.
Of course, neither Paul nor the Reformers expected us all to become biblical scholars. But they did expect those of us who were capable to use their help. And some of us should become biblical scholars, and preachers, and teachers. But all of us are called to intelligent Bible study, which means an awareness of biblical hermeneutics, the art and science of biblical interpretation. If that seems like an exaggerated claim, consider that everyone does it anyway. We read the Bible, and we interpret it. Are we doing it well?
Much is at stake here. The framers of the Westminster Standards, in their summary of Reformed theology a century after the Reformers, taught the responsibility of all believers to make “diligent use” of the “outward and ordinary means” for receiving the benefits of Christ (Westminster Shorter Catechism 85, 88). These are the ordinances of the word, the sacraments, and prayer. With regard to the word, we are assured that the Spirit “makes the reading, but especially the preaching of the word” effectual for our salvation (WSC 89). But at the same time, “it is required of those that hear the word preached, that they attend upon it with diligence, preparation, and prayer,” and “examine what they hear by the Scriptures” (Westminster Larger Catechism 160). This is a call to hermeneutic competence. None of our reading and hearing of the word is to be done lightly. The preached word itself calls us to “examine the Scriptures” as the Bereans did (Acts 17:11). And as believers are also “bound to read it apart by themselves, and with their families,” the same diligent attention applies in those contexts (WLC 156-157).
This is not an appeal to some esoteric or secret code for interpretation. “The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself” (Westminster Confession of Faith 1:9). This is in effect the rule of context, which is basic to all literary interpretation. It also assumes that we will read correctly, understanding the meaning of words in their sentences and paragraphs. “Grammaticalhistorical” interpretation, championed by the Reformers, requires that we understand something of the disciplines of history, literature, and cross-cultural communication, and that we develop skills in critical thinking and logical analysis. In our Reformed Christian worldview, these liberal arts are part of the creational goods God has blessed us with, and they enrich our understanding of what it is to be human persons who image the Creator. But they also are necessary for right interpretation of the Bible, because it is God’s very word to us in human words.
What kind of Bible study then is Paul calling us to in Col. 3:16? While much more should be said about the verse in context, we can begin by applying grammatical-historical principles to ask what Paul means by the “word of Christ.” Grammar informs us that it is not the word spoken by Christ, but rather the word about Christ. Then when we compare Scriptures, we learn that for Paul, this is not narrowly material found in the Gospels, but the gospel—the good news—of salvation through faith in Christ (compare the “word of Christ” in Rom. 10:17 with 10:8 and 1:16). Then we also learn that, for Paul, this gospel is not only to be found in his letters and the other books of the New Testament. In fact, he declares that he and the other apostles have made it known by means of the Old Testament Scriptures (Rom. 16:25-26). In this they have followed the hermeneutics lessons of Jesus Christ after his resurrection (Luke 24), which affirm that all parts of the Old Testament Scriptures speak of him.
In other words, we are called to make a careful study of the whole Bible, of all its parts, recognizing the different literary genres (law, narrative, poetry, etc.), and the distinctiveness of its various historical periods. And through all those particulars, we are to see that it all speaks in some way of the Savior and the redemption he would bring. “All Scripture,” Paul says, speaking of the Old Testament, “is able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 3:15-16).
It is interesting that both Paul and Peter, in their final letters (2 Tim. and 2 Pet.) as they approach their expected martyrdom, show special concern that the church remember and study carefully the Scriptures of both the Old Testament prophets and the New Testament apostles. They both affirm that many will come and distort the Scriptures. Thus, sound thinking and discernment will be necessary (as the apostle John says, to test the spirits, 1 Jn. 4:1). Christians will need to understand sound doctrine, or systematic theology, and how that is rightly derived from the Scriptures. Or else, as Paul says in Eph. 4:14, they will be tossed to and fro “by every wind of doctrine.” So we must grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (2 Pet. 3:18). The Spirit will indeed make his word effectual for our salvation, but we must still diligently study. To that end, joyfully embrace your study of the liberal arts, that you may grow in knowledge of God’s world and in knowledge of his word.