Q: What is the biblical way to study the Bible? Is there a difference between Scripture being the interpreter of itself and the hermeneutics of the “principle-based, historical-cultural” method? — Jim, from Canada
A: Jim, you have raised a very important question. Yes, there is a “biblical way to study,” meaning a way of studying the Bible that is “biblical,” based on what the Bible itself tells us about how to study it. As Seventh-day Adventists, we have always believed in letting the Bible be our guide and this topic is no different. The Bible is clear and direct in what it says, often too clear for some! As American author Mark Twain said, “It’s not the parts of the Bible I don’t understand that bother me. It’s the parts I do understand!”
If Scripture was easy enough for Timothy “from childhood” to understand (2 Timothy 3:15), then it is written for all of us, of all ages. The Bible is a wonderful book that is not bound to culture — that’s why it could be translated into hundreds, even thousands, of different languages and still be understood and able to lead people into God’s kingdom.
Jesus is our example in how to study the Bible. He explained to the disciples on the road to Emmaus “in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself” (Luke 24:27). That means all Scripture is vital for us and has important instruction for us (2 Timothy 3:16-17). As Jesus said, quoting the Old Testament, “Man shall not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4).
We too can study “every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” by taking a concordance or Bible software and searching on words and topics that we want to know more about. Some Bibles have a very helpful feature for study — marginal references linked to a given verse that point us to other passages on the same topic. We let the Bible interpret itself by finding other passages in the Bible on the same topic that can help us understand the subject more clearly and more fully.
The “principle-based, historical-cultural method” is a particular approach introduced a few years ago which has not been endorsed by the General Conference Biblical Research Institute nor voted on by the General Conference Executive Committee.
However, the excellent process of Bible study that has been approved by the world church and voted on at the 1986 Annual Council is our global church’s very helpful and official method of Bible study described in the “Methods of Bible Study” document. This carefully reviewed and approved method of Bible study allows the Bible to be its own interpreter, not the individual or culture. If we do not use this approved “historical-biblical” method in our study and review of scripture, as outlined in the “Methods of Bible Study” document, then we run the risk that comes from allowing any viewpoint or approach to be used to determine the meaning of the text rather than letting the Bible interpret itself.
This is in fact what is happening today, not just in our church but in the larger Christian world. Christians who identify as gay, use their viewpoint to interpret Scripture to justify the homosexual lifestyle. Those who believe in naturalistic evolution of life over millions of years, use the scientific viewpoint to guide their interpretation of Genesis 1 and 2. Many other examples could be given.
The bottom line is that the Bible, the whole Bible, is still relevant — and, in fact, it is more relevant and increasingly relevant to us today because we live in the time of the end just before Jesus comes.
To learn more about how to study the Bible, I recommend reading the “Methods of Bible Study” document voted by the world church’s executive committee.