Article by Casey McFall
Note: This article is part 1 of the fourth lesson in a series of apologetics-related articles that are a condensed version of an apologetics class that I taught. You can read the first one here.
There are a lot of ways that a person could study the Bible. Some like to read through the Bible in a year, others enjoy starting with a word or topic and studying what the Bible says, while still others employ methods such as hermeneutics to search out the truths of the Word of God. In this article, however, I’m going to cover a very specific way of studying the Bible: from the perspective of an apologist. In other words, this is a method of studying the Bible when you have received a specific challenge or don’t understand something. For example, in a previous article (you can read it here) I responded to the question about how a loving God could demand genocide. The following process is what I used to study and craft a response to that question.
I’m a firm believer in the opinion that any Bible devotion or personal study should always start with prayer. Luke 24:45 says: “Then opened he their understanding, that they might understand the scriptures,”. Ephesians 1:18 also talks about the “eyes of understanding being opened”. God can and does grant an understanding of the Scriptures that surpasses our own human wisdom! It would be foolish then to attempt to reach an understanding with our own abilities and strength. Thus, always start with an earnest prayer to God and ask Him for understanding and wisdom (James 1:5). Ask Him to bring passages to mind and to grant you insight into what the Bible is actually saying.
Read the passage
After starting with prayer, the next step is to read the passage. It’s amazing to me how many supposed contradictions or errors can be easily explained or understood simply by reading the context of the passage. Even if the context doesn’t provide a ready answer, reading the passage will familiarize you with what is going on and help you to see the big picture.
In the case of the question about genocide that I mentioned earlier, reading the passage would immediately give one a portion of the answer since God gives an explanation for His command in the very next verse. In Deuteronomy 20:17 He gives the command to eradicate the people and in verse 18 He says: “That they teach you not to do after all their abominations, which they have done unto their gods; so should ye sin against the Lord your God.” He goes even further in-depth about this back in Deuteronomy 9 where He’s telling Israel not to assume that He is giving them victory over the Canaanites because of their own righteousness but rather because of the extreme wickedness of the people who are inhabiting the land.
Google the question
After reading the passage, understanding the context, and getting the big picture view of the problem with all of its nuances and variables; then the next step is to Google the question. Be very careful doing this! I write these articles and publish answers to questions specifically to help people who are attempting to study the Bible. But for every website that shares the truth, there are a greater number that share a lie or partial truth. Nor should websites like saltwithsavor.com be taken as pure Gospel! All of these sites are written by people and are subject to mistakes. While reading what others have to say about the questions you have, always use the Bible as the yardstick of truth and ask yourself, “Does what this person is saying align with the Word of God?” If it doesn’t, then it’s wrong.
Please note that this need for caution does not mean that there is no value in reading what others have said about a topic. An analogy that I’ve heard more than one wise pastor use to explain the value of reading commentaries and other such writings about the Bible, is to: “Eat the meat and spit out the bones!” In other words, take what is good and beneficial and ignore that which is erroneous. How do you discern between the two? Do like the Bereans did in Acts 17:11 and test everything against the scriptures while developing a good study habit (II Tim. 2:15) and think critically about what you are reading. If you do all of these things, the writings of others will serve as an excellent kick start for your own reasoning process and can help give you leads to follow in your pursuit of the truth.
Now that you've prayed for understanding, familiarized yourself with the details of the problem, and got some decent leads; it's time to dig deeper. How exactly you dig deeper will, of course, depend on the exact problem that you are trying to solve. For example, if you were trying to understand why II Samuel 8:4 says that David took 700 horsemen while I Chronicles 18:4 says that he took 7,000; you would have found that many writers on the internet claim that 700 refers to units of horsemen. These units were typically groups of 10, so that would give us 7,000 horsemen total. To dig deeper, you might research alternative sources to verify and validate this. Generally speaking, however, there are three specific areas that are good places to dig deeper. These are definitions, original words, and cross-references.
Both the meanings and connotations of words naturally change and mutate over time. Usage of words or specific meanings of those words may drop off or increase. For this reason, it is always beneficial to look back at the definition of the word closer to the time of the writing of the KJV. There is an excellent free resource that helps tremendously with this. Webster's 1828 dictionary (First link on the page when Googled or find it here) explains both the meanings and connotations of words that are more closely aligned with how the translators of the King James Version of the Bible would have understood them. As such, it is an invaluable resource in understanding the meaning of passages and verses.
Another excellent resource that is also free is the Blue Letter Bible. This tool can be accessed either online or as an app on your smartphone. What I really love about it, is that a person can select a verse and see the interlinear version of the verse, cross-references, and commentaries. The interlinear shows the verse in English and in the original language side-by-side. This allows one to see what word was actually used for a translated word or phrase and the person can click on the word to get a definition of it in the original language and see what other words it was translated to in other passages. This is enormously helpful in understanding the connotation and full meaning of a word and can lead to very interesting discoveries.
As for the cross-reference feature, this allows a person to see other passages in the Bibles that are related to the verse or even just a passage or word in that verse. This can be especially helpful for passages that are vague or difficult to understand because it allows one to find similar passages that are much more straightforward or contain extra details. It can also help one to understand who a phrase or term is referring to. For example, if one verse says: the son of man cometh soon, but doesn’t explain who the “son of man” is; then cross reference can help find other passages that are more explanatory.
The last step of the process is to discuss both the original problem and your own findings with people who you trust and whose knowledge of the scriptures you value. Before I share any apologetic response with others, I always go to some men of God who are much wiser than myself and share what I’ve learned. This helps to ensure that I didn’t miss anything, or that I’m not taking verses out of context, or twisting passages to mean something other than what they really mean. It also helps me to challenge myself and assess whether or not my logic reasoning is both sound and simple enough for another person to follow. Because if it is not sound (meaning there is some gap or hole in my logic) then I will not be persuasive and best and may be completely wrong at worst. Also, if it isn’t simple enough for another person to follow along and understand how I arrived at my conclusions, then there will be little to no point in sharing that explanation with others.
God gave us everything that we need to understand the truth and to understand Him when He gave us His Word. So many times Christians complain that God just doesn't speak to them, all while their Bible gathers dust! We must make reading and studying the Word of God a habit and daily occurrence. We must constantly seek a greater understanding of the Scriptures and what God has in store for us. Outlined above is one specific way to study the Bible, but we don't have to always study using that specific method! Find a method that is interesting for you, something that motivates you to dig deeper into the Scriptures, and that brings you both enjoyment and Biblical benefit. And force yourself to pick up your Bible every day; especially on those days when you don't feel like it! Trust me, it's worth it.