Let’s get the obvious out of the way. You should read your Bible. You should also commit Scripture to memory. Both spiritual disciplines are axiomatic for Christians. But neither is Bible study. I’ll explain what I mean by taking one at a time.
Reading Is Casual; Study Isn’t
Reading the Bible is not where your engagement with the Bible ends. It’s where it begins, or at least ought to. But over the course of my teaching career I’ve been dragged kicking and screaming to the realization that many Christians think the act of reading Scripture is to be equated with study. That simply isn’t the case.
Reading is casual, something done for pleasure. The motivation is personal enjoyment or enrichment, not mastery of the content. We read Scripture to be reminded of God’s story in human history and the life lessons that story provides for our own lives and relationship with God. Bible reading is inherently devotional and low maintenance.
Bible study, on the other hand, involves concentration and exertion. We have an intuitive sense that study requires some sort of method or technique, and probably certain types of tools or aids. When we study the Bible we’re asking questions, thinking about context, forming judgments, and looking for more information.
It’s not hard to illustrate the difference. Practically anyone could manage to make a cup of coffee, but they’re not baristas. We know instinctively that both perform the same basic task, but what distinguishes the barista is a lot of time, effort, research, and experience in learned technique. It’s the same with Bible study.
Let’s say you and your friend were from the moon and didn’t know what coffee was. You’re only mildly interested in the topic, so you decide to look it up in a dictionary. You read that coffee is “a popular beverage made from the roasted and pulverized seeds of a coffee plant.” Good enough. You learned something. But your friend wants to know more—a lot more. How is coffee made? What’s the process? Is there more than one process? Is there more than one kind of coffee bean? Where are the beans grown? Does that make any difference in color, aroma, or flavor? How is coffee different than tea? If it’s a popular beverage, how much is consumed? Does consumption vary by country? State? Gender? Age? IQ?
Maybe your friend doesn’t need to discover caffeine. But you get the point. Study requires passion and commitment; reading is way less intense.
Memorization Isn’t Thoughtful Analysis
When I was freshman in Bible college, one of my professors was something of a zealot for Bible memorization. During the semester he had us memorize 150 verses—with punctuation. I had an excellent short-term memory, so the feat wasn’t that hard. While the discipline of that class was good for me, I have to be honest. I never learned what any of the verses meant in that class.
Being able to recollect a verse with precision does not mean you understand it. You could memorize your tax forms, but that isn’t going to provide answers to any confusion that may arise from what they say. (It also won’t turn you into an accountant or an IRS agent). It’s the same with Scripture. I could memorize the entire Bible, but how does that nurture my comprehension?
Real Bible study demands analysis and thinking. For example, you could easily commit the following sentence to memory: “New Study of Obesity Looks for Larger Test Group.” Knowing what the words mean, though, takes some reflection . . . and a sense of humor.
Many things we read, especially in the Bible, aren’t as easy to parse as this funny headline. Many Christians will have memorized Eph 2:8-9 (ESV):
8For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9not a result of works, so that no one may boast.
How many of us have bothered to ask the obvious question: What is the gift of God in this verse? Is it grace? Faith? Both? Something else? How would we know? Memorizing these verses is a good idea, but understanding what they mean is even better.
Agree? Disagree? Want to qualify? Sound off in the comments, and check by every Friday for more unfiltered insight from Dr. Michael Heiser.
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