Why don’t your study guides tell me what to do?

I’ve come to the Christian faith only recently and I’m part of a small group that’s using one of your study guides.  One of the things I’m looking for in the Bible is advice for how to live.  But I have a hard time sometimes understanding from the study guide what the Bible stories are telling me to “do.”  Do you have any suggestions?

It’s perfectly legitimate for you to expect to learn from the Bible how you should live as a follower of Jesus and what you should believe about the character and purposes of God. But learning these things isn’t a simple matter of being told what to do and think.

Sometimes we’re led to believe that the Bible is an instruction manual. It’s often treated that way, and when we see it divided up into short propositions that are indexed by chapter and verse number, that’s what it appears to be. But the Bible is actually something much more beautiful and profound than that. It’s the story of God’s unfolding relationship with humanity, told through an elegant variety of different literary forms. We appreciate this story when we engage these forms on their own terms, ideally as part of a community that’s seeking their meaning together (like your small group).

That’s why the study guides, as they say at the start, pose questions that “aren’t looking for ‘right answers,'” but instead “invite the group to work together to understand the Bible.” The questions “invite you to share deeply about your ideas and experiences. The answers to these questions can’t be found just by ‘looking them up.’ They require reflection on the meaning of the whole passage,” in the wider context of the book in which it appears, “in light of your personal experience.”

This approach requires more patience and perseverance than one in which you are told what to think and do. But it will also lead to greater maturity and stability in your faith and a deeper relationship with God, rather than with a set of rules and doctrines. So I encourage you to keep going to your group, keep engaging the questions, and look for these results over the longer term. You’re off to a great start. Just keep on going!

The Bible is a collection of different kinds of writings

Are the stories in Genesis really true?

The small group at my church is going through the Genesis study guide right now. There seems to be a wide variety of opinions in the group about whether these stories actually happened or not.  Are the stories of Genesis historically true, or are they just stories?  No one in our group seems to know the answer.  If they’re not true, then why are they in the Bible?

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Tower of Babel

Faithful followers of Jesus who are equally committed to the divine inspiration and entire trustworthiness of the Bible have long given different answers to the question you’re asking about Genesis.

Some believe in what is known as the scientific and historical inerrancy of the Bible, meaning that all the events happened exactly as they are described. But even this view makes some allowances for the observational perspective from which the stories are told, for example, the apparent understanding that the sun revolves around the earth.

Others believe in the doctrinal and practical inerrancy of the Bible, meaning that through the stories it relates, the Bible primarily teaches us what we should believe about God and how we should live in order to please God. This view acknowledges that the stories in Genesis have been passed down faithfully over the centuries through the community of believers. But this view sees those stories as potentially more affected by the limits of the human perspective than the other view does.

Either way, because the Bible is the word of God mediated through human authors, these stories have a legitimate place in the Bible, whether or not we can verify every detail historically and scientifically.

It’s easy for any discussion of Genesis to be completely taken over by the debate between these two views. That’s why the study guide you’re using invites group members, at a couple of key places, simply to share their views (about the age of the earth, session 2, and about Adam and Eve, session 3) and then hold those views confidently and humbly and join the others for a profitable discussion of the Genesis stories on their own terms. I trust you’ve been able to do that in your group.

Why do you take up Paul’s letters in a different order?

You say at the start of your study guides that they won’t jump around in the Bible. But your guide to Paul’s Journey Letters begins in First and Second Thessalonians, then jumps back to First and Second Corinthians and Galatians, and then jumps even farther back to Romans.  What’s going on?

The guide to Paul’s Journey Letters takes up his first six letters, the ones he wrote while on his missionary journeys, in the order in which he likely wrote them. This allows groups to understand these letters within the course of Paul’s life and journeys and to appreciate how they express the development of his thought.

In traditional Bibles, Paul’s letters are placed in order of length, from longest to shortest. This makes it difficult to catch the flow from one letter to another as Paul travels from place to place and interacts with different communities of Jesus’ followers.

Someone once told me that they’d been to seminary and taken a New Testament background course, but they still didn’t “get” Paul until they read his letters in The Books of the Bible, where they’re placed in the same chronological order as in this study guide. (The just-published guide in this series to Paul’s Prison Letters takes up the rest of his letters in chronological order.)

If we’re used to the traditional order of the books of the Bible, we may indeed feel that we’re jumping around when we move “backwards” from Thessalonians to Corinthians and Galatians to Romans. But it’s important to realize that a fixed order of the books of the Bible is a relatively recent phenomenon. The order we know dates to the advent of printing a little before 1500. Prior to that, the books of the Old and New Testaments appeared in a great variety of orders.  (You can read more about this in chapter 2 of my book After Chapters and Verses.)

So we’re really not locked into any particular order and can use other orders to reach important goals. Reading and discussing Paul’s letters in the order he wrote them expresses respect for the way the word of God came to us in place and time as God inspired the Scriptures. It helps us appreciate how these God-breathed documents took form amidst the real-life experiences of flesh-and-blood people.

So even if this guide takes you through Paul’s letters in an order you’re not used to, let the newness of that experience help you develop a fresh appreciation for this man of God who became a powerful instrument to bring us the word of God.

How to get a copy of The Books of the Bible

To follow up on the previous post, here’s how you can get a copy of The Books of the Bible.

Biblica (the former International Bible Society) now has low-priced copies of the full The Books of the BibleBible available in The Books of the Bible format in the latest update to the NIV. You can also get quarter-Bibles containing the New Testament, the Covenant History (Genesis through Kings), or The Prophets. A trade edition of the full Bible from Zondervan is also avaiable.

If you have more questions about how we can read, study, preach, and teach the Bible without using chapters and verses, you can find out much more in my book After Chapters and Verses: Engaging the Bible in the Coming Generations.

Do we need to use The Books of the Bible with these guides?

Q. I have a Bible I like and am used to using. I’d prefer not to have to buy a new one to use these studies. And I am fairly certain the members of my small group might feel the same. How can I use your studies with a traditional Bible?

Your concern is perfectly understandable. We anticipated it, and that’s why we designed these guides so that they can be used with any kind of Bible. Each session is typically devoted to a natural section of a biblical book, and as the instructions at the beginning of the guides explain, “You’ll be able to identify these sections easily because they’ll be indicated by their opening lines or by some other means that makes them obvious.”  In fact, since the sessions go sequentially through biblical books, in each new session you can just pick up where you left off the last time.  So even with a traditional Bible, you’ll get much of the benefit of approaching the biblical books through their own natural structures rather than through the later artificial additions of chapters and verses. You don’t need to get a whole new Bible just to use these guides.The Books of the Bible

That much said, you will definitely have the best experience with these study guides, and in your small group discussions, if you do use The Books of the Bible.  Without chapters and verses, the Bible reads like the collection of books it really is.  I invite you to to give this way of reading Scriptures a try–I think you’ll be very pleasantly surprised!  (You can find out more about The Books of the Bible by reading this Wikipedia article.  You can download and preview several biblical books from the edition here. To find out how to order a copy, see this post.)

I think you’ll quickly adjust to reading and discussing the Bible without using chapter and verse references. You’ll find that this is much closer to the way you’d discuss any other book, for example, in a book club.  You’ll discover that you can refer to places in the passage descriptively (“When Nicodemus first arrives . . .”) or by quoting short phrases (“When he says, ‘We know that you are a teacher who has come from God . . .'”). It doesn’t take long to catch on.

I wish you and your small group a great experience, whatever Bible you use with these guides. (But I definitely encourage you to check out The Books of the Bible!)

Ranking God as a character

Giuseppe Bottani, Hagar and the Angel

Q. I’m using your Genesis guide in my ladies’ Bible class at church. The women say the study guide is the best one that they have ever used. They like Genesis so much that they want to do Exodus next. Thank you for all your work in writing these guides!  We do have a question, though. The women want to know why God is included among the characters who are rated from best to worst in the Hagar story (question 3 on page 65 of the study guide to Genesis).

Thanks so much for this encouraging report!  I hope you all continue to enjoy studying Genesis together this way.  Unfortunately a guide to Exodus isn’t ready yet, but one may be published later in the series.  In the meantime, you can see all the other guides that are available here.

To answer your question, the idea behind the ranking exercise was to give everyone the freedom and opportunity to share their thoughts and feelings about the Hagar story.  We’re often taught in church, either directly or indirectly, that we can’t ask any questions about the way God does things.  We get the message that we shouldn’t even feel uncomfortable about some things—that if we do, we must be bad Christians.  But when we read the Hagar story, we may legitimately wonder why God sent her back to a mistress who was mistreating her, and we may feel badly for her.

I wanted to give people the freedom to express those questions and feelings.  There are answers to them, but we’ll never find these answers if we don’t allow the questions.  Some of the women in your group might feel that Hagar is actually the best or most sympathetic character in the story; they might have some questions about what God tells her to do; and they might feel that Abraham and Sarah could and should have done a lot of things differently.  My goal was to give people the freedom to express thoughts like that—the kind we may not always feel are allowed in church—and so establish an atmosphere of acceptance and trust where people can find the answers to those questions together.

 

Questions as volleyballs

Q. Our small group study in Genesis is going really well, both the other leader and I think so.  Our group is fairly large (8-12 each week), so discussion generally flows pretty freely.  Your questions are good, although we don’t stay on them for very long.  I guess the discussion typically goes like a volleyball game.  The question serves the ball, then everyone hits it around for a while.  When the ball finally hits the floor, whoever is leading the discussion serves up the next question.  It works well.  The group has talked quite a bit about chiasm and the chiastic structure of the narrative (we just finished Genesis 15), and that’s been really enjoyable.  It’s definitely a new concept for most everyone in the group.  I’m just curious—is our study working the way you hoped?

I’d say your study is going exactly the way I hoped.  Once you pose the questions to the group, the goal isn’t to get everyone to “stick to the subject” or “find the right answer.”  As the guide explains in the instructions for leaders at the beginning (p. 4), the goal is to help you all reflect on “the meaning of the whole passage, in the wider context of Genesis, in light of your personal experience.”  That approach is necessarily going to generate a wide-ranging discussion.  But I think that should be welcome, as a counterpart to times when we may have been led to focus on the minutiae of details in the Bible at the expense of the big picture.

Postmodern young adults who have little or no biblical background are one of the main intended audiences for these guides.  I find that they’re accustomed to looking for meaning through the lens of their own experience.  While our personal experience can’t be the primary authority in our lives, I believe it does provide one legitimate avenue into the authoritative truths we find in the Bible.  In fact, it’s been said that we can’t understand anything in the Bible unless we have some partial kind of experience with it already.  So I’d encourage you to continue allowing and fostering the kinds of discussions you’re already having, even if you feel that you don’t stay right on the questions for very long.  From what you describe, I’d say they’re working!