How We Approach The New Testament

We Christians have been taught to approach the Bible in one of eight ways. See how many that apply to you, you can tick off with a pencil:

Norman Geisler and William Nix, A Generat Introduction of the Bible: Revised and Expanded (Chicago: Moody Press, 1986), 340-341, 451; Bruce Metzger and Michael Coogan, The Oxford Companion to the Bible (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 79. H. von Soden, Die Schriften des Newen Testamentes (Gottingen, Germany: Vandenhoek, 1912), 1,484: Connolly, The Indestructible Book, 154. One Bible historian made this remark about Stephanus's versification of the New Testament: "I think it had been better done on his knees in a closet."

The versification of the Hebrew Bible occurred in 1571. Theodore Beta put Stephanus's verses in his version of the Textus Receptus (1565), which gave them the preeminent place that they have today. Kurt Galling, ed., Die Religion in der Geschichte und der Gegenwart, 3rd ed (Tubingen, Germany: .I. C. B. Mohr, 1957), 3:114.

In many seminaries and Bible colleges, the story of the early church is taught in a "church history" class while the books of the New Testament are taught in an "NT studies" class. And rarely do the twain meet. If you do not believe me, try this: The next time you meet a seminary student or graduate), ask him or her to rehearse for you the entire chronological series of events from Paul's writing of Galatians to his writing of Romans.

You look for verses that inspire you. Upon finding such verses, you either highlight, memorize, meditate upon, or put them on your refrigerator door.

You look for verses that tell you what God has promised so that you can confess it in faith and thereby obligate the Lord to do what you want.

You look for verses that tell you what God commands you to do.

You look for verses that you can quote to scare the devil out of his wits or resist him in the hour of temptation. You look for verses that will prove your particular doctrine so that you can slice-and-dice your theological sparring partner into biblical ribbons. (Because of the proof-texting method, a vast wasteland of Christianity behaves as if the mere citation of some random, decontextualized verse of Scripture ends all discussion on virtually any subject.) > You look for verses in the Bible to control and/or correct others.

- You look for verses that "preach" well and make good sermon material. (This is an ongoing addiction for many who preach and teach.)

You sometimes close your eyes, flip open the Bible randomly, stick your finger on a page, read what the text says, and then take what you have read as a personal "word" from the Lord.

Now look at this list again. Which of these approaches have you used? Look again: Notice how each is highly individualistic. All of them put you, the individual Christian, at the center. Each approach ignores the fact that most of the New Testament was written to corporate bodies of people (churches), not to individuals.

But that is not all. Each of these approaches is built on isolated proof texting. Each treats the New Testament like a manual and blinds us to its real message. It is no wonder that we can approvingly nod our heads at paid pastors, the Sunday morning order of worship, sermons, church buildings, religious dress, choirs, worship teams, seminaries, and a passive priesthood—all without wincing.

We have been taught to approach the Bible like a jigsaw puzzle. Most of us have never been told the entire story that lies behind the letters that Paul, Peter, James, John, and Jude wrote. We have been taught chapters and verses, not the historical context.'

For instance, have you ever been given the story behind Paul's letter to the Galatians? Before nodding, see if you can answer these questions off the top of your head: Who were the Galatians? What were their issues? When and why did Paul write to them? What happened just before Paul penned his Galatian treatise? Where was he when he wrote it? What provoked him to write the letter? And where in Acts do you find the historical context for this letter? All of these background matters are indispensable for understanding what our New Testament is about. Without them, we simply cannot understand the Bible clearly or properly."

One scholar put it this way, "The arrangement of the letters of Paul in the New Testament is in general that of their length. When we rearrange them into their chronological order, fitting them as far as possible into their life-setting within the record of the Acts of the Apostles, they begin to yield up more of their treasure; they become self-explanatory, to a greater extent than when this background is ignored."'

Another writes, "If future editions [of the New Testament] want to aid rather than hinder a reader's understanding of the New Testament, it should be realized that the time is ripe to cause both the verse and chapter divisions to disappear from the text and to be put on the margin in as inconspicuous a place as possible. Every effort must be

Some of us have been taught a little about the historical background of the Bible. But it is just enough to inoculate us from searching further and getting the whole story.

F.F. Bruce, ed., The New International Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1979), 1095.

G.C. D. Howley in "The Letters of Paul," New International Bible Commentary, 1095.

made to print the text in a way which makes it possible for the units which the author himself had in mind to become apparent.""

You could call our method of studying the New Testament the "clipboard approach." If you are familiar with computers, you are aware of the clipboard component. If you happen to be in a word processor, you may cut and paste a piece of text via the clipboard. The clipboard allows you to cut a sentence from one document and paste it into another.

Pastors, seminarians, and laymen alike have been conditioned by the clipboard approach when studying the Bible. This is how we justify our man-made, encased traditions and pass them off as biblical. It is why we routinely miss what the early church was like whenever we open up our New Testaments. We see verses. We do not see the whole picture.

This approach is still alive and well today, not only in institutional churches but in house churches as well. Let me use another illustration to show how easily anyone can fall into it—and the harmful effects it can have.

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