From time to time we get involved in theological discussions. We listen to sermons, read articles, and invest ourselves in theological arguments that lead us to question which one is most consistent with the Bible. Those of us who have no formal education in theology are often caught in a quandary, wondering how to find our way through the maze of arguments and opinions that may sound good but seem to vary in interpretation. Is there a way for the average church member to investigate the message of Scripture to better evaluate the messages and interpretations of those we listen to? How can we discover for ourselves a reliable understanding of the truths of Scripture?
Several things can help us safeguard our study of Scripture.* The first of these is to approach Scripture with a humble spirit. “ ‘For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways,’ says the Lord. ‘For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts’ ” (Isa. 55:8, 9). We are reminded in Proverbs 3:5-7, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your understanding; in all your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct your paths. Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord and depart from evil.”
A second safeguard we can rely on is prayer. We serve a God who has always chosen to reveal Himself to His people. We do well when we pray for the Holy Spirit to illuminate us whenever we open the Scriptures. We can pray the prayer of the psalmist: “Show me your ways, Lord, teach me your paths. Guide me in your truth and teach me, for you are God my Savior, and my hope is in you all day long” (Ps. 25:4, 5, NIV).
How can we discover for ourselves a reliable understanding of the truths of Scripture?
Third, we need to realize that because of our human nature, we are in danger of self-deception. We tend to defend what we believe and often find it difficult to distrust our inclinations. In our study of Scripture we must remember that we are not called to be technicians piecing together an argument we want to sell. We are discoverers of the messages God has chosen to reveal. In 1 Corinthians 2:14-16 the apostle Paul reminds us that “the person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit. The person with the Spirit makes judgments about all things, but such a person is not subject to merely human judgments, for, ‘Who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?’ But we have the mind of Christ” (NIV). The disciple James counsels us further. “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you” (James 1:5, NIV).
A fourth safeguard is to always go back to the unambiguous passages of Scripture. It will help to read the passages in different translations. Too often we get stuck focusing on difficult passages on the subject, but if we pull back a little and take a broader perspective drawn from passages with unquestionable context, we will generally have a clearer picture of the issues involved.
Cleopas and his traveling companion puzzled over their disappointment as they traveled to the village of Emmaus that fateful Sunday afternoon after the resurrection of Jesus (Luke 24:13-35). Jesus approached them and asked what they were talking about. They told Him about their dilemma over Jesus’ crucifixion, saying, “He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people. The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him; but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel. And what is more, it is the third day since all this took place. In addition, some of our women amazed us. They went to the tomb early this morning but didn’t find his body. They came and told us that they had seen a vision of angels, who said he was alive. Then some of our companions went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but they did not see Jesus” (verses 19-24, NIV).
Acknowledging the fact that they knew the Scriptures, Jesus replied, “How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” (verses 25, 26, NIV). Then “beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself” (verse 27, NIV). Looking at the broader perspective of Scripture helps clarify many of our theological perplexities.
The fifth safeguard is to study Scripture in a group. We have a better chance of finding balance in our study of Scripture if we have several participants aiming at discovering the meaning of the passages being studied. It helps to have other dedicated students of the Word who will share what they understand in Scripture. Luke reminds us of this practice among the Bereans in Acts 17:11: “Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true” (NIV). Proverbs 11:14 is a reminder that “where no counsel is, the people fall: but in the multitude of counsellors, there is safety” (KJV).
The sixth safeguard is to study the context and seek to discover what the passage meant to those who originally received the message. Discover the context by going to a reliable commentary. Learn about the culture of the times when the Scripture was written; what circumstances prompted the writing; who is being addressed; and when was it written. We tend to view the Bible through our unique worldviews. We need to remember that the Scriptures were written primarily for contemporaries of the writers. We can indeed find meaning for our day, but we should never overlook the message for the primary recipients. We need to use the same principle when reading the writings of Ellen White.
Finally, we need to take seriously the rebuke of Jesus to the Jewish leaders of His day: “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me” (John 5:39, NIV). If our study of Scripture does not provide us with a clear picture of the character of Jesus, we will have missed the whole point of studying God’s Word.
* Elements of this article are borrowed from Jon Paulien, The Deep Things of God: An Insider’s Guide to the Book of Revelation (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 2004).
Gaspar Colón is a retired college professor and administrator.