1. Small Group Bible Study is a Bad Idea.
What are the assumptions behind this being a good idea?
First, that we all “learn” better if we do not have that darn pastor with theological knowledge breathing down our necks. Second, that if we all pool our ignorance, surely we can come up with something that applies to our lives. Third, that it is unnecessary to have someone with the right answers (or at least the right foundation to think about the right answers) in the room when we get together as a group.
2. Individual Bible Study is a Bad Idea.
What are the assumptions behind this being a good idea?
First, that any individual can come to the Biblical text and come away from it with the correct understanding, if only one thinks long and hard about it. Second, that the Holy Spirit will automatically guide the person into the right understanding, if only he or she prays hard enough. (Of course, this begs the question why sincere and well-meaning–perhaps those two adjectives are the immediate problem–Christians can come to contradictory understandings of a text. Perhaps the Holy Spirit was having an off-day.) Third, that my interpretation is just as valid as your interpretation. Okay, perhaps this isn’t a direct assumption, but it surely follows from the way Americans tend to do things.
[If you want to know what I think are actual good ideas, keep reading. If you do not read below the break, save the commenting space for someone else.]
1a. Small Group Bible Study is a Bad Idea…Unless it is led by someone with actual theological training.
This means that it does not have to be the pastor.
Okay, you’re all itching to give me an example of how it really worked well when you did it. (My parents are at this moment recoiling in horror from the screen.) You don’t have to; I can think of a couple examples myself. There is something to be said for those leaders who have a lot of years in the Church–but that’s exactly the point, they have a lot of years being formed by the Church into the right kind of reader of the Scriptures. (I’ll return to that in a minute.) They have the ability to rightly distinguish Law from Gospel, without which ability no one can be a true theologian, and to run everything through the lens of Christ, without whom the Scriptures are a closed book.
On the other hand, I have a shiver of doubt that my description of the ideal Bible study leader is exactly that: an ideal. Feel free to correct me if I’m wrong (I’m sure you feel more than free!), but do we not, instead of training B.S. (that’s “Bible Study”) leaders to think theologically, train them to be mere facilitators of essentially a “sharing” free-for-all where any and all opinions are equally valid? The problem with this is the same problem we have when we lie to children when they are young because it’s easier: we have to wean them from the lie when they grow up. See, if people get the wrong–even the heretical–idea from a small group where no one has the right answer, eventually they will run into someone who does have the right answer, and their wrong answer will not be wrested easily from them.
2a. Individual Bible Study is a Bad Idea…Unless it is on the model of the Ethiopian eunuch.
He did not assume that he knew what the text was about. He couldn’t even be sure whether Isaiah was talking about himself or someone else. He knew that he had to speak to someone who had been formed into the right kind of reader.
What is the right kind of reader? Someone with a basic understanding of hermeneutics. At the very least, someone who knows that all people come to the text with their own presuppositions. Not realizing that you have presuppositions which you bring with you when you read anything (including the Bible) is far more dangerous than knowing what yours are. But that’s really only a basic prerequisite. Far more necessary is someone who has been brought into the Church through Baptism and formed by Christ through His Word and the Sacrament of the Altar to read the Bible according to God’s story. God is the primary player; we are not. We have been made to be woven into God’s story, and most assuredly not the other way around. This highlights another problem with individual Bible study: that we often place ourselves in the role of master with the text as our servant. The very fact that we seek to apply it to our lives exposes this tendency in us. Far better that God’s Spirit apply us to it.
It used to be that people looked at the world and wondered how it fit into God’s plan (His oikonomia); after the Enlightenment, we wonder how God’s creation, Word, story fit into our lives, our story. This has been called the “reversal of fit” and it has been incredibly detrimental to the way Christians act and see things, especially if it goes unrecognized and undisturbed.
No doubt someone is currently thinking that I would like to return the Church to a pre-Reformation mode of thinking where the laity cannot read or understand the Bible and must have it interpreted to them by an elite priestly class. For one thing, the assumption back of this is that Luther gave the Bible to the laity. He did, but not in the way you’re thinking. He did not put the Bible in the hands of every lay person. First, most couldn’t read. Second, even if they could read, they likely couldn’t afford to own a copy. Third, even if they could read and owned a copy, they were not going home and reading it in a dark corner without anyone else interfering with their personal pet-interpretation. Luther wanted them to hear it in their own language. He was far more concerned that they hear the Gospel and the preaching of it in their own tongue than that they actually read and study it in their autonomous little self-interpreting closets.
I wrote above that an assumption of small group Bible study is that we don’t think we need someone with the right answers in the room. That’s not quite right. What we need is not to make sure that we bring the right answers to the Bible’s questions, but that the Word of God (which encompasses the Bible but cannot be confined to it) brings the right answers to the great big question of our lives outside Christ. In other words, we need to be read by the Bible into the story of God through Christ, and not to read the Bible into our stories.
What am I really saying? There is much more to reading the Bible than just reading it.