Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Stump the Priest: How to Fish

Question: When you provide answers to questions, this can be very helpful, but instead of just giving us fish, teach us how to fish. How do you go about getting the answers to the questions?

It depends of the type of the question, and so it is too broad to answer generally, but I will try to answer it in terms of questions that relate to the Scriptures.

There is no shortcut around actually reading the Bible

First, it helps to be generally acquainted with the context. If you have read the Scriptures regularly, when a question arises about it, you will already have a good idea about where in the Bible that issue is addressed, and of the context relevant to those passages. It is also important that you understand that when one begins reading the Scriptures, it can seem very difficult, but the more you read, the easier it will become. For some pointers on how to begin reading Scripture, click here.

Reading the lives of the saints, and the writings of the saints and fathers of the Church on a regular basis will also in turn help you to better understand Scripture.

How do you go about studying a passage of Scripture?

It is not always necessary to go through all these steps, but especially when you are looking at a difficult passage, here are the steps that I would suggest you go though:

1. Define the limits of the text you are looking at. What is the reason for considering this passage to be a textual unit? Why should it start at the verse you began with, and why should it end with the verse you conclude with?

This may seem unnecessary, particularly if you have a modern translation that usually breaks up the Scriptures into sections, but it is important to know when one section begins and ends because context is important, and when looking at the context, the immediate context is an important level of context that you need to be aware of.

2. You need to look at the historical Context of the book that this passage is found in, who wrote it, who was it written for originally, and how might these factors shed light on the text.

You can get this information from a variety of sources. A good edition of the Scriptures has an introduction to a book of the Bible that will give you the basic answer to this question. Biblical histories, commentaries and Biblical introductions are also very helpful. You can read more about these kinds of resources by clicking here.

3. You need to make sure you have a good translation of the text, and do some digging to find out the meaning of any significant words, or obscure grammatical constructions in the text.

Obviously, having a familiarity with the original languages would be a big help, but even if you don't you can get a good understanding of this by doing things like comparing translations, and making use of things like Bible dictionaries, commentaries, and also some electronic tools that help you better understand the words that are behind the translation. The link on Biblical Reference Texts will again be of some help, as well as this link on electronic tools that are available online for free.

4. It is important to keep in mind the genre of the passage of Scripture you are looking at. Is this an Epistle? A parable? Historical Narrative? Poetry? A prophecy? A hymn? You can't read a hymn the same way you would read a historical narrative, or an epistle. Each genre has particular functions, that have to be understood.

5. The wider context: You need to understand how the passage you are looking at fits within the larger book that it is contained in. You also need to look to see if there are other passages of Scripture that shed important light on the passage.

6. You then need to look at how the passage has been understood by the Church. How do the Fathers apply this text in their context, and based on the principles you see at work there, you need to ask how we should apply it in our context. It is helpful also to see if you can find any useful insights from more contemporary Orthodox writers. You can find some texts of the Fathers online, as well as a lot of more contemporary Orthodox texts that may be helpful. You should also try to build a good library for yourself and your family.

In short, becoming familiar with the content of Scripture, learning how to use good reference tools to dig deeper into the text, and having a good spiritual life in general and learning to put what you learn into practice are the keys to being able to find the answers you are looking for.

However, there are somethings to keep in mind:

The Fathers tell us that there are obscurities in Scripture because this keeps us humble, and makes us hungry to dig into it deeper. If everything was stated so plainly that the meaning was always obvious, we would probably not study it very diligently, but by our nature, we value more that which  comes to us with difficulty and effort. So if you don't understand everything in Scripture, that is OK. God placed lots of low hanging fruit in Scripture that is easy for even a beginner to grasp, but he also buried a lot of treasure, and no one ever exhausts that treasure.

So if after doing all the digging you can, you still don't have the answer you are looking for, you can always ask someone who is better versed in Scripture. But if even these people don't know the answer, just know that there is an answer, and if it is important for you to know it, God will eventually reveal it to you.

A Case in Point:

If you take as an example the article I wrote on unicorns in the Bible. The first thing I did was use an online concordance to find all the places in Scripture that mentioned them. Then I looked up "Unicorn" in some Bible dictionaries I have. I looked at some Greek and Hebrew lexicons (I have some good hard copies, but you could find similar electronic sources by using the E-Sword program discussed in the Computer Based Bible Study article. I also Googled the Greek and Hebrew words to find articles on the subject that provided a lot of useful information. Then I looked at patristic commentaries that I have on the passages that mention unicorns, and then put it all together.

 Helpful Articles:

A Simple Approach to Reading the Entire Bible.

An Orthodox Guide to Translations of the Bible.

A Guide to Biblical Reference Texts.

Computer Based Bible Study