Thursday, 13 March 2014

Fundamentalist Bible Study is Bad for your Faith

I've previously referred to the research carried out by the Barna Group, a Christian market research firm which showed that nearly 60% of young people leave church permanently or for extended periods of time after the age of 15. Of the six reasons identified by the Barna Group's research, two of them
  • the perceived antagonism of Christianity towards science 
  • its lack of sensitivity to those struggling with doubt 
are particularly relevant to any community which actively denigrates any scholarship outside of its own narrow sectarian base [1] and promotes as normative a flat, hyper-literal reading of the Bible. Believers raised in such an environment simply lack the intellectual base to withstand challenges to their faith such as how to reconcile a literal reading of the two creation narratives with the fact of an ancient earth and the fact of evolution, or why the conquest narratives in Joshua 9-12 refer to the complete annihilation of the Caananites, while the latter parts of Joshua refer to those same parts of Canaan as being very much populated with Caananites. People do lose their faith over these issues, and a large part of the blame can be sheeted home to the faith communities who let these people down by failing to give them the support, encouragement, and intellectual tools to properly face these genuine problems.

Our community has since the mid-20th century become increasingly mired in a fundamentalist quagmire, which means that those problems outlined above apply to us. An example of how bad things are can be found in a well-meaning but utterly useless article in the November 2013 edition of The Christadelphian. In his section on word study Ginn asserted that:
It is a real thrill and an adventure to get out your Bible word books and start to study deeply words in both the Hebrew and Greek. Often after reading from a chapter you can spend profitable hours going through the meaning of selected words. This is where Strong’s Concordance excels. It has that wonderfully helpful numbering system that is linked to so many other Bible study tools, making them so easy to use. 

Some Bible students and writers have dedicated much of their lives to this type of study and they can be of great help to us – but do your own work first, and then go to others for help. There is nothing like finding gems for yourself. 

All you really need for this type of study is Strong’s Concordance, the Bible text of the KJV and marginal references. You could add The New Englishman’s Hebrew and Greek Concordance (Wigram), New Testament Words (William Barclay), Word Studies in the Greek Testament (Kenneth Wuest), Word Studies in the New Testament (Marvin Vincent).
Two problems are apparent. The first is the claim that "All you really need for this type of study is Strong’s Concordance, the Bible text of the KJV and marginal references. You could add The New Englishman’s Hebrew and Greek Concordance (Wigram), New Testament Words (William Barclay), Word Studies in the Greek Testament (Kenneth Wuest), Word Studies in the New Testament (Marvin Vincent)." The AV is a flawed translation which is not based on the latest manuscripts. Both concordances are likewise dated and theologically slanted, while the word study aids of Wuest, Barclay and Vincent are likewise of dated and biased. 

In fact, the emphasis that is placed on word studies is particularly dangerous. NT scholar Grant Osborne notes that:
"We do not wish to center on word studies of individual terms as if the meaning of the whole paragraph could be narrowed down to a particular key term. Rather we want to elucidate the thought development and meaning of the whole statement. In communication none of us ever isolates words or particular statements as the meaning of the whole. We seldom dwell on one portion of a sentence or paragraph and neglect the rest. Rather we intend for meaning to be communicate primarily by the entire utterance taken as a whole." [3]
Any  layperson who arrogantly thinks that using 19th century concordances and a dated translation of the Bible allows them to 'read the original Hebrew and Greek' and in the process do so better than professional translators is simply deluding themselves. [4] Far better would it be to purchase a variety of contemporary translations free from the flaws of the AV and avail themselves of the informed commentary in the footnotes.

The second point of concern was the advice given to "read the section you are to study at least seven times in the KJV and then once or twice in another version. You must get to know the text before you begin to study it." Getting to know the text entails more than just a repeated surface reading a dated English language translation. Any student needs to understand text-critical issues, the socio-cultural, and the historical background of the text in order to really get to know the text. We are separated from the original audience by culture, time and language and in order to bridge the gap, we need to enter the world of the Bible, and reading a dated translation simply will not do that. 

Our community desperately needs to rediscover how to study the Bible - advice such as that given by Ginns will simply accelerate the slide to fundamentalist irrelevance, and condemn further young people to crises of faith. Following the information on how to study the Bible in works such as Grant Osborne's "The Hermeneutical Spiral" would be a far better approach than to follow that given by Ray Ginn.


1. Calling what is produced within the walls of that narrow sectarian base 'scholarship' is of course employing a very loose definition of the term. Quite often, the eisegesis that is churned out in such communities is little more than free-form speculation produced by a surface reading of the text by autodidacts who spurn the insight of professionals.

2. GInn R "An Urgent Reminder: Don't Let Your Bible Study Slip" The Christadelphian (Nov 2013)

3. Grant Osborne The Hermeneutical Spiral: A Comprehensive Introduction to Biblical Interpretation (IVP Academic, 2006) p 113-114

4. The claim that their 'theological bias' makes them unreliable is often tossed out by rank amateurs whose ignorance is dwarfed only by their arrogance. This claim is not uncommonly made in our community, unfortunately.