Bible Study 101 Part 1: Text without Context is a Pretext

“I’m not a Bible scholar.”  How often have we heard others say this or perhaps say this ourselves?  In a very real sense, it’s a defensive statement that effectively undermines both the purpose and application of scripture.  God does not save us to be “Bible scholars” but does expect us to know, study, and apply His Word (2 Timothy 2:14-19). I feel compelled to address the basics of Bible study in order to remind us that it’s easier than we think.
Theologian Dr. Donald A. Carson attributes his father saying “A text without a context is a pretext for a proof text.”  In other words, our failure or unwillingness to understand who, what, when, where, how and why can lead to our pretext or preconceived and erroneous assumptions.  This is true of Bible study as well. So how do we prevent pretext? We can begin by considering the three “L’s” of the Bible: life, literature, and language.
First, the Bible speaks life.  In 2 Timothy 3:16-17, Paul says “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work” (NASB).  The verb “inspired” comes from Greek word theopneustos meaning God-breathed. 1  In other words, God created and sustains the life-altering and eternal truths of scripture which offer life or death; hope or despair to those who read it.
Next, the Bible speaks literature.  Please don’t misunderstand:  I’m not delegitimizing its sacredness or divine inspiration.  I’m arguing it contains aspects we readily associate with “literature.”  In the broadest sense, the Bible reveals the tapestry of sin and redemption that weaves throughout the story of eternity.  It’s also literature because it contains literary elements such as conflicts that capture the struggles and successes of how people view themselves, others, and God.  Consider the drama surrounding Esther disregarding her personal safety by defiantly approaching the king (Esther 4:16), Paul’s confessions about his struggles with the sin nature (Romans 7:21-23), or the battle between Christians and the world system (John 17:14-16).
Lastly, the Bible speaks language.  A sentence is a sentence is a sentence regardless of culture or language.  So while we may argue how the “begats” of the Bible challenge our patience with genealogies, we can’t argue about the absence of subjects, verbs, or dependent clauses.  In addition, we should understand and distinguish between the original languages of scripture in the broadest sense: Hebrew and Arabic (Old Testament) and Greek (New Testament).  For a more detailed explanation about the history of Bible translations, I highly recommend Orrin Root’s  Training for Service Student Book: A Survey of the Bible.


While understanding the life, literature, and language of scripture provides our firm foundation for effective Bible study, it also requires our commitment to an expositional approach.  I’ll say more about this next week.

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