Here’s a wonderful question from a dad of teens, named Ryan. Ryan is a ministry partner with us at DG, and he and his bride recently joined us in the beautiful state of Washington. There you led a few live Look at the Book (lab) sessions, Pastor John, teaching the Bible by drawing on the text on your iPad.
After the event, Ryan wrote to ask us this: “Pastor John, hello! Watching you work through Scripture in lab form is so encouraging to my own soul and my own Bible study. Thank you! As we look to disciple our teenage children at home, however, we can feel inadequate explaining passages this way, and are concerned that we are either missing the point, or worse, teaching them incorrectly. Do you recommend using techniques like you do in lab when training children? Or do you recommend another technique? How can parents of teens train their kids to do something lab-like?”
Create the Setting
Well, it seems to me that the first thing a parent has to reckon with is whether the setting has been created in the family, or in the church, where this kind of teaching will feel suitable for the young person.
“When I began to see, as a 22-year-old, how propositions relate to each other, my world exploded with excitement and insight.”
Yes, I do think we should try to teach our young people, but we have to ask this question: Have we created the setting? What I mean is, Is the family used to having devotions which simply involve reading Scripture and prayer? If so, it may feel awkward or strange if we suddenly turn that kind of moment in our family into a classroom setting with assignments and questions and so on.
It seems to me that every family has to come to terms with this. Can we create a time or a setting in the family, or in the church with a fellowship of younger people, where something like a classroom situation — with expectations of rigorous thinking, and questions and answers, and analysis, and assignments — feels natural, even exciting? The mindset needs to be created.
These sessions are meant to inculcate a skill, just like you would inculcate a skill of cooking to one of your children, or a skill of cutting the grass, or tying a knot on a fishing hook so that when a big fish gets on it won’t come off.
The point is not that in every moment of those sessions you’ll experience the fullest joyful payoff of discovery, but later, you get to eat the meal, you get to see the beautifully cut lawn, you get to catch the fish without losing your hook. You’re trying to inculcate a skill for a lifetime, and so the parent needs to come to terms with the question, Can I create a setting in the family where the teaching of skills can happen?
Habits of Mind and Heart
Then, once you’ve got that figured out, which I hope you can, the question becomes, What do you do with that time? Here’s one suggestion.
What’s guiding my suggestion here is that the goal of this teaching is a lifelong habit of mind and heart to approach the Scriptures in a certain way. In other words, being able to do a particular technique is not the goal. Trying to reproduce Piper lab experiences is not the goal. But the habits of mind and the habits of heart that you inculcate, or that you build into your children while working through those techniques — that’s the goal.
I would explain that goal to my children. I’d say, “That’s what we’re after here. I’m not trying to make a little John Piper out of you (or a little whatever out of you). I just want to build into you certain habits of mind and habits of heart so that you will approach the Scriptures fruitfully for the rest of your life.”
Follow Good Examples
As a means to that end, perhaps assign them to watch one or two Look at the Book (lab) sessions a day for a week or two. As they watch, tell them, “Jot down the kind of questions that you see John Piper asking and answering. Write them down. What is he asking? What’s he after? Be as specific as you can.”
“I want to push myself through words into reality.”
Another way to say it would be, “What are the specifics that Piper is looking for as he analyzes the text? Make a list. Be specific.” This will be a challenge especially because oftentimes we don’t have vocabulary for what we’re seeing. This is huge. A huge part of learning a skill is being able to talk about what you’re seeing.
If you don’t have words for what you’re seeing, it becomes very difficult. What if you’re cooking a recipe, and it says, “Add oregano”? Well, you don’t have a clue what oregano is. So you may be very skilled in cooking, but if you don’t know the vocabulary, it will be very hard. The same is true with reading a text, or grammar, and defining relationships between propositions.
While I’m on that, let me just say that in my book Reading the Bible Supernaturally, I have a list of all that vocabulary that you need. It’s pages 397–402. There you’ll find the list of all the relationships, and all the vocabulary, and the names you need to talk about. What I’m suggesting is there.
Let me do this: I want to give you the answer to the question “What is Piper looking for?” This is what you want your kids to find, okay? I have seven questions that I’m asking as I come to a text.
1. Define the Terms
What is the meaning of a particular word in a context? The same word can have many different meanings in different settings, so how does Piper decide on which meaning the word has in this particular setting?
The answer is that he looks at the most immediate context, the sentence in which the word is used, and then he looks at the paragraph, and then he looks at the book.
Take, for example, a word that is used in both Ephesians and Romans. I would look at those books, then the rest of Paul’s writings, and then at the whole Bible. There’s kind of concentric circles as I move out from the most immediate context, which has the greatest force, power, or authority in defining a word.
2. Find the Propositions
What are the propositions that the author has created by putting words together? Propositions are the basic building blocks of meaning. Words get their meaning from their use in propositions. Propositions are the most basic assertions.
They usually have a subject and a verb, with some modifiers. So we might be looking at Romans 1:16, and the word that we want to define is gospel, and the proposition in which it stands is “I am not ashamed of the gospel.” That’s what I mean by words and propositions.
3. Clarify the Relationships
How are the propositions related to each other? Does the proposition start with because? Or does it start with therefore, or in order that, or although, or when, or so on?
“The aim is lifelong habits of mind and heart that humbly and eagerly ask and answer questions from the Bible.”
It really helps to have names for all these relationships, and that’s what I was referring to on pages 396–401 in Reading the Bible Supernaturally. This is the way an author communicates his meaning. He puts words together in propositions, then he puts propositions together in certain logical relationships.
For example, we noticed in Romans 1:16 — “I am not ashamed of the gospel” — that it has a relationship to what’s in front and what’s behind. It says, “I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome. For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation.” So you have three links in a chain of argument. When I began to see that as a 22-year-old, my world exploded with excitement and insight.
4. Determine the Main Point
Then I ask, What’s the flow of the argument as these propositions with their relationships pile up, and what’s the main point of this flow?
5. Compare Texts
What are the similar flows of thought elsewhere in the Bible? For example, in this “I am not ashamed of the gospel” flow in Romans 1, we might go over to 2 Timothy 1:12, where Paul says, “I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed.”
I then ask, What’s the relationship between the flow of thought in how shame is overcome in 2 Timothy and how shame is overcome in Romans 1? When I make comparisons like that, similar flows of thought compared side by side, insights multiply.
6. Face Reality
What’s the actual reality — this is so important — the reality behind the words, and propositions, and flows of thought? Lots of young people, and older people, when they’re getting excited about seeing the meaning of words, seeing how propositions work, seeing how logical flows of thought develop, they get all excited about words and logic.
Suddenly they’re playing a game, and they’re forgetting that there’s heaven and hell, life and death, God and Satan. Massive realities are behind these words, so I want to push myself through words into reality. That’s number six: What’s the realty?
7. Apply the Text
Finally, what are the personal applications I can make of the author’s meaning to my life and the world around me?
“Building in habits of mind and habits of heart for your children is the goal of this kind of family devotion.”
In all seven of those questions, the most helpful tool is the concordance — that is, the book or the computer program that allows you to see all of an author’s use of a particular word every place it’s used. This is my most commonly used tool in Bible study.
Commentaries don’t even come close. Bible dictionaries don’t even come close. What issues all the insight, almost ninety percent of the time, is looking up words that put me onto the trains of thought in an author’s mind.
Once you have helped your children identify those seven kinds of questions, you simply want them to form the lifelong habit of asking and answering those questions.
You can’t do it for them. They have to do that for themselves. You can do that by working through texts with those questions. You can do it together. You can assign them to do it, over and over and over again.
One last suggestion: writing down the answers to those seven questions for every text you study is vastly more fruitful than trying to do it in your head.
Keep in mind the aim is not to master a technique like arcing or lab with John Piper. That’s not the aim. The aim is lifelong habits of mind and heart that humbly and eagerly ask and answer questions from the Bible.