Stephanie writes in to ask this: “The ‘older women’ in my life are concerned with the way I study the Bible. They claim I take an academic approach to reading the word of God, but I’m afraid it is the only way I truly know how to. Nothing makes me more excited than to connect the dots from the Old Testament to the New Testament. With my different colored micron pens, I highlight and underline verses and scribble notes about what God is revealing to me into whatever blank spaces are available in my Bible. I truly feel this is one of the ways I worship God, and I do feel the closest to him while reading his word and watching his divine story unfold on each page. They say I should be reading my Bible more devotionally, not academically. They worry I am making more head-knowledge connections rather than heart-changing connections. Can an academic study of the Bible be God-glorifying?”
When I hear a question like this one, I want to crawl inside the heads of the older women who have this concern about Stephanie, and I want to crawl inside Stephanie’s head as well to see what is really going on there. It may be that I would wind up being entirely on Stephanie’s wavelength and would then need to offer counsel to the older women to have a different attitude. And I will come back to that. Or it may be that I would find things in Stephanie’s heart and mind that would cause me to caution her not to write off their concern.
So let me try to imagine the best of both of their concerns and state them so that Stephanie can test where she fits into this response.
Enjoy God Himself
If I give these older women the benefit of the doubt for a moment, I would ask Stephanie if her excitement about connecting the dots from the Old Testament to the New Testament might sometimes slip over into being an excitement more with intellectual insights than with God himself.
Do the older women detect that there is, perhaps, a slight misplacement? And you need to be careful here, because it is not black and white. It is not either-or. It is subtle — a slight misplacement of affections onto the process of discovery more than on what is discovered. Or, even more delicately, is there a slight misplacement of affections onto what is discovered more than the one who revealed it?
Nobody escapes this danger — nobody. Whatever they are doing, whether they are worshiping corporately or whether they are reading their Bibles, it is possible to delight in the process of giving God praise than in God. Some people enjoy singing praise to God more than they enjoy God. And so we all are vulnerable at these moments.
I am very encouraged when I hear the way Stephanie talks, because when she says, “I truly feel this is one of the ways I worship God, and I do feel the closest to him while reading his word and watching his divine story unfold,” I say, “Amen, amen.” I am glad she is talking that kind of language. And the only caution that I might have as I try to imagine what these older women are concerned about is that Stephanie could develop a kind of fascination with the intricacies of redemptive history and with the typological structures of the Bible that may be disconnected from real life for these older women who aren’t as fascinated as she is by those discoveries.
Typology and Desire
And it is so interesting, Tony — God is so good— just this morning I was devotionally plodding my way through 1 Corinthians 10, where Paul is chastising the Corinthians for some bad behaviors and warning them. And the way he does it is by using the Old Testament people of Israel in Egypt, in the Exodus, in the wilderness at Mount Sinai, to help the Corinthians have right affections and right attitudes. And it was verse 6 that just struck me: “Now these things took place as types.” Now that is tupoi in Greek — types. And I think it is translated “examples” or something like that, which is just fine.
But I think Stephanie will know what I am talking about here, because typology is one way that God, in his marvelous running of history, has caused the Old and the New to be interwoven. There are types and antitypes. And here is what it says: “Now these things took place as examples [types] for us, that we might not desire evil.” And I just stopped and I said, “Paul, you are amazing. You are saying typology is about emotions.” That is what he says. “These things took place as types that you might not desire evil as they did.” So amazing.
Now here is the question for Stephanie: These women that she is relating to are not excited about types. But I will bet they are excited about desires for good, and hatred of evil, and seeing those kinds of changes. And so I am just suggesting that Stephanie, in her excitement, maybe needs to work at helping others, like these older women, see the payoff — the payoff for worship, and the payoff for joy, and the payoff for godliness, instead of simply celebrating with many colored pens what she has seen. And these women are not on the same intellectual wavelength. They are not getting excited about the same things.
But if you move through that, then they might say, “Okay, if Stephanie can get to worship, if Stephanie can get to joy, if Stephanie can get to godliness, if it is having those amazing effects, then we will tolerate her strange way of studying the Bible.”
Let Study Fuel Love
But let me close by giving Stephanie the benefit of the doubt here. All of this cautioning her may not be what she was bargaining for. And maybe I need to be cautioning these older women. So that is what I want to end with: I will give her the benefit of the doubt for a moment. And let me caution these older women who are minimizing, it seems, the importance of what Stephanie is doing.
The answer to Stephanie’s question is yes: Can an academic study of the Bible be God-glorifying? And I might suggest using another word besides academic like serious or rigorous or detailed. The very word academic turns some people off. But I know what you mean. Can an academic study of the Bible be God-glorifying? Answer: Yes. You are an example of it, and I hope that I am too. I want to glorify God by serious, rigorous, detailed study of the Bible that owns up to all that God put there.
But here is something we both need to remember: Some people are wired by God in their genetic makeup that if they themselves make that effort at detailed study, their heads shut down their hearts. It does. As soon as they try their best to think hard, they start feeling cold. And for those of us for whom it works exactly the opposite, we just shake our heads and say, “No, no, it doesn’t work that way.” And they say, “Well, it does work that way.” Now if you put yourself in their shoes, if it works that way for them, they are almost inevitably going to assume it is going to happen to you too, which is why they are suspicious of that kind of study — because it is their experience.
Here is what I have tried to do for 33 years in preaching, because I did that kind of study behind my sermons, and I knew that there were hundreds of people out there who, if I dumped all my study on top of them, would say, “That is so boring.” The best way forward that I know — and this is my advice to Stephanie — is that the one who is studying most rigorously also has to love most rigorously. In other words, if others think that our study will damage us, we must prove to them that it does the opposite. So Stephanie should out-love them, out-rejoice them, out-repent them, and out-serve them. And how will they then be able to say that study is hurting her if all the evidence is in the other direction?