I was born in a Bible study forest, but I didn’t know it. Trees every few feet, tree upon tree. I got to know them pretty well; I could hardly help it: sycamore, acacia, olive, cedar, fig, palm, terebinth. An occasional glade on a rise in that forest offered a glimpse of other rises and perhaps other forests, but it never occurred to me that a view from above might radically adjust my perspective.
Then I went to seminary and took Old Testament Theology with a gifted teacher. He had a hot air balloon, and he took the whole class up in it. For a good while I just couldn’t understand what I was looking down at. I ended up huddling in the corner of the wicker basket, preferring the familiarity of a close-in atmosphere to the vistas expanding beneath me.
But after a while I couldn’t help peeking again. Soon I was so filled with awe that I didn’t want the balloon to descend. But my teacher knew better: he kept taking us back into the trees in different sections of the forest, and then back up, and then back down.
Both vantage points matter
The very first Bible study tip I would offer to someone who wants to know Scripture is to repeat this mantra: forest and trees, trees and forest. General and particular, particular and general. You should spend time in the trees—in the weeds, even. And you should spend time floating quickly on a cloud-high breeze getting the big picture.
That picture is very, very big. It’s the biggest story there is, a story that contains all other stories and will never end. (Indeed, Aslan promised Lucy he would go on telling it to her “for years and years.”) And without that picture, you won’t fully grasp the details you encounter on the ground.
But hot air balloons can go pretty high. Some wild fliers go so far into the stratosphere that they lose all the tree-ish, weed-ish details in a big blur. (And the low oxygen up there gives them hallucinations.) Good Bible interpretation stays close enough to the ground that it can readily bounce up and down.
For a good magnifying glass to help you take a close and careful look at biblical texts, check out the Hermeneutics and Interpretation Bundle. It includes, The Hermeneutical Spiral, a book I read very carefully and found life-changing.
And if you’re looking for the hot-air-baloon view of the Bible, dig into some good biblical theology. This collection from BJU Press will give you a solid start.
Mark L. Ward, Jr. received his PhD from Bob Jones University in 2012; he now serves the church as a Logos Pro. He is the author of multiple high school Bible textbooks, including Biblical Worldview: Creation, Fall, Redemption.