The Dangerous Idea of Bible Study

The Dangerous Idea of Bible Study

A few years ago, Alister McGrath—a conservative, British, Anglican theologian—published a fascinating book entitled, Christianity’s Dangerous Idea (Amazon, B&N). The point of the book was to confront a danger Christians fall into in Western culture: namely, the idea that the interpretation of the Bible is something that we should primarily try to do on our own. McGrath confronts this notion head-on, claiming that this is more about Western individualism than it is about responsible biblical hermeneutics.

McGrath’s book is actually mistitled; it should be called Protestantism’s Dangerous Idea, as this is more accurate. The “dangerous idea” that McGrath wants to confront is deeply embedded in the heart of the Protestant reformation, that all Christians are on equal footing when it comes to interpreting the Bible. And of course, in one sense, this is certainly true. The Holy Spirit does live within a regenerate person, allowing him or her to read and feed on God’s Word in a way that was not possible prior to salvation. But in another sense, McGrath is spot-on.

There is a strain in Western evangelicalism that is narrow and self-centered. It argues that we don’t need outside help to study the Bible. It believes that we can “do it all by ourselves.” This idea can even creep into ministries like Precepts and BSF.

There are several dangers if the idea of “private Bible study” is taken too far:

  1. We are fallen, sinful human beings who only see through a glass darkly. We need help, from others, to make sure we are seeing things accurately.
  2. God has given the gift of “teacher” to the church to help protect and guide her. We need commentaries and reference books precisely for this reason. God expects us to interpret Scripture as a redeemed community.
  3. All of us are culturally bound, meaning this: we inevitably pick up attitudes and assumptions from breathing the cultural air around us. We are typically blind to these. Reading the ideas and perspective of others, outside of our own culture and century, can be incredibly helpful for not going off track spiritually. We need to know what Calvin said, what Augustine thought, and what John Owen believed about a passage.

So the next time you’re tempted to pick up a Bible and think, I can do this all by myself! I don’t need any help, remember what kinds of people typically utter this phrase—toddlers!

by Jay Childs, Senior Pastor