Each book of the Bible bears a distinct witness to life with God. Asking the right questions and using good study methods can help us to recognize and receive that witness, so that it shapes and textures our own vision of the Christian life.
When we study a book of Scripture it can reveal to us not just the outward actions God calls us to, but also the inner processes and principles behind them. In addition, it can help us learn and grasp the resources that make the Christian life possible. We can find out how life with God actually works, as depicted in that particular book of Scripture. We shouldn’t assume we already know these things; there’s always more to discover.
So the first thing we can do when approaching a book of Scripture is read it straight through with eyes open for clues to that book’s unique witness. We look for the literary aspects that feed into and shape its particular message. These include the occasion that led the author to write, the stated aims of the author, and the main themes. (Books of the Bible don’t usually leave us in the dark; a close reading is enough, even without the help of a commentary or study Bible, to get at these things.)
To go still deeper, we can study how the book’s main aims and themes intersect and relate to one another. Taking note of these intersections in a biblical book is like hitting a tennis ball with the part of a racket where the longest and most important strings intersect – the sweet spot. In tennis, using the sweet spot is crucial for accuracy and power. Likewise, when studying a book of Scripture, if we can pinpoint the main aims and themes, and trace how they interrelate, then we’ve found our way to the heart of the book. We want to aim for that kind of accuracy, because it takes us to the real depth and power of what’s written.
Pinpointing the main aims and themes of a book of Scripture (or even within a particular passage), and dwelling on how they relate to one another, protects us from misunderstanding. Friedrich Schleiermacher called hermeneutics “the art of understanding”. He also called it “the art of avoiding misunderstanding”. He said that misunderstanding happens “if I take as the main thought what is only a secondary thought”. To recognize a book of the Bible’s vision for life with God, we need to make the most of the places where the main aims and themes intersect, and the ways they intersect. This keeps us from overemphasizing what’s secondary.
Yet there may still be a farther distance to go in order to grasp how the book depicts the Christian life. To get there, we can try to discern and follow the particular reasoning of a book of the Bible when it is at its most practical. When it gives commands or makes statements about the Christian life, we can pay close attention to the line of thought and how one statement, image, or command builds upon others. Often a basis is given for a command. Often a book will describe not just a desired behavior but also resources for arriving at that behavior. By tracing such patterns of reasoning, we can often see the inner processes of life with God – how this life actually works, and what makes it possible.
Finally, all of the above involves tapping into the awareness of God known by the writers of Scripture. Every book of Scripture depicts a way of life suffused with convictions about God. Even when a book is at its most practical, statements about God (maybe Jesus Christ, maybe the Holy Spirit) are close at hand. Studying a book of Scripture leads to an awareness of God at the heart of the outer behaviors, inner processes, and fundamental resources of the life of faith. So we approach a book of Scripture with an attitude of prayerfulness. Study of Scripture requires using good methods and asking the right questions, but it also demands that we be open to the living God who inspired the object of study and speaks through it.
Note: This piece would look a little different in the case of books of the Bible that are narratives. I am primarily thinking of New Testament epistles here, but most of this also applies to other kinds of books in the Bible.