How to Study the Bible

From my reading of Church Dogmatics so far, it is clear to me that Karl Barth believed that the Word of God is found in Scripture. This past week I came across Barth’s advice on how to study and interpret Scripture. Since the Swiss theologian is writing primarily for the benefit of pastors with seminary educations,he uses two terms that may not be familiar to all of my readers: hermeneutics and exegesis. Hermeneutics is the field of study concerned with the philosophy and science of interpretation. It is concerned with how we interpret the Bible. The term exegesis refers to the specific process of drawing the meaning out of a biblical text.

Barth writes that the basic principle of all hermeneutics is that each passage of the Bible must be understood and explained in light of its parallels in Scripture, obscure passages by clear ones. He goes on to say that there are three phases of the process of scriptural interpretation: observation, explanation, and application.

The first step in the process is the act of observation and the professor who served for eleven years as a Swiss pastor says that the most important instrument to use in observation is what he calls literary-historical investigation. This involves using the methods of source criticism, lexicography, grammar, syntax and appreciation of style. Since Barth wrote primarily for pastors, he assumes that they will have some familiarity with the biblical languages – Hebrew and Greek, and that they will have been exposed to technical issues such as determining the most likely text when multiple ancient manuscripts are not in full agreement. But I believe that serious students of the Bible who have not had a seminary education and who don’t know Hebrew or Greek, can still profit from carefully observing a biblical text and asking, “What does it say?”

Barth’s second step in biblical exegesis is what he calls “the act of reflection on what Scripture declares to us.” I would call this step explanation. It answers the question, “What does it mean?” Here Barth cautions that we must be aware of our philosophical point of view that will influence how we derive meaning from Scripture. None of us can avoid bringing our own perspectives and prejudices to the task of understanding a Scripture text. Barth writes, “There has never yet been an expositor who has allowed only Scripture alone to speak” (page 728 of volume 1.2).

When slave owners in the South prior to the Civil War read their Bible, they found plenty of evidence to support the institution of slavery. But their slaves who were permitted to learn to read, discovered many Bible texts that supported their aspirations for freedom. In our current debates about homosexuality in general and same-sex marriage in particular, I’ve often heard Christians boldly assert that homosexuality (or at least homoerotic behavior) is against the will of God. However I’ve also read many books by thoughtful Christians who happen to be gay, who, on the basis of intensive study of Scripture conclude that God is not opposed to same-sex love. What you bring to the Bible will often determine what you get out of it. (Based on my own study of the Bible on the issue of homosexuality, I have been compelled to change my own thinking and now agree with those who find no prohibition to same-sex love and marriage. Depending on the interest of my readers, I may write more about this in the future.)

Karl Barth is not a relativist who thinks that Scripture can mean whatever one wants to make it say, but he warns us to be aware of the perspectives and prejudices we all bring to the task of understanding God’s Word.

For many years I have had the privilege of teaching the Bible to small groups of adults. One thing I have noticed is that people want to interpret what the Bible means before first asking what it says. Barth reminds us that observation must precede explanation.

Barth’s third step in biblical exegesis is what he calls “appropriation” – what I would call application. Bible study should never be simply an academic exercise. It should lead to speaking and obeying the Word of God we find in Scripture.

In Karl Barth’s own life, his diligent study of the Bible led him to resist and denounce Hitler’s effort to make the German Church into an exclusive Aryan club with myths and rituals drawn from German culture. While the majority of German Christians went along with Hitler’s efforts to make the church in Germany subordinate to the state, Barth resisted this effort and was exiled from Germany prior to World War II.

The goal of Bible study is finally obedience to the Word of God in our current life circumstances. I hope this brief review of the process of Bible study will help you become a more informed and obedient follower of the Word of God.

Unprofitable, but not idle servants

Here is a brief post I made on Facebook today:

The late Karl Barth is regarded by many as the most important Christian theologian of the Twentieth Century. Certainly he was one of the most prolific. His seven volume Church Dogmatics is more than 8,000 pages long. In April I decided to attempt to read all of Barth’s magnum opus and have read at least ten pages a day since then. I also set up a website where I could share my reflections, insights, and frustrations in reading this challenging work. The website is As far as I can determine, almost nobody has looked it. So, just for today, I want to post a brief but meaning statement from Barth that I encountered in today’s reading: “When we have done all that was required of us, we must add that we are unprofitable servants. But if we infer from this that we might equally well allow ourselves to be idle servants, we are not trusting in the grace of the Word of God.”

Meditation from McDonalds

Again I’m taking a break from my Church Dogmatics blog to write a little meditation from a McDonalds in St. Petersburg.

I am writing today from a McDonalds on the second floor overlooking the Alexander Nevsky Square which is the eastern end of Nevsky Prospekt, the main street of the city.

Alexander Nevsky is one of the most celebrated of Russian heroes. He may be most famous for leading a small band of Russians who turned back an invasion of Swedes in the Battle of Neva in 1240 when he was only 19-years-old. Due to this crucial victory, Alexander was given the sobriquet “Nevsky” which means Neva.
Alexnder Nevsky is also famous for the dramatic Battle on the Ice in 1242. A group of Teutonic Crusader Knights along with knights from Denmark and Germany plus Estonian infantry was drawn onto the frozen Lake Peipus by cunning Alexander. In the fierce battle on the ice, Alexander’s troops defeated the over-confident Crusaders who never again were able to push east into Russian territory. I believe that it is this battle which is depicted in a large mural inside the entrance of the Alexander Nevsky Square Metro station.The heroic Alexander was glorified (canonized) by the Russian Orthodox Church in 1547. By order of Peter the Great, Nevsky’s relics were transported to the Alexander Nevsky Lavra in St. Petersburg where they remain to this day. (I had to look up the word lavra and found that in Orthodox Christianity it refers to a type of monastery consisting of a cluster of cells or caves for hermits, with a church and sometimes a refectory at the center.)

From the window in McDonalds I can see the large statue of Alexander Nevsky clad in what looks like knight’s armor astride a horse in the center of a traffic circle. I can also see the dome of the church in the background.

(There is a bakery in the refectory of the Alexander Nevsky Lavra where Tanya and I have sometimes purchased the fresh, tasty bread.)

In the distance I can see main river on which St. Petersburg was founded, the River Neva.

Across from Alexander Nevsky’s statue I see the entrance the the Alexander Nevsky Lavra which was established by Peter the Great in 1710 just seven years after he founded the city on the banks of the Neva. I can see the dome of the church in the background. I also see a yellow wall across the street and know that beyond that wall lies two of the more remarkable cemeteries I’ve ever visited. The name of the cemetery is Tikhvin. It is referred to as a necropolis, literally a “city of the dead.”

One side of this cemetery some of the first famous residents of the city are buried. The other side is reserved for famous Russian artists. The first time I wandered through it, I was astonished to see the decorative monumental grave sites of so many Russian artists who are well-known worldwide. Just inside the gate to the cemetery I found the grave site of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, who lived and wrote in in St. Petersburg and used the city as the setting for novels including Crime and Punishment.

Several events of Dostoyevsky’s life stick in my mind. One is the time he was arrested by the Tzar’s police and accused of some sort of anti-government crime. After spending some days in a dank prison in the Peter-Paul Fortress, he and others were taken out and placed before a firing squad. There he faced the prospect of an immanent violent death. But at the last minute a soldier rode up and declared that the prisoners had been granted a reprieve by the Tzar. Dostoyevsky was sent to Siberia for years, but was eventually able to return to St. Petersburg. I also recall two other related aspects of the writer’s complex life. Like many Christians of his time, Dostoyevsky disliked Jews and often expressed anti-Semitic sentiments in his novels. He also suffered from an addiction to gambling and lost a great deal of money due to this vice. He struggled to free himself from his gambling habit, but was only cured when he happened one day to drop into a Jewish synagog.

The artist’s cemetery also contains the graves of more famous musical composers than any cemetery in the world. Here I’ve seen the final resting places of Alexander Glazunov, Mikhail Glinka, Modest Mussorgsky, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Anton Rubinstein, Mily Balakierev, Cesar Cui, Alexander Borodin, and my favorite – Pyotr Ill’yich Tchaikovsky. This little cemetery is a striking reminder of the cultural heritage of Russia which has enriched the world with its literature and music.

Tchaikovsky is my favorite Russian composer. My late parents told me that when I was just a baby, they would play his music for me on old 78 rpm records. Many times I have thrilled to his 1812 Overture especially when I have attended a live performance with booming canon and flashing fireworks. Many times I’ve enjoyed the Nutcracker and Swan Lake ballets. Last summer I was thrilled to see my Christian friend, Xander Parish, dance the lead role of Prince Siegfried in Swan Lake at the prestigious Mariinsky Theatre here in St. Petersburg.

Only late in life did I discover that Tchaikovsky was most likely a homosexual and that his shame about his sexual orientation may have led to his death. That makes me wonder how many good and talented people have suffered at the hands of their contemporaries who considered being a homosexual a shameful, sinful condition.

Well, with all this writing, I’ve worked up the appetite for a Big Mac, so now I’ll go to lunch.

How Russians and Americans See Each Other

Today I’m taking a break from my observations regarding Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics to make a simple observation about Russia and America.

Since 1989 I have been visiting Russia – usually staying a month or more each time. I have lost count of how many times I have made trips to Russia, but I know its over 20. I’m well acquainted with Moscow and St. Petersburg as well as the small town of Borovichi. Several times I have journeyed to Ukraine. I’ve met all kinds of Russians: rich and poor, well educated and barely educated, old and young. I’ve had extended conversations with Russians in their own language.

Based on my personal experience, I can make the following generalization: Americans tend to see Russia through the lens of politics while Russians tend to see America through the lens of culture.

When I discuss Russia with Americans, the conversation inevitably focuses on the latest conflicts or agreements between the American government and the leaders of Russia. Right now that relationship is strained by conflict over Ukraine and the economic sanctions President Obama and his administration have placed on Russia. There is evidence that these economic sanctions have hurt the Russian economy and have made the life of the average Russian harder. Given the current political tensions between the two countries, I wondered if this year when I came to Russia I would experience some level of hostility to me as an American. I am glad to report that that is not the case. This summer I have been welcomed everywhere here as warmly as in the past. When people ask, “Where are you from?” I usually say, “California,” and the responsive is always positive. I sometimes apologize to people that I don’t speak fluently and they invariably say something like, “No, you speak well enough.” No matter that I garble their grammar and can’t find the vocabulary to express myself. They are flattered that an American is trying to speak their language.

When my wife and I walk down Nevsky Prospekt, the main street of St. Petersburg, I notice that the movie theaters are showing all our American first run movies. I hear American pop music in the street. Last week my wife and I went to a jazz concert not knowing what would be played. It turned out to be all American jazz favorites. The Beatles are adored here. Venders in the street now sell hamburgers and hot dogs. In brief, Russians have embraced nearly all aspects of American culture.

We Americans, on the other hand know very little of the riches of Russian culture. How many Americans could identify Alexander Pushkin or name one Russian rock group? (It is hard to find a Russian who cannot recite many lines of Pushkin’s poetry.) How many Americans have tasted blini or pelmeni? When Americans envision Russia, they may picture parades of soldiers marching through Red Square. When Russians picture America, they think of the soap opera series “Santa Barbara” and living the good life on the Pacific Coast in California.

I am grateful that I have discovered the Russian people with all their warmth, hospitality, and good humor. I have grown to appreciate the enormous contributions have made to world culture in music, literature, dance, and art. I wish more Americans would come to know the Russia I have discovered.

Fleeing to God’s mercy

My eyes are tired and my brain numb today after reading ten pages of small print in Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics. I wish Barth had had a more readable style or a good editor who would have made him trim down his wordiness. I wish the esteemed Swiss theologian had heeded the words of Augustine which he quoted (in Latin) at the end of Volume 1.1 of Church Dogmatics: “Free me, God, from the wordiness which afflicts me in my soul and which, wretched in your sight, flees to your mercy.” I wish Barth had made that prayer his own. Instead he inflicted his readers with an additional 8,000 pages of dense wordiness often in tiny print. It is Barth’s readers who now have to flee to God’s mercy.