Perhaps the most important learning I undertook while a member of the Oxford Study Centre was discovering the coherency, reliability, and excitement of the Bible. Upon entering the course, I thought I knew about the Bible. I mean, I had attended Sunday school as a young child and learned the routine Bible stories. As I got older I always listened to the Bible readings and sermon during church. Heck, on my personal bookshelf there were two or three different translations of the Bible that I would peruse now and again. To top it all off, when I was a freshman at Messiah college I even completed the mandatory Bible 101 course.
Yet, despite all of the exposure I had to the Bible, I didn’t really know what to make of it. In a variety of settings I had been encouraged to have my own personal Bible time, but I never knew where to start. People advised me to read from the New Testament, but being a bit of book snob, that idea never sat well with me. If I was going to read the Bible, I wanted to start at the beginning and finish at the end… Yet, when I dutifully slogged my way through the start of the Old Testament, I found it difficult to get a cognitive grasp on what was happening.
My Bible reading, in all honesty, was most often begun with an agenda. I would hear of a claim, from a friend, in a sermon, or in a book and decide to take it upon myself to investigate it. However, my research was usually enacted with a biased end goal in mind. To complicate matters, upon taking my Bible 101 course at Messiah, I discovered there was a historical aspect to the Bible I had never seriously considered. On one hand, it was enlightening and interesting to learn some of the historical contexts of stories in the Bible, but on the other hand, I was discouraged that reading the Bible wasn’t necessarily as simple as merely ingesting the sentences on the page.
Then there were the arguments against the reliability of the Bible. All matters of human error could have slipped in along the way. Perhaps a word or letter was transposed, or maybe a passage had been interpreted and translated in the wrong way. In the gospels we have discrepancies and differences in accounts supposedly of the same circumstances. Some of the Bible is poetry while other portions are prose. There is hyperbole and metaphor. Then there is the content itself. I encountered this seemingly wrathful God in the Old Testament that appeared entirely at odds with teachings of the same God, Jesus, in the New Testament. All in all, by the time I started with the Oxford Study Centre, I was rather jaded about the Bible.
The Bible, in my eyes, was this foreboding, esoteric collection of books, but I also held the notion that there was some arcane method to unlocking all of it secrets. If I could only read it in the right way, I thought, I would either be able to prove the existence of God or debunk all theological claims. I longed to experience knowing God through reading His Holy Word, but I was left doubting that the Good Book was anything more than an outdated and legalistic remnant of a people looking for a ‘God of Gaps’ to fill in their logic and on whom they could hang their hopes.
However, that was not how Kevin, the Oxford Study Centre director and instructor, or most of the other students I was learning alongside saw the Bible. Instead, they saw it as coherent, reliable, and instructive. Each Friday, as the ten of us gathered around a large table in Kevin’s family home, we often turned to Scripture. Each Friday, I left our learning time immensely intrigued by what I had learned about the Bible. By the end of the course, I had discovered that I could indeed trust the Bible, that it was accessible to me, and that the story was consistent from Genesis to Revelation. But perhaps that greatest gift I left with was a strong, rational, belief in the Christian Trinitarian God that was largely propelled by my newfound trust in the Bible.
What happened in those weeks, on those Friday afternoons, around that wooden table with Kevin and the other students that hadn’t happened in any other setting during the first twenty years of my life? Why was it that the Bible suddenly seemed to make sense and to be reliable? Obviously, the content of the Good Book hadn’t changed. So what did I learn that I hadn’t learned in Sunday School, Church, or Bible 101?
One of the simplest, yet most profound things I learned was: Context is king. In a way, this related back to my Bible 101 class, because the historical setting of the Bible passage is important to consider when seeking to understand a passage. However, it also emphasized the the danger of looking at only one verse without knowing the larger context of that verse. When considering a verse, I now had new ways to assess it. Who wrote the verse? To whom were they writing or speaking? What was said before and after?
We are so often inundated with single Bible verses. They hang in our churches, fill our Pinterest feeds and are spoken to us by friends and teachers. Yet there is a danger we face when we apply a verse to a current situation without understanding how it was originally intended. As the saying goes, “A text without a context is a pretext.” Learning that context is king, helped me develop a better way of reading the Bible because I knew I could easily get a sense of context by reading the whole paragraph instead of just a verse, and, for further understanding, I could research deeper historical contexts through commentaries.
Which leads into the second major takeaway from the course: As ogres are like onions, so the Bible is like Shrek. If you are familiar with the movie, Shrek, you might remember a scene where Shrek is trying to explain to Donkey that, as an ogre, he is more than a barbaric monster. “For your information,” Shrek says, “there’s a lot more to ogres than people think.” When Donkey asks for an example, Shrek continues, “Ogres are like onions…they both have layers.” Just as Shrek used an onion to explain his complex nature comprised of different layers, Kevin used Shrek the movie to explain the Bible.
I distinctly remember as he explained to us an idea he had heard years ago; the Bible is like Shrek. “When you are watching Shrek,” he began, “the basic plot is accessible enough. The same is true of the New Testament. The basic story line is readily understood” He continued to explain that Shrek becomes more entertaining, comedic, and exciting when you know things outside of the basic plot such as Grimm’s fairy tales, Disney movies, and pop culture. If you have seen the movie, I’m sure you can easily picture scenes that had more meaning to them because you knew the backstory (perhaps the scene where Pinocchio is in prison might to mind…).
He then explained to us that the New Testament becomes multi-dimensional, colorized, and dynamic when we know about the Old Testament. When we know who Abraham and David are, and when we know about the Jewish exodus and exile, then the layers of allusion in the New Testament become apparent…just like when the movie Shrek alludes to a fairy tale. Through the explanation he was able to illustrate to us the intertexuality and typology of the Bible.
The final gift I left with was simply the gift of having studied under Kevin himself. Because of his own studies and education, Kevin was able to show us the connections between the Old Testament and the New Testament and together we explored passages where Jesus or Paul was referencing something in the Old Testament. We were also exposed to the nitty-gritty of learning about the original Greek in the New Testament and evaluating whether a specific translation captured the true meaning well. Due to his adept understanding and Biblical proficiency I learned that the Bible is indeed a fully coherent book, which has equipped me to speak with integrity when sharing the Gospel with others.
I’ve only just scratched the surface here with a broad overview of what I learned about the Bible through the Oxford Study Centre, but I hope it conveyed a glimpse into the deep understanding of my faith developed through my studies.
Share with me: Do you think you can trust the Bible? What has been the most impactful way that you have studied the Bible? Seriously, call me up, write me a note, send me a message or comment somewhere. I would love to hear your thoughts.
For more information about the program I studied with, the Oxford Study Centre, please visit their website and take some time to look around the wealth of information on Kevin Bywater’s personal website.