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Three Approaches

Three Approaches

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THREE WAYS TO APPROACH THE BIBLE:
Disciplinary Distinctions
Some Suggestions by Jon Paulien
INTRODUCTION

The purpose of this paper is to examine various ways that people approach the Bible with
a view toward learning how to discover and respect divine revelation in the midst of pressing real-
life problems. The ideas in this paper were not developed in direct dialogue with the works of
either Biblical or systematic theologians, but arose out of personal practice and dialogue with
many individuals and groups, both here at the Seminary and in many other settings. The ultimate
goal of the method described in this paper is more practical than theoretical, therefore the terms
used should not be understood in their most technical sense, but in terms of the simpler definitions
offered here.

STATEMENT OF THE BASIC PROBLEM
In recent years two texts have become increasingly disturbing to me. One is found in the
proverbs of Jeremiah (Jer 17:5-11):

The heart is deceitful above all things
and beyond cure.
Who can understand it?

Jer 17:9

This text indicates that a fundamental problem of the sinful human condition is self-deception. At
the innermost level we have the natural tendency to lie to ourselves and, therefore, to see what we
want to see whenever we open the Bible. Our self-deception is usually obvious to others, but
quite hidden from ourselves. Like most Adventists, however, I would hold out the hope that we

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as a corporate body might be spared from such a condition. But that is not what a second text
seems to suggest:

You say, \u201cI am rich;
I have acquired wealth and
do not need a thing.\u201d

But you do not realize
That you are wretched,
pitiful,
poor,
blind and
naked.
I counsel you to buy from me
gold refined in the fire,
so you can become rich; and
white clothes to wear,
so you can cover your shameful nakedness and
salve to put on your eyes,
so you can see.
Rev 3:17-18

Seventh-day Adventists, of course, have long identified themselves with this passage. But
what is Laodicea\u2019s problem? It is the problem of self-deception. What she is and what she thinks
of herself are two different things. It is not a conscious deceit on her part, the remedy of eye
medicine is necessary because she doesn\u2019t even know she has a problem. She needs clear vision
in order to understand the will of God. So I would submit that Adventists have not succeeded in
by-passing the natural human tendency toward self-deception, even in their study of Scripture. If
this is so the tendency to misuse Scripture may be as prevalent among conservative Bible-

believers as it is among Bible-doubting liberals, just more difficult to discern.

There are a number of practical solutions to the problem of self-deception. Authentic
prayer, for example, calls on God to lead us to truth no matter what the personal cost. Journaling
(dialoguing with oneself or with God in writing) can draw out inner thoughts and tendencies that

Those interested in a more thorough outline of the suggestions in this paragraph could
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consult Jon Paulien, Present Truth in the Real World (Boise, ID: Pacific Press, 1993), 191-200.
For purposes of discussion, I include missiology and practical theology under the term
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\u201csystematic theology.\u201d All three are concerned with understanding and carrying out the will of God in the contemporary situation. Church history is more of a descriptive discipline along the lines of exegesis as defined here.

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would otherwise remain hidden from us. And accountability (opening oneself to direct counsel
from others) to fellow Christians, singly or in groups, or even to professional counselors can help
us to see ourselves as others see us, to become more honest about our personal realities.1

Is there a way to read the Bible that can help us grow from self-deception to self-
awareness? How can we bypass the natural defense mechanisms that seek to blind us to the very
truths of the Bible that we so much need? Can our study of the Bible become more of a safeguard
in the church\u2019s formation of its theology? The following system provides insights that have
helped me become more of a learner before God\u2019s Word.

PRACTICAL DEFINITIONS FOR THREE WAYS TO APPROACH THE BIBLE
I would like to suggest that there are three basic ways to approach Bible study; Biblical
exegesis, Biblical theology, and systematic theology. Each of these approaches seeks to answer
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different questions with which we confront the Bible. Each approach should be part of a larger, interdisciplinary process, yet each part of that process needs to be carefully distinguished, so that the strengths of each approach might not be lost through amalgamation.

The Approach of Biblical Exegesis
In practical terms, Biblical exegesis (NT and OT) seeks to answer the question, \u201cWhat
was the Biblical writer trying to say?\u201d What was Paul trying to say when he wrote a letter to the

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