There is a perception among many evangelicals that Bible study is dangerous. I have heard it articulated by ministers and laypeople alike over the years. Once a woman in my Bible study told me her pastor had discouraged in-depth Bible study, saying it promoted the pursuit of “useless Bible knowledge.” (I like to think that’s an oxymoron.) When I heard similar thinking from two different women in one week, I knew it was time to hatch a blog.
The thinking runs something like this: Reading and meditating over Scripture on my own, with the help of the Holy Spirit, will yield me all the knowledge of Scripture I need. In-depth studying—digging into word meanings, learning contextual information, analyzing themes, etc.—will make me prideful. If the Holy Spirit who reveals all truth doesn’t reveal something to me in my personal devotions in the Word, it must not be necessary for my understanding. In fact, that kind of knowledge will “puff me up” with pride.
As a woman who lived through 80s fashion and hair, I can say with certain authority that puffy is not good. We are right to fear the puff. But where does this fear of puffy Christianity come from? We can trace it to the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 8:1–2, where he warns his readers that “knowledge” puffs up, but love builds up.
But does Bible knowledge puff up? How can we square what Paul says with the many passages in Proverbs exhorting us to pursue the knowledge of God? (here are a few: Prov. 10:14, 12:1, 15:14, 18:15, 19:27, 23:12) And what of the words of Hosea 4:6: My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge; because you have rejected knowledge, I reject you from being a priest to me. And since you have forgotten the law of your God, I also will forget your children.
The full counsel of Scripture would indicate that pursuing knowledge is a good thing, not a bad thing. In fact, Paul actually commends his Corinthian readers in the opening verses of chapter 1 for having been enriched in all knowledge of Christ (1 Cor. 1:4–5), only three chapters before he warns about puffiness. The historical and cultural context of Paul’s words shows us that in chapter 4 Paul is making a general statement about the pursuit of knowledge for knowledge’s sake.
The classic example of religious puffiness in the Bible is the Pharisee, whose in-depth knowledge of the scriptures did nothing to soften his heart of stone. But consider this: the Pharisee’s problem was not what his head loved, but what his heart lacked. A heart that genuinely loves God finds that the knowledge of God leads to humility, not hubris—to penitence, not puffiness.
It is worth pointing out that Paul himself was a Pharisee prior to his conversion. In a flash of light, he went from puffy to preacher, and the world was never the same. Knowledge that before had only fueled his pride suddenly took on vibrancy and meaning as his spiritual eyes were opened to truth. Did his conversion cause him to forsake that knowledge? Not at all—he was thereafter able to bring the full weight of it to bear on the proclaiming of the gospel, with pretty dramatic results.
So, is in-depth Bible study dangerous? Absolutely. Depending on the heart of the student, it will lead to either soaring pride or crushing humility. But the earnest student who loves her Savior knows that humility, though often unpleasant to gain, is not to be feared. As Christ’s example has shown us, it is greatly to be desired. Arguably, the church today is in far greater danger from biblical ignorance than from biblical arrogance. Let us be mindful to avoid both of these perils. As those governed not by fear but by perfect love, may we chart a course for informed belief whose compass is humility and whose watchword is grace.
Reprinted with permission from the author.
Editor’s Note: Watch Jen Wilkin’s plenary sessions on teaching God’s Word at the Revive ’15 conference.