Seven days ago, I discussed why it's important to study the Bible in order to understand who God is, what He expects from us, and how we can get on the right side of the Creator. In essence, to test Him. These things are important because if we don't understand the heart of God and what He wants from us mere mortals, then we can't begin to test Him on His promises, which is what this series is all about.
There is one problem, however, with simply relegating our understanding of God to the study of scripture. As mere mortals, our fallibility gets in the way. That is to say, we are prone to error.
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The reason we have so many different interpretations of scripture (and pretty much everything else) is because of this human tendency to err coupled with our obstinance, desire to veer from the mainstream, and pure selfishness. In essence, we will simply never agree, and it's not scripture's fault.
Aside from our own inability to see eye to eye, scripture also has a certain mystery to it that obscures some aspects of it from our human understanding. This is intentional. Its author did not intend to make it simple.
It's not that the #Bible is complex for the sake of complexity. Rather, we are dealing with the infinite mind of God, which is, by nature, eons above the understanding of finite man. By putting His thoughts about creation, Himself, man and nature, good and evil, and the myriad other subjects one can find in scripture into the written form, He has made it much easier for we mere mortals to understand His permanent immutable perfection. While it is easier, it still is not guaranteed that a study of scripture will get us there. Again, we are fallible, prone to error, and dealing with a mystery.
Because of this cross-section of human proneness to error, a deep mystery that is difficult to fully comprehend, and the breadth and depth of God's reflection of Himself to be found in the written word known as The Bible, it would take many lifetimes to get to the heart of #God in every conceivable way. If each of us relied entirely on our own understanding, none of us would get anywhere, and it's God's intent that we band together, unite under the umbrella of His grace, and rise to a level of understanding that glorifies Him and magnifies His son, and this is why we would do ourselves a favor to seek outside sources to help us better understand what we are reading and to ensure that we don't get off the righteous path.
The question, then, is, What are these outside sources?
Helps That Enlighten Our Understanding of God's Word
When it comes to understanding one another, the surest way to comprehend what one party is saying to another is to simply ask a question. For instance, if you say to me, "Will you run to the supermarket and buy us a bag of beans?" I may not understand on first hearing that by "run" you simply means to go. Furthermore, I know there are many varieties of beans, so I may ask, "Do you have a preference on which kind of beans to buy? Oh, and by the way, is it okay if I drive?"
To that end, if we want to understand the Bible better, and since it is God's love letter to the human race, whatever parts of it we don't understand we can simply ask Him to enlighten us. There's plenty of evidence in scripture itself that points to His willingness and ability to reveal to us a proper understanding on that basis alone. So you can put prayer at the top of the list.
But this post isn't about prayer. I'll cover that topic in more detail in a later post. In this post, I want to point out some extra-canonical helps that we can benefit from as we study the Bible.
Not only can we get a better understanding of a person's heart and soul by asking them questions, spending time with them, observing them and interacting with them in a personal way, but we can also get a better understanding of an individual by talking to others. So, for instance, if I want to know whether or not I should vote for Bernie Sanders in the upcoming presidential election, if I do not have the benefit of spending time with the presidential contender and I've exhausted my study of his stand on the issues, I may seek out the opinions of people who know him personally. I may ask people who have encountered him at some point in their lives, "What's your opinion of Bernie Sanders," or "What issues do you agree with Bernie on?" and "On what issues do you differ?" I may also read news accounts and editorials about him.
Extra-canonical sources are the equivalent to that sort of opinion-seeking with regard to the Bible, and God. We have the benefit of 2,000 years of church history, with many written texts concerning the subject, and several thousand years of Jewish textual history before that. We would be fools not to take advantage of this material.
What Are Some of These Extra-Canonical Sources?
With the thousands of years behind us to draw upon, there are far many good sources of literature to help us better understand God, His plan for the human race, and what He expects from us. The Bible alone could keep us busy for a while. But there are other texts that can prove helpful. This is not exhaustive list, but it's a good start.
- The Apocrypha - If you take the study of the Bible seriously, you'll discover there is a period of about 400 years missing between the last Old Testament book of Malachi and the New Testament. It was not a silent period. There were works written during this time that are not considered by many Christian sects to be canonical but which can be helpful and aid in a better understanding of Jewish history and even the canonical texts of scripture. The protestant churches don't typically include The Apocrypha in their Bibles whereas the Catholic church does. There's some interesting reading here that can shed light on certain parts of scripture.
- The Didache - The Didache is considered by some scholars to be the first Christian catechism. It's an early church writing, dated to the first century, that includes sections on Christian ethics, rituals, and church organization.
- Writings of Early Church Fathers - During the first three centuries of Christendom, the church was a loosely organized and decentralized network of churches. That's not to say they were ineffective. Quite the contrary. Despite persecutions, hardships, and other obstacles that threatened the early church, it quickly grew into such a powerful force that Rome eventually recognized it as the state religion. Before that happened, however, several early prominent church fathers, theologians, and pastors and bishops wrote vociferously to defend the faith and instruct other Christians on how to live the Christian life. Some of these include Clement of Rome, Ignatius, Polycarp, Origen, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and others. There is wide agreement and disagreement with the writings of each of these church fathers, but reading them helps us get a better understanding of how diverse the early church was in its thinking.
- Commentaries - Theologians throughout history have enlightened the church with attempts to explain the Bible through expositions called commentaries. There are thousands of these, and it seems that many theologians, after gaining some notoriety in academia, today want to write their own. For most of church history, theologians didn't write commentaries to pamper their vanity. Rather, they considered it a service to the church. I won't mention all of them, but some of the most important historically include the writings of St. Augustine of Hippo, St. Thomas Acquinas's Summa Theologica, the writings of Martin Luther, and John Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion. This is just a few, but represent a good place to start.
- Bible Handbooks - I've found several Bible handbooks to be helpful in studying the Bible. Handbooks offer archaeological data, cultural information, maps, and other helpful discoveries that can shed light on certain parts of scripture, the early church, the Old Testament Jewish culture, and other items of interest in a meaningful way. They typically go into details you won't find in theological treatises and commentaries. A few of the best ones I've found are Halley's Bible Handbook. Unger's Bible Handbook, and "What The Bible is All About" by Henrietta Mears.
- Lexicons - The Bible is written primarily in Greek and Hebrew, with some Aramaic passages. While there are a great many excellent translations of the Bible, it does help to go back to the original languages once in a while. Unless you have a thorough understanding of ancient Greek and Hebrew, your best best is to use a lexicon, which helps in understanding the definitions of the original words and to offer a better understanding of the text in its original languages accounting for the differences in language nuances and idiomatic expressions between cultures and time periods.
- Concordances and Bible Dictionaries - Concordances list words found in the Bible and where to find them. Good ones also include dictionaries and lexicons to help us better understand the context of the words within the scripture. The best ones I've found are Strong's Exhaustive Concordance, Young's Analytical Concordance to the Bible, and Nave's Topical Bible. I've also found Vine's Concise Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words helpful.
- Historical Writings - As I mentioned earlier, history is full of well-written works by others who have shed light on the church, the Bible, God, and various other spiritual topics. From the first century into the beginning of the 21st, every historical period has a few standout men and women of faith who have done well to represent God's word through their enlightened writings. Many of them weren't theologians in a strict sense, but they've given a library of interesting and thoughtful readings. Here are a few I'd recommend starting with: Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis, Hinds' Feet in High Places by Hannah Hurnard, The Pilgrim's Progress from This World by John Bunyan, Church History by Eusebius, Dark Night of the Soul by St. John of the Cross, The Deeper Christian Life by Andrew Murray, Fox's Book of Martyrs by John Foxe, Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton, and many more.
- The Works of Josephus - Finally, I'd be remiss if I didn't include Titus Flavius Josephus, a Jewish historian who lived in the first century, shortly after Christ's crucifixion. His historical writings serve as very interesting reading that has turned many a skeptic into a believer simply because his histories confirm much of what Christians and Jews have believed for centuries. There's no evidence he accepted Christ as his savior, but there's plenty of evidence his histories are well-researched and true accounts of events during one of the most important periods in world history.
I'm not a scholar or a historian, so I can't vouch for the accuracy and truthfulness of every source listed here, but this list is based on a general consensus among a good cross-section of Christian leaders familiar with them. As a researcher and a journalist, I've found that whenever I find sources of information that agree on specific facts when they disagree on a lot of other things, then those facts are generally reliable. That's why I don't mind recommending these sources. Their agreement on specific details makes those details pretty reliable.
To circle back around to the main point, that is, on using these materials to test God, the main idea I want to get across is that God has made a point to give us enough information about what His plan is, what He expects of us humans, and how we ought to live. If you're like me, you probably don't just want to take somebody else's word for it. That's why seeking out as much information as you can from as many sources as you can and comparing them makes for a great understanding of the important points in the primary material. When you figure out what those points are, you can then set about testing them. So the first step is to perform some research, then after collating the data, you analyze it. But analysis will only get you so far. The only real way to know if vanilla pudding is any good is to taste it. By tasting it, you can test whether its claims to goodness are reliable. So, too, I suggest you can test God on His promises. But you must first know what those promises are and what their intended impact upon your life are. Happy testing.
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