The living Body of Christ is at a unique time in history. Thanks to technology, internet, social/new media, mass production, smart phones, translation ministries, dramas, voice recordings the Holy Bible has never been more available to the church, and we have never been at a higher time of literacy either. Yet it raises the quandary then why at this time in history is the average Christian the most biblically illiterate?
Could it possibly be because of familiarity? A belief that the children of God have already understood all the revelations available or is it more of the ideal of specialization in which the church employs a pastor/minister/preacher/priest/clergy to read/teach/interpret the scriptures for us so that we do not have to? All raise a challenge, which is why for this student who has built a clerical career on disciple making to discover Elmer L. Towns’ Bible Study Methods (1998) that clearly states the point behind being a teacher, “teaching is the preparation and guidance of learning activities” (p.4). Simply put, the goal of a bible study facilitator, a preacher, or another spiritual director within the Body of Christ is to inspire other body parts to turn not only to the sacred scriptures, but also to God.
This excellent work by Towns’ was crafted while he was teaching, and dissecting the methods needed to truly equip, empower, illuminate, and enlighten the student to the working of God through the living texts. This short paper will not contain enough space in summary and interpretation to do justice to the book, but it is a clear guideline to aid in equipping teachers within the church to truly make disciples.
Growing out of the definition of teaching referenced in the introduction Towns grows it by clearly stipulating that the study of the Bible is foundational for growth as a Christian (p. 12). The rest of the work is comprised on methodologies on how to do this. For Towns the best study of scripture begins when the reader/hearers/studier are first primed through foundation and continual prayer (p.21).
Equipping with prayer allows for the ability to create an experience for the student (for personal study the student will be you, for groups those that one may be teaching): (a) a sense of bible discovery, (b) self-activity, (c) interested and involved, (d) the lessons solve their problems, (e) work harder than before, (f) cooperate with others, (g) learning needs are met, (h) student enters into the leaders experience, (i) something new is learned, (j) they enjoy the learning and have fun (p.6-7). Out of this type of experience the student enters into what Towns’ states as the five finger approach to scripture within their own lives: (a) hearing in church/study group, (b) read on their own, (c) study, (d) memorize passages, and (e) meditate upon the scriptures (p.16). Towns encourage the engagement of a wider array of senses while doing study by encouraging participants to writer (p.17) and to come to the text with four questions:
- What is the point of the passage?
- Where is the thought found in the parallel passage?
- What are the problems in this passage?
- What are some practical applications for this passage?
These four questions are the geneses for a broader teach ability of a passage. From these questions one can arrive at a deeper understanding of the passage than before, which then leads into making the bible a living text:
- Observe its facts accurately
- Write its meaning correctly
- Prize its lessons continually
- Apply its principles daily
- Obey its commands implicitly
From these first two structures Towns next brings the reader into a systematic read through for planning out lessons to be able to inspire further reflection and learning from the congregation. This is founded on a five reading system:
- Read through first to discern the central theme
- Read a second time circling key words for further study.
- Read a third time and highlight key verses to further explore.
- On the fourth reading make notes as to how the Biblical writer developed their central theme.
- On the fifth reading begin to develop a book outline.
These methodologies are what the reading and teaching are based around the central genres found within scripture whether it is biography, parable or other. These methods are also used in building doctrines out of the scriptures, but not to invert and use the bible to proof text the doctrine that one wants to use (p. 47-50). Towns’ notes that biblical doctrines are the foundation of life and ministry (p.47).
What does this all mean for one attempting to understand scripture on their own or within the context of a group as either a leader or participant? Towns’ work has created a trajectory of engagement for the Christian. The act of Biblical reading is not a passive reading as one would do with a dime-store mystery novel on the beach on vacation. No, coming to the Bible is an activity of full engagement for the person in unity with God through the Holy Spirit.
Interpretation is to be an active and thoughtful critique of the material presented within the summary section as to whether or not the writer is on the right track. How does one critique that which is on the right track, is accessible and usable? The answer is by looking at two teaching examples Towns’ laid out within his text.
The work brings the learner to the idea of biographical preaching (p.31), but the reader can also see the use of biographical teaching. Biography is not necessarily a cohesive or continual set of verses, or a small set of verses. It is taking up a certain character within the scriptures to draft ones lessons/messages about (p.31). Think of the auspices of lifting up heroes such as Esther, Abraham, Jesus’ earthly Dad – Joseph, Mary of Nazareth, the boy at the arrest, David or even James brother of the Lord? The power is the same when believers share their own stories or through the study of the Saints within the Roman Catholic tradition. The story of how God has transformed (perhaps Transfigured?) an individual to answer the vocation of their soul.
A useful tool learned while being trained as a spiritual director to enter into the scriptural story. That is to re-write the story from the perspective of all the main characters (as sympathetic characters regardless of their role) to experience the scripture anew. This is quite useful when preparing biography lessons/messages and even to encourage members to use this form of devotional study in their own lives.
The next piece to touch on is the example of doctrine. Within Christianity Towns’ states that the English word doctrine is derived from the Latin meaning teaching (p.49). The word itself can also be found within the scriptural texts when a writer refers to “the faith” (p.49). The attempt is to bridge the idea of doctrines that one may not agree with, with the concept that they are biblically rooted.
The challenge though is how the scriptures of the Holy Mystery have been abused to uphold doctrines and beliefs of oppression. Historically biblically rooted doctrines have kept women subjugated; labelled Aboriginals as savages; stipulated that slavery was Godly; and that at least in Roman Catholicism, clerics are to be celibate. There was extra-biblical, actually political mores, for each of these doctrines when they were part of catechism at their time of inception.
Towns’ challenges this with his point that doctrine is: the study of the Bible to learn about God, His work, and His World (p.50). Does more need to be said about those that proof text to support their invalid doctrines of suppression, oppression and power/control? No, as long as the members of the Body of Christ hold their teachers up to the standards to constantly be seeking the clearest interpretation possible, holding the scriptures in their context and letting the Holy Spirit breathe out how they are relevant today then the only doctrines that should be surviving and being taught are truly rooted in the Heart of the Sacred.
In the current age of the Christianities there is more wisdom, knowledge, literature and teachings available around the scriptural texts. Thanks to human innovation, social sciences, technologies, etc. the scriptures have never been more available to believers within their homes and personal lives as well as corporate worship. Yet there appears to be a drought, or better yet, an inability of the believer to drink even shallowly from the river that is the scriptures.
What Towns’ Bible Study Methods allows is for an effective, easily accessible source for a believer who is called to the vocation of teaching, preaching or congregant be able to enter into the eternal dialogue between humanity and God through the Holy Bible. This dialogue is not a shallow drink, but rather a deep thirst quenching gulp for the believer who takes cup in hand.
Towns, Elmer C. (1997) How to Study and Teach the Bible retrieved from http://ntsmoodle.com 28 September 2012.
- On Academic Integrity and Confessional Institutions (tomverenna.wordpress.com)
- The Sufficiency of Scripture – All We Need (mindrenewers.com)
- Using the Bible Against Christians: Sola Scriptura Atheism (orthodoxyandheterodoxy.org)
- Using the Bible to Meet with God (paulburkhart.wordpress.com)
- Bible Translation – The Necessity of Translation (mindrenewers.com)
- It’s in There… Trust Us. (markbyron.typepad.com)
- The Sufficiency of Scripture (part two) – Sufficient for Purity (mindrenewers.com)
- The Bible Doesn’t Say That, Does It? (king.typepad.com)
- Has the Bible been changed or corrupted as Islam claims? (raymondjclements.wordpress.com)
- Sola Scriptura & the Bereans (jimmyakin.com)