by Dr. Nathan Frambach
I’m sitting on a simple wooden stool in a small, spartan room in the Taize community in France. I am here with a group of students from Wartburg Theological Seminary for a J-term pilgrimage, and it seems a fitting place to write about an open and inductive approach to reading the Bible in community.
Though I have been teaching in a seminary community for many years now, I served for 10 years as a parish pastor. I remember a moment in one of the congregations where I served, sitting with a small group of confirmation students with a pre-fab, boxed-set Bible study that was going nowhere fast. And then Patricia said something like, “This is going nowhere fast. Why don’t we just have people read the Bible passage out loud, ask a lot of questions and talk about the things that we don’t understand?”
Voila! It certainly wasn’t a miracle cure, but it was a moment within a moment that moved us a little bit down the road from stuck and awkward toward a more participatory and curiosity-driven approach to “Bible study.” I just put “Bible study” in quotes because what I wish to propose here (nothing at all new and not at all complicated) is a very inductive approach to reading and hearing Scripture together. This approach also reflects what I consider to be a healthy disposition for the Christian life, to borrow an old Latin phrase attributed to St. Anselm, “fides quaerens intellectum” or “faith seeking understanding.”
There are many ways to study the Bible. This is only one approach, yet it is all too often overlooked—perhaps because it is simple (but not simplistic), yet often takes time and patience and perseverance to establish as a practice. I mean, you really only need two things: people and a Bible. I have found that this approach tends to work better in a smaller community or with small groups or leadership teams.
Regardless, it’s important that the group:
- Has a sense of openness, trust, and a willingness to risk asking questions.
- Is focused and committed to the purpose of gathering—to read and hear Scripture together.
- Meets in a clearly defined and comfortable space that fits the size of the group and the purpose of the gathering (e.g., avoid a small group sitting around a table in folding chairs in a fellowship hall or a group that has too many people for the space and feels overcrowded and stuffy).
The following values and principles are intended to help you better understand this particular approach to reading and hearing Scripture.
As obvious as it may seem, we trust that God is the primary agent wherever and whenever we gather. The promised Holy Spirit inspires and guides our reading and hearing of the Bible.
We read the Bible first not to understand, but to hear what it has to say. In other words, when we approach the text our first posture is deep listening, paying attention and noticing what is actually there in the text. A nice question to frame this up is: What does the text want to say?
We don’t dismiss content, nor the historical background, when reading the Bible. But we are open first to being encountered by the living voice of the gospel. God speaks in and through the stories of the Bible. First we listen, then we seek to understand and dig deeper.
We hear echoes of various reformers through the ages (including but not limited to Martin Luther), that the Bible is that which bears Christ. We read and hear Scripture because it holds up Jesus Christ for us to see and hear.
This particular process is characterized by openness: to the presence and prompting of God’s Spirit, to one another, to differences of opinion and to questions.
This particular approach to reading and hearing Scripture is open to and appreciates genuine inquiry. This Bible study process is designed to offer a safe place where questions are expected and honored, especially if there are few responses, let alone “answers.”
“Content” (e.g., “What is this text about?”and “What does it mean?”) is not at all dismissed. If the group is not able to adequately respond to one or more questions, participants are invited and encouraged to take responsibility for finding additional perspective and information and bringing that back to the group. There are many resources and people that can be consulted. In fact, this is an excellent way to foster intergenerational faith conversation.
The role fo the leader in this process is much less information guru and much more facilitator and guide. The primary leadership task is keeping the group open to listening, asking questions and engaged in the process.
An Inductive Approach to Reading and Hearing Scripture (or, a Version of Lectio Divina)
Open the group time with prayer, asking God’s Spirit to lead, inspire, and guide your encounter with the biblical texts and stories.
- Invite everyone in the group to read the text silently. Throughout this study process honor moments of silence if they happen (I mean, I am writing this from Taize).
- Ask someone to read the text out loud, slowly and clearly, and ask the rest of the group to listen and pay close attention. You may want to pause for a few moments and then have someone else read the text a second time out loud.
- Ask: What do you notice as you read and hear this text? What gets your attention, makes you curious, or raises a question? What questions do you have about this text?
- Ask: What do these verses say to us? What message do you hear? What does this text mean for you, for us right now?
- Ask: What are these verses suggesting about who we are and what we are called to do?
- Ask: Is this text calling us to some specific actions? What is this text inviting us to do in the world on behalf of Christ?
Close with prayer, thanking God for the opportunity to dwell in God’s presence and for the opportunity to be together in community and asking God for the guidance and strength to live as a beloved child of God.