The Garden or the Bush:
two ways to read the Bible
by Bryson Smith and Paul Sheely
So which would you prefer? A pleasant hike through a national park or a leisurely stroll through an extensive botanical garden?
Perhaps you’d go for the hike. You enjoy seeing the progressive changes in the plant life as you leave the valley floor and start the climb up the hillside: the different plants that can exist in the one environment; the adaptations of each plant to its environment; the way in which the floral diversity is so complex and interdependent—these are the things which add to your delight of the hike.
Or maybe a botanical garden is more to your liking. You prefer the sense of order. The convenience of seeing related plants close together allows you to marvel at the variations within each plant family. You never knew that roses could come in so many colors. These are the things which add to your delight in the botanical garden.
Well, as with plants so with the Word of God. There are basically two ways in which we can approach the Bible. They are an expositional approach and a topical (or doctrinal) approach.
An expositional approach to the Bible is similar to our hike in the bush. Expository preaching and Bible studies take the Bible as they find it. This approach recognizes that the Bible is made up of verses in chapters in books, and so verses and chapters are dealt with as they progressively unfold within a book. The aim of this approach is to understand what a passage means in its original context. For example, Romans 1 is understood before and in preparation for understanding Romans 2 which is in turn understood before and in preparation for Romans 3. And so it goes on.
A topical approach to the Bible differs from this. It’s more like our stroll through the botanical gardens. In a topical approach, Scripture passages from all over the Bible are gathered together into common categories. The aim of this approach is to rightly understand specific topics or themes. For example, all the verses related to the Trinity are grouped together so that they can be compared and synthesized. In this way the entire counsel of God is systematically brought to bear on this specific topic, helping us to think rightly about it.
So which is to be preferred? The expositional approach or the topical approach? Which approach will best help us understand and live out God’s Word? What sort of approach should I be looking for in the sermon on a Sunday? What sort of approach should control how and what Bible studies we do in our family worship? And what about my personal Bible reading time? Which of these approaches is most useful for that?
Complementary not competitive
It first needs to be said that expositional and topical approaches to the Bible are complementary not competitive. Both are needed, for each keeps the other accountable. On the one hand, topical approaches to the Bible help us to understand the full range of Scripture on a topic, and therefore they enable us to remain balanced in our exposition. For example, the way in which we might understand Jesus’ teaching on divorce in Mark 10:1-12 should be influenced by what we also know from his teaching in Matthew 19:1-9. The topical approach can be a good safeguard to overstating or under-stating certain issues.
Alternatively expositional approaches to the Bible are essential in properly understanding the Bible’s teaching on a particular topic. Good exposition protects us from tearing verses out of context and thereby developing a distorted understanding of certain issues. For example, James 5:15 which states that “the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well,” might in isolation lead us to certain conclusions regarding prayer, health, and faith. But when the verse is treated in context, the theme of spiritual health and endurance come to the fore and quite different conclusions become apparent. Exposition is a good safeguard to correctly understanding the themes and topics of the Bible.
The pros and cons
Given that both topical and expositional approaches to the Bible are valid and useful, what then can we say of the relative merits of each? Consider the following points:
· The great challenge of a topical approach is that it requires extensive knowledge of the Bible in order for it to be done well. A balanced, faithful understanding of any topic will really only be arrived at when all the relevant sections of Scripture are brought to bear on it. A simple concordance in the back of our Bibles may not always be sufficient for this; a skewed emphasis or misapplication can result. Add to this the danger of misunderstanding verses by reading them out of context, and it’s easy to see that a topical approach to the Bible is one that requires rigorous effort, humility, concentration and time.
· A topical approach also runs the risk of being subjective in terms of which topics are even considered in the first place. Many of us have suffered the burden of a minister who preaches on his pet topics every second week. The end result can be a biased view of what issues actually concern God.
· The expositional approach also requires careful effort and concentration. A naive understanding of important doctrinal topics can result in a shallow if not erroneous exposition. Yet because an expositional approach is more containable in terms of the volume of Scripture that needs to be considered at any one time, this approach more often than not may be the safer one to take.
· An expositional approach encourages us to allow God to set the agenda in our thinking and inquiring. The topics we consider and the order we consider them are determined by the text of the Bible itself. Furthermore, an expositional approach to the Bible will often better help us tap into the pastoral dimension of God’s Word. God tells us that all Scripture is given so that we might be equipped for good works (2 Tim. 3:16). This can sometimes be lost when we are systematically dissecting a passage so as to understand certain specific topics. The pastoral issues being addressed by the original text can be left behind.
· An important but subtle thing to take note of is that topical approaches can run the danger of making God seem less relational than he is. Just as we get to know a person by seeing him in action, hearing him speak in different situations and watching him deal with life, so it is with God. When God is dealt with under human generated topics, he can seem more detached and less real and relational than when we are hearing him speak as he has actually spoken. Dealing with the Bible expositionally seems better able to capture the passion, anger, love, irony, tension, and humor that occurs in God’s Word. The end result is a God who is much more personal and real.
· Expositional preaching and Bible study has the added advantage of helping people learn how to read the Bible for themselves. Good expositional preaching, for example, will reveal the logical flow of a text by highlighting patterns of repetition, key words and theme development. Being shown such things helps people develop the skills and confidence to go home and read God’s Word for themselves.
· The danger of only ever dealing with the Bible expositionally is that we may never properly connect or integrate key doctrines. The reality is that we all think doctrinally to some extent. We all have an opinion about what the Bible says on certain topics. Expositional teaching alone may not fully help us test our doctrine against God’s word. Historically, topical approaches to the Bible have been undertaken to defend the truth of the gospel against false teaching. This of course remains an important reason for us today to work hard at understanding the doctrines of God’s Word.
From plants to cars
What then can we conclude from all this? I would suggest that the above considerations mean that an expositional approach should be the usual but not the exclusive way with which we interact with the Bible. If we move from our initial botanical analogy to conclude with a mechanical analogy—our reading of the Bible is not all that different from driving a car. In a car our primary focus is on the road ahead. However, it’s important to also have good peripheral vision so that we’ll be aware of other things that might endanger us. In the Bible, our primary focus needs to be exposition. However, it is necessary to also have the peripheral vision provided by right doctrine. For that reason topical approaches to the Bible are not only helpful but crucial.
from The Briefing www.matthiasmedia.com.au
The best of both worlds
by Larry Wilson
As our Australian brothers, Smith and Sheely, so helpfully point out in the preceding article, believers need both expositional and topical study of God’s Word. To me it is a matter of high irony and deep tragedy that at the very moment when many believers in other communions are beginning to wake up to the fact that although they appear to be flourishing, in fact they are spiritually starving, many Reformed believers are losing confidence that we already possess what the church and the world most needs. But we do! On the one hand, God has entrusted to us a covenantal, Christ-centred approach to Bible interpretation—one that values the whole Bible with its organic and epochal coherence.
On the other hand, God has entrusted to us a grasp of the full-orbed system of faith and life taught in the whole Bible. As brothers Smith and Sheely insist, “Historically, topical approaches to the Bible have been undertaken to defend the truth of the gospel against false teaching.” This is exactly what has happened. God has used heresies to test his church and to force her to wrestle with his truth. He has at the same time given her pastor-teachers to instruct her in his truth (Eph. 4:11-16). Through the centuries, many of them have written down the results of their wrestling with God’s Word in the context of the struggles of the church. These culminate most recently in the Reformed confessions and catechisms—very clear, very developed-over-time, “botanical garden” type summaries of what the Lord has taught his Church that his Word reveals on many topics both of faith and life.
May I suggest that it is high time that we make a fresh effort to capitalize on both dimensions of the treasure our Lord has entrusted to us? Let us rededicate ourselves both to diligent “bush hikes” and to diligent “botanical studies” using the Reformed catechisms which have abundantly demonstrated themselves to be such a tried and true method of teaching and learning the whole counsel of God. We already possess the best of both worlds. Let’s make the most of it!