Jon Nielson. Bible Study: A Student's Guide. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2013. 224 pp. $11.15.
We often hear that this current generation has become biblically illiterate, and it is quite telling that many churches and youth groups in particular have abandoned actually doing Bible study. Youth groups are more commonly recognized and sought after for their ability to entertain a consumeristic generation addicted to constant technological stimulation. Youth today don’t seem to showcase much ability to even pay attention to anything outside of social media on their smartphones (adults appear to be increasingly afflicted by this problem as well).
Given this environment, it’s easy to see why Bible study is so difficult to properly conduct among youth and adults. Reading and studying Scirpture is hard work. Perhaps some of us can relate to the frustrating scenario in which we attend a “Bible study” that quickly dissolves into an accountability session, prayer group, or fellowship event. Not that any of these are inherently wrong per se, but they betray the original intention to actually study the Bible together as a group. In Bible Study: A Student’s Guide, Jon Nielson points students toward a solution that lies beyond merely prescribing methods for doing Bible study (although he does include this guidance); rather, he first encourages readers to understand what the Bible is in order to properly approach the Bible study time.
Nielson, college pastor of College Church in Wheaton, Illinois, spends a large portion of the book explaining how readers should understand the Bible’s ontology, or nature, since this view will naturally influence study and interpretation of the text. He goes into detail describing Scripture as inspired (ch. 1), authoritative (ch. 2), understandable (ch. 3), literary (ch. 4), and a single, unified story (ch. 6). These truths provide Nielson with the theological foundation to further explain how our practice as interpreters should follow.
I think Nielson has offered a helpful structure for his book’s claims by first addressing the Bible’s ontology and its relation to theology, but I’d like to discuss some concerns with his formulation. I affirm Nielson’s expressed concern to teach students to read and study Scripture for themselves in order to hear God’s message of salvation found in Christ (15). The first chapter goes on to explain that Scripture is indeed authored by God himself. But the chapter does not offer adequate explanation of the inspiration of Scripture and how this affects our actual study of the Bible.
Anyone raised in a conservative evangelical context will readily take the “inspiration” of Scripture for granted. But it’s not enough to toss out this term and expect it to do the work on its own. The book’s intended audience is teenagers, and I realize Nielson cannot offer a technical explanation of the doctrine of inspiration. Nevertheless, it won’t suffice to reference the typical passages (e.g., 2 Timothy 3:16-17). Nielson briefly contrasts his view of inspiration with dictation (19) but doesn’t go into much detail about what he’s actually professing with this elusive notion. He simply says God guided the biblical writers to write exactly what God wanted to say (19).
Further, Nielson’s discussion of whether God’s Word is mediated is a bit fuzzy. In one instance he speaks of the “unmediated voice of God” (37), then later refers to God’s revelation being given “through the medium of carefully and specifically chosen words” (40). Which is it? It would have been helpful if Nielson had been more precise and intentional in his choice of language.
Scripture: A Christological Story
Nielson rightly emphasizes that all of Scripture points us to Christ. He claims that “if you don’t understand how a passage relates to [Jesus], you’re not done studying that passage in your Bible study” (135). Bible study is only fruitful if it ultimately points us to God through his Son. Of course, much of Scripture (particularly the Old Testament) doesn’t explicitly mention Christ, but as Luke 24 and Acts 8 both demonstrate, the entirety of Scripture is Christological and soteriological. This is a key point for students to understand.
Nielson makes many helpful suggestions for how students should understand the Bible not merely as a list of propositions to master but as a grand narrative that communicates Christ to us. He gives students basic knowledge both for Scripture’s larger picture and also for its smaller, constitutive parts. He offers basic Bible study techniques that shift the conversation away from “How is this passage relevant to me and my life?” to “What is God speaking to his people about Christ?” In this way the book helpfully alters students’ reading habits and forces them to think theologically rather than narcissistically. Altogether, Bible Study will greatly serve teenagers in their quest to better understand God’s Word as something gloriously bigger than and beyond themselves.
Jay Gardner and his wife, Paige, live in Birmingham, Alabama, and worship at the Cathedral Church of the Advent, where Jay is a junior high minister. He is also an MDiv student at Beeson Divinity School.