Studying the Bible with Dead People

I’ve observed three characteristics about Bible Studies over the years.

1.     Many of them only masquerade as Bible studies. They’re really religious, moral, theological, denominational, or political discussion groups that season the 60 minutes together with a dash of verses read aloud to give the impression the Bible is being studied. During such studies, I wish Jesus would show up with a whip to turn over tables and throw the coffee pot on the floor and shove people’s faces down into their Bibles.

2.     When the Scriptures are studied, the teaching and discussion often focuses on matters completely unrelated to the content of the Bible itself, which is Jesus Christ. They treat him like kids treat peas on a plate—moving them around, toying with them, but never really consuming them.

3.     There are far too few dead people involved in the study.

It’s fact #3 that I’d like to talk about for a moment.

The greatest, wisest, most mind-blowing teachers in the church are all dead. Yes, they’re fully alive with Christ, but for our purposes, they’re dead. Their bodies have long turned to dust in the grave. Many of their churches are now but rubble.

But in their heyday, they were so eloquent the church nicknamed them the Golden-Tongued; they were so impactful they were called The Great; and the influence they cast over God’s people literally changed the course of history.

Now they’re dead. But not really. Because they left behind a legacy of words that still pulsate with life, overflow with wisdom, and illumine the paths of Scripture down which we walk.

C. S. Lewis once suggested that “it is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between.” The reason is simple: “Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books.” Nowhere is this truism truer than in the church.

We need the old books of a 2nd century bishop named Irenaeus. He wrote against groups that we today might call the Spiritualists or New Agers. They were called the Gnostics. Irenaeus opens up the Scriptures in such a way that we see the full ramifications of Genesis 1, as God as Creator. He demonstrates what the Incarnation and Lord’s Supper mean for every aspect of life as the church. We need to study the Bible with this dead man.

We need the old books of the 4th century theologian named Athanasius. There’s a reason he was known as Athanasius Contra Mundum (“Athanasius against the world”). He was one of a handful of church leaders who opposed the world-wide heresy that taught the Son of God was less than fully divine. His work, The Incarnation of the Word of God, is the best Christmas book you’ll ever read. We need to study the Bible with this dead man.

And we need the old books of the 5th century pastor, Chrysostom, who preached through biblical book after biblical book, often leaving his congregation spellbound. We need Augustine’s commentaries on the Psalms; Andrew of Caesarea’s commentary on Revelation; and Thomas Aquinas’s multivolume commentary on the Gospels (Catena Aurea) which brings together selections from a wide range of church fathers. We need to study the Bible with all these dead people.

We may be smart, but we are not as smart as we think we are. We may be insightful at times, but we are not as brilliant as we imagine. We have a thimbleful of biblical knowledge compared to the ocean of wisdom in the works of these dead people. So let us be humble, grateful, and open to learning from them.

@@Friends don’t let friends study the Bible without dead people.@@

Some Resources:

1.     The Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (ACC) is the most complete set you’ll find. These 29 volumes provide a running commentary on the entire Bible with quotes from the greatest minds the church has ever produced.

2.     The Church’s Bible is similar to ACC. It includes substantial sections from ancient and medieval commentators. I think six volumes have been published to date: Song of Songs, Isaiah, Matthew, John, Romans, and 1 Corinthians.

3.     For those interested in the Gospels, check out the Catena Aurea by Aquinas as well as The Sunday Sermons of the Great Fathers. The latter is treasure trove for those who regularly teach and preach from the Gospels.

4.     There are also individual volumes on biblical books, such as the 4-volume commentary on the Psalms by J. M. Neale and R. F. Littledale, which draws heavily from patristic works. See also Grace for Grace: The Psalter and the Holy Fathers as well as Wisdom, and Let Us Attend: Job, the Fathers, and the Old Testament.

If you know of, or have used, other resources, please share those in the comment section. Thanks!