As a Bible study teacher I encounter two extremes when the question of studying the Bible is raised. First is the “isolationist”, the person who believes all she needs is personal Bible study to grow in Godly wisdom. She doesn’t need hand-holding from a teacher or theologian – she just needs a journal, a pen, her Bible and the Holy Spirit. She sees any effort to systematize her reading of Scripture as an attempt to conform the wisdom of God to the wisdom of man, thereby distorting what was already pure and sufficient. In her zeal to elevate the importance of God’s Word, she misinterprets the idea of Sola Scriptura to mean that no teaching outside of Scripture is necessary for her understanding.
At the other extreme is the “curator”, the person who, for all intents and purposes, believes she can’t navigate Scripture on her own at all. She finds the Bible largely incomprehensible or boring, preferring the study of doctrine (through teaching, books, podcast or topical studies) to the study of Scripture itself, substituting learning what others say about the Bible for actually learning the Bible. While she may never have consciously intended to devalue personal study of Scripture, over time she grows increasingly content to be a curator of opinions about a Book she does not read, effectively operating under her own credo of Sola Doctrina.
Most of us fall somewhere between these two extremes, but it is important to ask ourselves honestly which of them we lean toward: are we more of an isolationist or a curator? Isolationist Bible study holds as much potential danger to our spiritual health as a curator approach. The isolationist must humbly acknowledge her own intellectual limits, confessing her need for the help of those with the grace-granted gift of teaching. The curator must humbly acknowledge her overdependence on the intellect and gifting of others, confessing her tendency to use study of doctrine as a substitute for study of Scripture. Both extremes must acknowledge the very real presence and danger of false doctrine. Lacking an outside perspective, the isolationist can unwittingly invent her own false doctrine. Lacking first-hand knowledge of Scripture, the curator can fail to discern the difference between true and false teaching, choosing whatever position appeals to her the most.
If you gravitate toward Bible-only study you may need to remind yourself to allocate some time for doctrine. God gifts the church with teachers for the purpose of pointing us to truth in the context of community. Isolationism discounts the Bible’s assertion that we are members of one body, each part needing the other.
If you gravitate toward doctrine-only study, you may need to reclaim time for personal study of the Bible. God commands you to love Him with all of your mind, not just with someone else’s mind. Curatorship chooses the fallible words of man over the eternal, unchanging, inerrant Word of the Lord.
So, work to find parity between these two extremes. Make an honest appraisal of your current tendency toward either isolationism or curatorship. Acknowledge how pride might be influencing whichever end of the spectrum you are drawn to. And seek to strike a balance between the treasure of personal study and the gift of sound instruction. We need to know how to study the Bible on our own, and we need to put that knowledge into practice. But we also need the insights of those God has gifted to teach us. Personal study sharpens our awareness of the strengths and limitations of our teachers. Sound teaching sharpens our awareness of our own strengths and limitations as students. Both are needed for a Christ-follower to grow in wisdom. Both in balance are worthy of our time.