In looking over my stats, it’s readily apparent that Why You Need a Wide-Margin Bible is far and away my most popular post. That’s highly gratifying to me: My great passion in life is not to get everyone to hang on my interpretations, but to get people the tools they need to do their own serious study–and I really and truly believe that writing your own, personalized study Bible is one of the best, if not the best, ways to go about doing it.
But let’s say you’ve gotten your Zondervan Wide-Margin NASB or your Journalling ESV or your Note Takers KJV or (for those of you with money) one of Cambridge’s wide-margin Bibles–where the heck do you go from here? All that whitespace is inviting, but it’s also intimidating. How do you get started?
Well, the first thing you need to develop is a distinction between your Bible reading time and your serious study time. Try to set aside some time every day for Bible reading. If you’ve never done it before, get a plan to read through the Bible in a year and do it. If you have, try picking up a plan to read the Bible through chronologically, or even get a chronological study Bible.
Why? Because if you’re in the habit of reading through the whole Bible, you’ll start seeing connections when you do your serious Bible study. The point is simply to get the Bible’s words into your head, to get a general idea of what happened when, and of, course, to feed your spirit from the Word.
Most people stop at that phase, if they ever manage to read through the Bible at all. But you’ve put your money where your mouth is and bought a Bible specifically for your studies. What do you do next?
Let’s talk first about what serious Bible study entails, and I’m going to quote one of my favourite scholars here (especially since he’s recently posted on this issue on his own blog), Dr. Michael Heiser:
Since Bible study is more than Bible reading, by definition it involves thinking. Thinking is work. It’s not for sissies. If you’re not at least a bit mentally spent (or stimulated) after doing what you presume is thinking, you aren’t really thinking. Sometimes our days don’t afford the time for the kind of sustained effort that goes into serious Bible study. Don’t let that bother you. Rather than fret over missing the study session you put on your checklist, my advice is to periodically devote the small increments of time that you do have to just thinking about what you’ve studied before. Sometimes it’s better to evaluate what you’ve taken in rather than take in more.
The point is this: It’s more spiritually productive to develop clarity on some point of the text, or figure out a way to frame a question for future study, than to just mark time with an open book (even if it’s the Bible) just for the sake of maintaining a daily ritual. Ultimately, Bible study is about developing aptitude in the Scriptures, the source material for knowing God, not score-keeping.
The life of the mind can be cultivated just about anywhere. You always bring your mind with you. Whatever you’ve been studying lately can be brought back and worked over again. Your brain has stored the fruits of your study. Precise recall isn’t a pre-requisite, either. Retrieve some thought and probe it for weakness, or thank God for its clarity. You’ll be surprised at how just thinking from time to time somehow helps you process a given issue or problem in altogether fresh ways.
I’ve certainly found that to be true in my own life. Some of my most productive Bible study time has been spent driving or taking a long walk–and obviously I didn’t have an open book in hand then. (At least you’d hope not.) But what I do have is time to pray and think and talk out loud without having to worry about looking silly in front of anyone, and that has often led me to figuring out connections and working out apparent problems in the Biblical text which I could investigate more fully the next time I could sit with my Bible and my study tools. (BTW, a smart phone is wonderful for recording brief thoughts that you don’t want to forget later.)
But of course sooner or later you’re going to find that time to sit down with your brand-new wide-margin Bible (or your Bible and your brand-new journal) and start going systematically through the Word one book, one chapter, and one verse at a time. What do you do then?