January 18, 2021

Can You Study A Book Too Much?

brainwork.jpgI’m not a literature scholar, but I play one in the classroom several hours a week. That is, when I’m not teaching the Bible to kids from all over America and the world, I teach AP English. Mostly Shakespeare and poetry. The interaction of the two brings some stimulating questions to my mind from time to time.

For example, can you study a text too much?

Let’s say that you came to my house and I had 1500 volumes of books, almost all on Hamlet and related subjects. Extensive reference materials. Everything ever written about the play. Interpretations and commentaries and more interpretations. A small ocean of Hamlet.

You noted that I read Hamlet systematically every day. You noticed that I gave talks on Hamlet and wrote may pages of articles and comments of my own on Hamlet.

One day you begin reading some of my work on Hamlet, and after a while, a thought crosses your mind. Eventually, you look me up to ask me the question that’s presented itself.

Do I believe that everything I see in Hamlet is really there? Or, by studying Hamlet to the extent that I have, do I run the risk of having a lot more to say about Hamlet than is actually in Hamlet? Have I studied a text to the point I’ve lost the perspective of simple, direct meaning in pursuit of what only scholars can know?

In other words, if Shakespeare came into my library, read my articles and listened to my lectures, would he say “Spot on. Keep at it?” Or would he say “Huh? You’ve got to be kidding? Where did you come up with this?”

Can you study a text too much? Too deeply? With too much background? Too much insight? Finding way more than is actually there in the text?

Here’s another turn of the screw for me. I teach Bible Survey, and it’s a four quarter class. That’s basically 36 weeks, five hours a week. 180 hours. Now many of my students are absolute beginners. (The ones that aren’t are given the option of an advanced class.) Many are from other religions and cultures.

I don’t need 180 hours to teach the basic story and message of the Bible to my beginners. I could do it in 9 weeks. I could do it in two weeks actually.

Sometimes when we’re off in some of the less relevant parts of the Bible- the various goings on in David’s family for example- I am genuinely concerned that the main message is getting obscured in all the other material I am teaching. I’d love to teach that “seminar” and keep the main thing the main thing. The rape of Tamar is a fine story and it’s part of our sinful history, but do my Buddhists need to know it in the same course with the gospels?

I have other concerns as well. Preachers find things in the Bible all the time that I don’t think are there. They call them “principles,” and they look great in a book or Powerpoint, but I’m just not very convinced.

At the very least, it appears to me that what the Bible says (God created marital sexuality) and what preachers say (go home and have sex for 30 days in a row) get very confused in the mind of the average listener.

Into this I can throw a lot of other people who pull rabbits out of the Biblical hat for a living.

Does the Bible say all those things that people say it says about politics? Environmentalism? Morals? Raising kids? Success? Prosperity? Health? The future? Global warming? Sex? Scheduled infant feedings? Pokemon? Harry Potter?

Barak Obama just said that the sermon on the mount approves of civil unions between gays. Really? John Hagee says there’s a “Jesus diet” in there. Hope it works better for me than it did for him.

Is all that theology I keep hearing from the theological types really all there? I don’t mean there in some form that you can remix, cook, stir, add, microwave, season and serve as whatever dish you want. I mean is what Joyce Meyer has in all those books really there? Do you need Barth’s dogmatics to explain the Bible?

Is all the Dobson agenda really in the Bible? All the psychology of Biblical counselors? All the science of the creationists? All the denominational distinctives of the various denominations?

Now I have as much admiration for lifelong Bible study as you can have. I’ve given the study of the Bible years of my life and the major portion of my education and energies.

I know it has riches and transforming power. I know it is a full library of doctrine and a wonderful collection of law, literature and liturgy.

I believe it is God’s inspired word. It’s authoritative for me and my faith.

But I suspect we’ve looked too closely, and seen a lot that’s not there. I believe we find, arrange, display, demonstrate and defend a lot that isn’t really plainly taught in scripture. I am afraid the Bible is a Rorschach test for many people, and what the see isn’t clouds. It’s rabbits and a train and…..

I believe that if we take the Bible as literature, we would be able to say something like this:

The Bible is an extensive collection of literature that, when taken together, presents the story Christians call the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Christians believe this book is inspired by God and interpreted by the Spirit of God, but it remains a book written by human authors and understood primarily in the obvious ways we approach any literature. The message of the Bible answers the biggest, most important and most vital of life’s questions and proclaims God’s saving message to all persons. The rich literary contents of the Bible can occupy anyone with much study, but in its basic message- its essential, Christ-centered message- there is a remarkable directness and brevity. You do not have to be an expert on first century Judaism or the sociology of sacrificial systems to understand the Bible. The message is ably summarized in the Gospels and elsewhere in the New Testament. Even a child can understand it, believe it and live it.

If we leave the impression that the Bible needs an army of Ph.ds, thousands of brilliant preachers with 3 degrees each or a library of commentaries to be understood, proclaimed and applied, we’re distorting the truth.

Thank God for all the knowledge we have about the Bible, but we’re not gnostics looking for the “secret message” in between the lines. It’s a book, with a plot, a story and characters. Read it- or skim it with some help, get the New Testament message clear, and you are good to go, grow and live.

In fact, what we need is more reminding, recollecting and repeating of the Bible’s message, and less addition to that message.

Study it less? Maybe. Maybe live it, live out of it, communicate it and teach it more. But what we’re looking for in the Bible is fully and completely there in the one Paul said he always preached: Christ Jesus: the crucified Lord.


  1. josh s blake says

    Finally, somebody else said it, somewhere where more than just a couple of close friends hear it. Thanks, monk.

  2. That’s what I do here, hopefully. Thanks.

  3. Michael,

    You said it!

    Why in the world we have to complicate the simple message of the Bible is mind boggling.

    The Bible shows us that we are sinners in need of a savior. And it shows us the Savior we need.

    But, that doesn’t sell a lot of books or keep ’em coming back to church next Sunday, so we’ll throw in a bunch Biblical principles to shoot for and a couple of levels that need be attained.

    In most Christianity today you just never quite get there.

    I like to think of Jesus’ words on the cross… “It is finished.”

    Terrific post Michael. Very well put, indeed.

    Thank you!

    – Steve

  4. Not having a college degree, advance english studies, or formal bible training makes me appreciate those who do. I look to those more versed in things which I am not. I think that is wise.
    However Im glad the inspired word of God speaks to us where we are whatever our ability to comprehend. Reading the writings of fishermen (NT), help us to understand the advanced writings (OT). Tnx Monk another excellent topic…..

  5. todd marshall says

    Good observation, you have some creedence. It’s like photography, everyone will capture the same light from a different angle and a different view. Many high profile preachers have become all-pros in their area. The bible mentions gifts of prophecy,tongues,healing.etc. I respect all parts of the body of Christ and what is burned after threashing floor doesn’t glorify God anyway. The pastors you’ve mentioned all have some gifts, but when it comes to suammies, I draw the line. NO One knows everything in the body of Christ and like yourself, being a surjourner makes the journey the gift and adds salt to the loaf. Nice work mate. I’ll drop in again. Mark Smith says hello and recommended I visit your site . He was my first pastor, and always will be.


  6. To live out of the Bible means to apply the Bible to life, including everything from politics to Harry Potter. Living out of it means starting with the big, obvious story: Jesus Christ saving his people so they can worship. But since the Bible is unified, we look at everything, close-up, far away… and it all fits. So “Do not hold back the wages of a hired man overnight.” from Lev. 19 tells us something about how we should treat low-wage workers; but it also tells us about what Jesus thinks about justice, poverty, and work – it tells us more about Jesus Himself.

    That being said, I remember being a young believer, sitting with 3 study Bibles in 2 translations, 2 commentaries, and a ginormous Strong’s, trying to just be a Bible-reading, Bible-studying Christian, because all I knew were the microscope preachers; I thought I had to have a sermon at the end of it. So telescope preaching, reading, and study is just as valuable.

    Thanks, Monk

  7. I just have to repeat the age-old half-serious joke of literary criticism:

    You don’t read Hamlet, Hamlet reads you.

    Thanks for your reminder, though, about the Bible. It’s sometimes rather difficult to believe the Bible really is as simple as the world-changing Gospel message. It is, after all, a very long book–so there must be some point to all that other stuff. And then I get pulled away into fear over Jesus’ comments to the Rich Young Ruler, or the inferiority of my faith to Job’s, or the lack of resonance of a certain song to my life.

    Thanks for consistently reminding us of the centrality of Christ/Cross/Grace. It’s there (and not, at least now, in every word of Scriptures) that I hear Christ’s words of eternal life, and its those words that keep me sane and seeking God’s face.

  8. I had a similar thought as I filled my schedule with BSF, a Larry Crabb soul talk class and small group, mid week bibles study at my church and some other small group study. Then I was listening to one of the missionaries our church sent to Tajikistan talk about new believers coming to Christ and I thought hopelessly how will we get them signed up into some kind of class or study so they don’t screw it up and I just got really overwhelmed. I am begining to think that it is sola scriptura PLUS a whole lot of other stuff. When in all actuality your last paragraph sums it up pretty good.

    Grace and Peace,

  9. Wow! Every now and then, I think I’ve heard everything you have to say, or that your next post will be another rehash of “Christless preaching,” and then this. I agree with everything you said in this post, but it would have taken me a month of Sundays to say it (and twice the space to write it in, probably). This is why I keep reading imonk; I have NOT heard everything you have to say yet.

  10. I totally agree. Good post.

    Too many people try to enforce their own intellectual musings on others. It’s one thing to make a logical argument, or to extrapolate something from the text. But the mere fact your argument is “possibly” true, does not mean that it is “actually” true.

    The early church was constantly diving deeper and deeper into theology, under the belief that the Holy Spirit was leading the way. Eventually, doctrine piled on top of doctrine, and a visible gap developed between the simplicity of scripture and edicts of the Church.

    The gospel is simple, yet profound. It can be appreciated by the highschool drop out and the Harvard Grad. Consequently, there is nothing wrong with searching for deeper meanings in scripture; just don’t bind your intellectual musings on others. The cannon is closed.

  11. To clarify, by using the term “your” I didn’t mean Michael Spencer. I meant a fictional third person. I agree with iMonk’s post 100%.

  12. Michael:

    This statement “The Bible is an extensive collection of literature that, when taken together, presents the story Christians calls the Gospel of Jesus Christ” … is at least inaccurate. The Bible can be interpreted as a “story” (thank you emerging church) or it can be seen as a collection of stories (thank you Liberal church) or as a collection of propositional truths (hats off to conservative church) or as a lens through which we read humanity’s search and attainment of God (the neo-orthodox have spoken). But all of that has nothing to do with those who wrote it. They just believed they were hearing God and wrote down what insight they had. These overarching visions of the Bible comes from those of us who look at it from a distance. And that does take some time to explain and is not as simplistic as you seem to be presenting. I agree that you don’t need a theological degree to understand the details of the Bible, but it doesn’t hurt to have it when it comes to seeing the Big Picture.

    And I don’t know why we can’t have 45 days in a row. But that’s my application of the Truth. My wife takes a different view of my hermeneutic.

  13. >They just believed they were hearing God and wrote down what insight they had.

    I don’t believe that statement describes all of scripture.

    Ecclesiastes immediately comes to mind. Obviously it applies to some parts easily. To other parts not so much.

    And the conclusion that scripture is basically a narrative predates the emerging church by many many years.

  14. I grew up in circles that saw Scripture as timeless truths that were always applicable for all time. It is amazing what distorted “principles” can come out of that view. I have heard preachers take a single word out of a verse and weave a whole doctrine of life out of it.

  15. Thanks Michael This is gold. Once upon a time I belonged to a church (Presbyterian) that held to a very TR model of preaching. And I thought I would never “get” theology. It wasn’t that I disagreed with most things they said (some things, but not most) it was that I simply couldn’t find them in the text they were using. These days I am more likely to question whether the text actually says that. And I question whether anyone who preaches for 45+ minutes on one part of one verse, ie just a few words, is really exegeting it. To get that much out of one phrase (usually without too much reference to the context) has to include quite a bit of eisegesis. And, without meaning any offence, to hang a whole raft of systematic theology on one phrase IS eisegesis! (Which would be fine if we could just acknowledge what we’re doing). The Bible is a window through which we see Jesus, secondarily it is a mirror in which we see our own falling short (a la James 1) what it isn’t is some sort of pro-forma on which we soimply fill in the theological blanks ..

  16. Interesting comment about Ecclesiastes. I was under the impression that Koheleth felt he was being guided by Wisdom (as a personification of God’s gift to him). Perhaps he just uses a synonym for the voice of God. My observation still stands.

    As to the Narrative approach being used before the emerging church: Of course. However, as always, everyone just assumes that Christianity really started when they joined it.

  17. Not following you on the narrative/emerging thing at all. I’m not in that “everyone.” I’ve never read an emerging book that assumed the narrative approach began with them. They are generally very aware of that such a reading comes from the early church fathers and from the New Testament.

    I just don’t see that the writers of scripture knew they were writing scripture. That seems – with all due respect- a bit Koran-ish to me. The Christian view of inspiration doesn’t require cognizance of inspiration, though it sometimes happened. There are all kinds of non-canonical writings that claim inspiration by God, of course, from ancient times till today.

  18. Christian scholarship is the church’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming to close.

    Those are the words of Soren Kierkegaard.

    In other words, scholars are the people we hire to tell us that we can ignore what the Scriptures tell us.

    Now, I just need to find a Kierkegaard scholar to tell me that isn’t what he really meant.

  19. A very timely post and a good read. One of my uni subjects this semester is ‘Methods of reading the Hebrew Bible’, delving into the various critical methods including more recent literary theories as applied to scripture (although I do hold a fair degree of sympathy for reader-response and Stanley Fish’s ‘interpretive communities’). When I read some of the examples of what is ‘supposedly’ in scripture, I do wonder if God’s sitting there (like Shakespeare) shaking his head and shouting – “just read what it says!!”.
    It’s good to be reminded to take that step back and realise that the Gospel’s pretty straightforward and ‘simple’ (I use the word reservedly) at its heart.

  20. steve yates says

    Hmm…I wonder how this applies to things other than the Bible? Personally, I’ve struggled with things like Piper’s devotion to Edwards – it’s as if he uses an Edwardian hermeneutic for Scripture. I love Piper, but I wonder about the idea of finding an author to devote oneself to (it’s as if we can’t trust our own soul to interpret).

    steve yates

  21. I am going to take your original insight in a little different direction. Wouldn’t you say to your “Hamlet” scholar, “Dude, you have GOT to get out more. Hamlet is great, but there’s more to life and your missin’ out.”

    Now the really thin ice tread…

    Might we not say the same about the Bible? If all we do is study it, extract it, read about it, blog about it, etc., is it not taking up more of our life than it should? Is the Bible the end or goal of our life or the means Jesus uses to free us to a new life? If we concentrate so much on the means could we be missing the ends?

    I say this somewhat biographically. Being a “Bible Blogger” I consume most of my free time either reading, studying, reading about, or writing about the Bible. I have started to notice that when with other people, even Christians, unless the conversation is about the Bible, I PRETTY MUCH HAVE NOTHING MUCH TO SAY. Has my study of the Bible become an idol, a misuse, that has become more of an idol than a gateway to life and community?

  22. Enjoyed the post very much! I’ve been trying to explain a similar thought to my youth group members. I plan on sharing your post with them, much more eloquently put than I could come up with. Thanks!

  23. Michael,

    Knowing of your respect for the work of N. T. Wright and knowing also that his New Testament and the People of God series weighs in at several pounds (not even considering his many other tomes)do you think he reads too much into the text?

    Is there perhaps a difference between reading too much “into” the text and in simply reading a great deal “out of” the text?

    Peace of Christ,


  24. I have enjoyed chewing on this post. I appreciate your Hamlet metaphor. Often my study of scripture has been overwhelmed by technicalities and theology piled upon theology.

    I too have felt that I “study” the Bible too much. However that is only a problem because I live out the Bible to little. Whenever we know more than we live (and I know a great deal more than I live) a great current of hypocrisy grows in our lives that can be overwhelming at times. When a young Christian comes to me for help seeking the truth of scripture, I am regularly shamed as I point them to a text that I have always known and never lived and they read it for the first time and begin to live it.

    This reflection brings me back to you Hamlet metaphor. The behavior you described would be honorable perhaps in one context. What if you were a member of Shakespeare company. What if you performed Hamlet as much as you studied it, and your study was done only to serve your performance. What if you studied an hour a day but spent the rest of the day living out hamlet for people who really needed a good play that day.

    It is this reflection that has kept me chewing and is the power of the Hamlet metaphor. My problem is that I have forgotten that my first calling is not to study the great story of God’s love but to enact it. My study honors God only when it serves my performance of the the gospel.

    Thanks for refocusing my call.


  25. “Preachers find things in the Bible all the time that I don’t think are there.”

    Ya think?

    Is this a doctrine which I see before me,
    The verses toward my mind? Come, let me teach thee.
    I have thee not, and yet I see thee still.
    Art thou not, fatalalistic vision, sensible
    To feeling as to words? or art thou but
    A doctrine of the mind, a false creation,
    Proceeding from the Calvin-oppressed brain?
    I see thee yet, in form as palpable
    As this which now I teach.
    (I’m sure you know, MacBeth)

    What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason!
    how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how
    express and admirable! in action how like an angel!
    in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the
    world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me,
    what is this quintessence of dust? man delights not
    me: no, nor woman neither, though by your smiling
    you seem to say so.

    I love Shakesphere and Hamlet and MacBeth most of all. From one piece of work to another!

  26. This overlaps with something I’ve been mulling over as I complete my transition from my Evangelical upbringing into an Episcopalian faith: Is it possible to idolize and worship the Bible wrongly? Can we make an idol of the Word? The churches I grew up in structured everything around the hour-long sermon, and I found so many more ways of knowing God once I became involved in an Episcopalian church. I am still too timid, though, to say we’ve put too much weight in the Bible, but I think we have certainly forgotten other methods of worship and understanding God.

  27. An indirect comment: Why not just make your Bible survey class non-linear? Then you can keep the big picture central but still get to the details later.

    Peace of X

  28. All the people in here seem well-versed in the reading of the scriptures and the various ways and methods(and associated abuses) in which to do that. I just wonder… does it take slogging through the hermeneutical maze of whatever camp you come from to see the simpler(but not simplistic) picture that Michael paints here?

    I’m 40yo and am just now learning from guys like Keller and Goldsworthy(Ph.ds – no irony there) to see that golden thread weaving it’s way through scripture. And it seems so obvious that I wonder why I didn’t see it before. But then I wonder could I have seen this 20 years ago – without having seen the other side – and then keep from getting distracted from these other tertiary issues? I don’t know and I think I’m too embedded the whole thing to be objective.

    Thanks for the safe place to muse, iMonk.

  29. Bror Erickson says

    I don’t think you can ever study the Bible too much, you could though read too much into it. But I think that tends to happen more with people who take it too lightly, and don’t study it enough.

  30. “Reginald, I can write no more. All that I have hitherto written seems to me nothing but straw… All that I have written appears to me as much straw…compared to the things that have been revealed to me.”
    ~Thomas Aquinas

  31. Michael, just when I’m about to give up on you you go and write a fantastic post like this. Thanks so much you’ve made my day.

  32. I think I agree with the overall sentiment behind this blog post. The Scriptures have wisdom and depth that could exhaust a lifetime of study. However, when/if that study gives way to energized extrapolation- it usually leads to the subordination of the Bible to our own personal agendas.

    I don’t think that happens as a result of too much study though. It probably happens as a result of our attempt to make the Bible a reflection of ourselves when we should be viewing it as the proverbial mirror that shows us who we are in comparison with who we ought to be (James 1:22-25).

  33. Quoting Ethan Magness:

    “I too have felt that I “study” the Bible too much. However that is only a problem because I live out the Bible to little. Whenever we know more than we live (and I know a great deal more than I live) a great current of hypocrisy grows in our lives that can be overwhelming at times. When a young Christian comes to me for help seeking the truth of scripture, I am regularly shamed as I point them to a text that I have always known and never lived and they read it for the first time and begin to live it.”

    Ethan, you hit it square on the head for me. I sometimes wonder how much of what I have learned I’ve forgotten – from disuse. The parable of the talents seems to have direct application here.

    I continue to read and re-read the bible, not mostly to learn something new, but to be reminded (again) of what I do know, and should be doing.

    I’ve been in enough different church movements to experience many ways the scriptures can be stretched and twisted out of shape, and misapplied to almost every area of life. I’ve come to appreciate the scholars, PhD types, etc. who bring my understanding of scripture back to solid principles of interpretation. I believe I have much more to unlearn and relearn than to learn new.

  34. christian wanderer says

    It seems apt here to quote the phrase, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.”

    I spent many years with a group that focused on “high” and “deep” Bible knowledge. There were a lot of very wonderful things I learned. But the church was a very cold place, with little love or compassion for people. The people who had been there the longest were puffed up beyond measure, and considered themselves Bible experts. In their behavior they acted more like Pharisees. (I wasn’t immune. It’s fun to think you understand the entire Bible in a way that so many “poor” Christians don’t. And it’s disillusioning to realize that you don’t know nearly as much as you think you do, because of the way you treat people.)

  35. mdehkram says

    One can study the Bible too much. A good book that tells of the excesses of Bible study is “The Christian Student” by Bickersteth – on Google Books. Also his book on studying Bible prophecy.
    One can find more in the Bible than is really there. The best corrective of this is to read and study the Bible text on one’s own, before checking or reading commentaries/study Bibles/introductions/handbooks, etc. It will be easier then to discern a writer’s inferences, perhaps justified or not, that go beyond what is plainly stated in the text. Or to check one’s own inferences against what someone else has inferred.
    Much of the methods of inductive Bible study can result in over-analysis, and being overly-methodical. Used as a guide is fine, but the method is only a tool.

Speak Your Mind