Our small group workshop will soon be here. In this workshop I talk about the study guides that have come out in the past year. So my days are spent immersing myself in study guides. I find some good and some not so good. John and Kim Walton in their book The Bible Story Handbook ask point blank “Is there a ‘wrong way’ to teach a Bible story?” Their answer is yes and I have to agree. They write,
“It is not important to the author of John 11 (the raising of Lazarus) that Jesus had friends. It is not important to the author of Exodus 3-4 (the burning bush) that Aaron is willing to help his brother. It is not important to the author of John 6 (the feeding of the five thousand) that the boy shared his lunch. If we teach these things, we are telling the story wrongly because we are substituting what we want to teach at the expense of the biblical author’s message. A story is told rightly when we can confidently claim that it represents the intention of the author and the authority of the text.” (24)
They identify five fallacies that draw a lesson away from scriptural authority. There isn’t a study guide I look at that doesn’t contain multiple examples of many of these.
1) Promotion of the trivial. A lesson is based on a passing comment within the text (Josh. 9:14, they did not consult the Lord), a casual observation about the text (Moses persevered by repeatedly appearing before Pharaoh), or even a deduction from the text (Joshua and Caleb were brave and strong). We are not teaching the Bible properly if we teach virtues that the specific text does not have in view.
2) Illegitimate extrapolation. The lesson is improperly expanded from a specific situation to all situations. For example, Exodus 3-4 shows that God commanded Moses to do a hard thing and helped him do it, but the lesson taught from the text is that God will also help you do a hard thing—anything of your choosing. In such cases, we pass by the teaching of the text in favor of what we want to say, thus neglecting biblical authority.
3) Reading between the lines. Teachers or students read between the lines when they analyze the thinking of the characters, speculate on their motives, or fill in details of the plot that the story does not give. When such speculations become the center of the lesson, the authority of the biblical teaching is lost because the teaching is supplied by the reader rather than by the text.
4) Missing important nuance. This occurs when the lesson pinpoints an appropriate message but misses a connection necessary to drive the point home accurately. It is not enough, for instance, to say that God wants us to keep his rules; we must realize that God has given us rules to display his character and to show us how we ought to respond to him in our actions.
5) Focus on people rather than on God. The Bible is God’s revelation of himself, and its message and teaching are largely based on what it tells us about God. This is particularly true of narrative (stories). While we tend to observe the people in the stories, we cannot forget that the stories are intended to teach us about God more than about people. If in the end the final point is ‘We should (or shouldn’t) be like X,’ there is probably a problem unless the X is Jesus or God. Better is, ‘We can learn through X’s story that God . . .’ The tendency to focus overly on people also shows up in questions such as ‘Who are the Goliaths in your life?’ The text is more interested in ‘Who is God in your life?’” (24-25)