“How to approach scripture” – Gareth Black at Ulster University CU

I recently had the privilege of speaking to the Christian Union at Ulster University (Belfast Campus). I have spoken to the CU a couple of times previously, but this time they had asked me to come and teach them the entire Book of Ruth as part of a series they were doing on Inspiring Characters in the Bible. The Book of Ruth is one of my absolute favourite books of scripture. Yet more than simply my love for the subject matter, I wanted to take up this opportunity to help these students engage with the bible in a deeper way than they often do, allowing our interactive session to help them glean (no pun intended!) valuable tips and methods for how to get the most out of bible study for themselves. Central to this was teaching them to ask questions of the text. So often many of us find that we don’t get much out of scripture precisely because we don’t know what we should be looking for and, therefore, end up engaging with the text without looking for anything in particular. We need to remember that although the Bible is certainly more than a book, it is not less than a book and, therefore, we need to effectively employ all the normal approaches and skills of comprehension that we would to any other book if we are to discover its message.

Strangely, many of us all too often fail to do this when it comes to the bible because we have an often unconscious assumption that, because we are engaging with the holy and living word of God, it somehow should mysteriously speak to us without our employment of these basic approaches to understanding literature. I have found time and time again – especially when engaging with students and teenagers who feel the expectation that they should be getting lots out of scripture when they read it but, if they are honest, don’t when they read it – that if you can help people know how to engage with scripture by asking the right questions, such as “Does the author state why he is writing?”, “What does the text actually say (before we think about meaning or application)?”, and “Why might these things be said in this book and not in another book of the bible?”, scripture begins to come alive and speaks with authority into their lives as they begin to experience the wisdom, coherent thought-flow and power of the Word of God. Of course, starting with a short manageable book like the Book of Ruth can be very effective in helping people see these things quite easily.

It was no different for the students at Ulster University. As we walked our way through the story, asking these questions, giving voice to the things we didn’t understand or found bizarre in the text, I began to have to say less and less as the students visibly and audibly began to be inspired and, consequently, invest in owning the study for themselves because the message had begun to come alive with interest, relevance and power for them. It was a privilege to end the Zoom call, hearing their fresh hunger to dive further into the text and fresh confidence that scripture – if we take it seriously and allow it to do its work – can speak with authority and relevance to some of the most pressing questions and social issues of 2021.

As I continually see students respond to scripture in instances like the CU at Ulster, I am reminded of an important lesson, one that we who value the importance of apologetics can often unconsciously forget. It the lesson that , as immensely important as it is to have things to say and arguments to make about the reliability of scripture in terms of its historical accuracy and integrity to what the original authors said, ultimately we need get to the bible.

If, in our minds, the bible’s authority simply rests on what we say about it, it will never ultimately convince us that it is the word of God and is authoritative and powerful to speak at the deepest level of our hearts and minds. Ultimately, God has promised that “faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God” (Romans 10:17); it does not come by the arguments we make about the Word of God. The difference is subtle but crucial. It is the difference between a technical or merely creedal acknowledgment of the inspiration of scripture, and one forged through profound and consistent hearing of the word of God through personal engagement with it. At the end of the day, Scripture does not become the Word of God because of the things I say about it. Therefore, the best thing we can do in serving students – or anyone else for that matter – when it comes to building their faith, is to learn to do the hard work of opening up the bible and allowing it to speak for itself. For, in the end, the bible is its own apologetic. Very often in the contemporary world of Christian apologetics, our relationship with the bible is often one in which we analyse culture, identify a problem, and then resolve the problem via a blend of philosophy and scripture before moving on to the next problem. The danger is that this makes our relationship with the bible merely a collection of problem-orientated solutions. I am very grateful to those who have helped me to see that the bible wasn’t written that way: it was written in books.

I have, therefore, discovered that it is possible start the other way round: to begin with scripture and allow it to both illuminate and address the human problem – problems that, at their core, have been consistent throughout the millennia of human history and only appear in different guises with the passage of time. The benefit of this approach to building Christian faith, is that it avoids the danger of people’s confidence resting on the authority of an individual Christian speaker’s analytical powers and argumentative prowess, however brilliant, and scripture only being employed referentially. Instead, once people – including students and teenagers – begin to truly see that scripture itself is alive and relevant and the best discerner of the thoughts and intentions of both individual hearts and cultural movements, it enables them to actively place their confidence in the word of God itself as authoritative, whether they have access to brilliant speakers/thinkers or not.

It was a delight to begin just a little of this journey with the students at Ulster University. The greatest compliment they paid me that evening as we departed had nothing to do with anything they said about what I personally had contributed. Instead, it was to allow me to observe – without them even realising it – their very evident and organic appetite and renewed confidence vis-à-vis scripture itself. Because, when students truly hear scripture speak, they inevitably want more. And if they are confident that it can’t speak to them with supernatural power and authority, they are far more likely to believe that it can do the same among their unbelieving student friends.