The first step to effective Bible study is not to study. “The first thing I do is pray. Communication is a two-way street. God speaks to me through the Bible. And I speak to Him through prayer,” says Norman Geisler.
For this Bible scholar, apologist and philosopher, reading the Scriptures is not merely an intellectual exercise; it’s a personal encounter with God.
Geisler has authored or co-authored 70 books and hundreds of articles, and has spoken or debated in 26 countries on six continents. He has a BA, MA, ThB, and PhD (in philosophy) and has taught at some of the top seminaries in the United States, including Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and Dallas Theological Seminary. During the 1981 “Scopes Two” trial, the defense called on Geisler as an expert witness to help promote the teaching of creation alongside evolution in public schools.
Geisler’s parents were not Christians. On Sundays, at age nine, he would get up while they were still sleeping, and hop on a community church bus that would take him to Sunday school. “There was something inside me telling me to do this, which I later knew was the Holy Spirit.… From the first time I heard the gospel at age nine, I knew it was true.”
“I came from an uneducated family. My mother went through seventh grade and my father went through fourth grade. We had no books in our home. No magazines. My only interest in life was baseball. That is what kept me in school—that and girls. In 11th grade, they gave me a test and found out I couldn’t read. I made it through 12th grade without reading a book. The Bible may have been the first book I ever read, because I wanted to know the Word and learn more.”
Where We Go from Here: The Road Map
Geisler is adamant that studying the Bible for its meaning without personally understanding its significance is a futile endeavor. “You’re not dealing with just any book or piece of literature. You’re dealing with the words of the living God that created the universe.” A key element of effective Bible study is approaching Scripture in context before examining it verse by verse. “You’ve got to stand back and see the whole picture. If you get too close to a given verse, … you [can] miss the overall message.”
And that overall message is Jesus. Each section of the Bible shows us Christ: “In the law, the foundation is laid for Christ; history: preparation is made; poetry: aspiration; prophecy: expectation.” All this leads up to the New Testament and the “consummation of all things in Christ.” Inside that broad theological structure, we can begin to find the significance of the individual books.
Don’t Stop at Interpretation
Geisler believes proper interpretation begins with looking at the text objectively. “The meaning is what the text says. The meaning is objective. It comes from a God who is absolute truth and has objectively revealed His truth in His Word in context.”
But we ought not to stop there. From meaning we must move on to significance. “The significance is how the Scripture applies to my own life, because circumstances change. There is one interpretation, but many applications.”
This process of understanding revelation, interpretation and application depends heavily on the illumination of the Holy Spirit. Since the Spirit inspired those words in the first place, the Spirit can help us see the implications.
Get Norman Geisler’s Systematic Theology at Logos.com/Geisler
Far too many people read a text without ever knowing its implications for their own lives. Geisler reminds us of 1 Cor 2:14, “The man without the Spirit does not ‘accept’ the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned” (niv). Geisler notes that “accept” is a translation of the Greek word meaning “welcome” (δέχοµαι, dechomai).The word literally means to “welcome them into his heart.”
“You know what really challenges me? It’s the verses like ‘love your neighbor as yourself,’ and ‘love your wife as your own body.’ It’s the one about ‘thou shall not kill’ while we’re killing 1,000 babies every day by abortion in the United States. Those are the verses that bother me—the clear ones. I don’t care what the seven thunders uttered in the book of Revelation [really are]; I care what the thunderous voice on Mt. Sinai uttered when He said things like … ‘don’t steal’ and ‘don’t commit adultery.’ ”
Bringing It Home
Geisler is not just speaking theoretically when he discusses such things. Through his struggles, the significance of the gospel in his own life has been tested.
“I had lost a father, a mother, a sister and a mother-in-law; I had buried a lot of people. I had seen death first hand as a minister and a pastor, and I’d thought I’d seen everything until our daughter died. When our daughter died, I really tested the reality of applying God’s truth to my own life, because at times like that it’s just you, God and your basic beliefs. That’s what it boils down to.”
“When you lose a loved one … that close to you—and you know they’re not coming back, humanly speaking—either you do believe in the resurrection or you don’t. And the real test of it comes right then. If you thought it was just a fairy tale or a legend and it wasn’t rooted in history and reality, it would be of no comfort to you whatsoever. That’s when apologetics, theology, proper interpretation, [and] application all come to bear on real life.”
“I was out making funeral arrangements with my wife and I had cried … for hours and hours. I came back home and there were 11 calls on the phone from friends of mine.… They all said comforting things, but John Ankenberg said all four things that are comforting to somebody in grief like that. Number one: I love you. Number two: I’m praying for you. Number three: I’m sympathizing with you. Number four: It’s not your fault.”
“The comfort of those truths are all rooted in Scripture. [Because I know] that Christ rose from the dead, [I knew] we were going to be able to see her again—I can’t describe the incredible significance and comfort that truth brought to me.”
“I often give a test to audiences when I’m speaking on this problem of suffering.… I say, ‘How many of you have learned any enduring lesson in life through pleasure? Raise your hand.’ No hands. ‘How many of you have learned an enduring lesson in life through pain?’ All the hands.”
Looking back, Geisler says, “My disappointments have been His appointments. God has always been doing something through those [moments] in my life. And when I look at those I find that they were greater moments … where God broke through to me than any other.”
Interview of Norman Geisler conducted by John D. Barry.