In this post, Stephen Witmer prepares us for our next regional event by exploring the importance and usefulness of bracketing Scripture. The Gospel Alliance Core Team is excited about this opportunity on February 19th to strengthen our understanding of God’s word together.
For event information and to register Click HERE
Here is a preview of what the event will be about:
‘Why devote a Saturday to learning bracketing?’
The question ‘Why devote a Saturday to learning bracketing?’ is a fair one, and I’ve already asked myself the related question that is relevant for me: ‘Why devote a Saturday to teaching bracketing?’ Our Saturdays are precious, with opportunities for ministry, rest, and family. So why give one up to learn bracketing?
What is bracketing, anyway? In a previous post, Josh Otte did a good job of explaining. It is a method of studying the Bible that focuses on tracing the flow of a Biblical author’s thought and displaying that flow of thought visually. It is very similar to ‘arcing,’ which is another form of discourse analysis in which the author’s argument is closely followed and then visually displayed on the page.
So, once again, back to our question: why spend a Saturday learning this particular method of studying the Bible?
In this post and the next, I’ll give you three reasons why I think learning bracketing is worth a Saturday (and, in fact, much more than one Saturday). I’ll begin with two general reasons today and then get more specific with a further reason (and a particular example) in the next post. Here goes:
1. Because you can’t be a good student of the Bible if you don’t know how to follow the flow of thought in a passage.
You can do word studies and grammatical studies, and you can research the historical and cultural backgrounds of a passage. You can study a passage backward and forward and ponder it for hours on end. Those things are all really valuable and important. But if, when you’re finished with your study of the passage, you can’t follow the author’s flow of thought, you haven’t really understood the passage.
This is why Thomas Schreiner, one of the leading evangelical New Testament scholars in the country, says: ‘I am convinced that tracing the structure of the argument in the Pauline epistles is the most important step in the exegetical process.’ Wow. That’s a big claim! There are some pretty important steps in the exegetical process, but Tom Schreiner says tracing the argument is the most important of them all. When a careful scholar like Tom Schreiner says something like that, I want to know more about what he’s talking about! What he’s talking about is what we’re going to spend February 19 learning how to do.
2. Because you can’t be an effective teacher and preacher if you don’t know how to follow the flow of thought in a passage.
This is related to point 1, but it’s a bit different. There are many teachers and preachers (I’ve heard some) who, very sadly, do not know how to read a passage, understand the way its logic and structure flows, and then communicate that to God’s people. Notice I’m not saying you need to know bracketing to be effective – I’m saying you need to be able to follow a passage’s flow of thought. Bracketing is one really good way to do that. If you have other ways of doing it, or if it is a skill that just comes naturally and instantly to you, fine! Don’t come on February 19. But if you’re looking to improve in this area, bracketing will help you.
When preachers and teachers don’t know or don’t care how to follow a passage’s flow of thought, a few things will likely begin to happen. First, their sermons or Sunday School classes will be disjointed, rambling, and only loosely connected to the Bible passage they’re seeking to preach or teach. Second, their preaching will ‘flatten out’ the passages they’re preaching – in other words, the richly textured contribution of each particular passage will be missed, and every sermon will begin to sound pretty much the same. This means their sermons and Bible teachings will be very boring. Third, when the Bible preacher or teacher isn’t drawing the content of the sermon or study from the flow of the passage, something else will enter in to become the focus. Often, some pet theme of the preacher or teacher will be the focus of the sermon or study.
This reminds me of the story John Stott tells in his book on preaching, Between Two Worlds. Stott says there was ‘a Baptist preacher who had such pronounced views about baptism that he simply could not leave the subject alone. One morning he announced his text, ‘Adam, where art thou?’ He then continued, ‘There are three lines we shall follow. First, where Adam was; secondly, how he was to be got from where he was; and thirdly and lastly, a few words about baptism.’” That’s funny, but let’s not dishonor the Bible that way! One great means of keeping the unique beauty and power of each passage before us it to use the tool called bracketing.
Here’s the way John Piper says it: ‘So arcing is important to help re-think an author’s thoughts after him and open the Bible in ways that, for me, it had never opened any other way…’ John Piper (like Tom Schreiner) is careful with words. And note that he says arcing (a cousin of bracketing) opened the Bible for him in a way nothing else had! I think maybe a claim like that from John Piper is worth some further investigation!
In the next post I’ll offer one more reason it’s worth spending a cold Maine day in February learning bracketing.