Thursday, January 22, 2015

are you an isolationist or a curator?

As a Bible study teacher I encounter two extremes when the question of studying the Bible is raised. First is the “isolationist”, the person who believes all she needs is personal Bible study to grow in Godly wisdom. She doesn’t need hand-holding from a teacher or theologian – she just needs a journal, a pen, her Bible and the Holy Spirit. She sees any effort to systematize her reading of Scripture as an attempt to conform the wisdom of God to the wisdom of man, thereby distorting what was already pure and sufficient. In her zeal to elevate the importance of God’s Word, she misinterprets the idea of Sola Scriptura to mean that no teaching outside of Scripture is necessary for her understanding.

At the other extreme is the “curator”, the person who, for all intents and purposes, believes she can’t navigate Scripture on her own at all. She finds the Bible largely incomprehensible or boring, preferring the study of doctrine (through teaching, books, podcast or topical studies) to the study of Scripture itself, substituting learning what others say about the Bible for actually learning the Bible. While she may never have consciously intended to devalue personal study of Scripture, over time she grows increasingly content to be a curator of opinions about a Book she does not read, effectively operating under her own credo of Sola Doctrina.

Most of us fall somewhere between these two extremes, but it is important to ask ourselves honestly which of them we lean toward: are we more of an isolationist or a curator? Isolationist Bible study holds as much potential danger to our spiritual health as a curator approach. The isolationist must humbly acknowledge her own intellectual limits, confessing her need for the help of those with the grace-granted gift of teaching. The curator must humbly acknowledge her overdependence on the intellect and gifting of others, confessing her tendency to use study of doctrine as a substitute for study of Scripture. Both extremes must acknowledge the very real presence and danger of false doctrine. Lacking an outside perspective, the isolationist can unwittingly invent her own false doctrine. Lacking first-hand knowledge of Scripture, the curator can fail to discern the difference between true and false teaching, choosing whatever position appeals to her the most.

If you gravitate toward Bible-only study you may need to remind yourself to allocate some time for doctrine. God gifts the church with teachers for the purpose of pointing us to truth in the context of community. Isolationism discounts the Bible’s assertion that we are members of one body, each part needing the other.

If you gravitate toward doctrine-only study, you may need to reclaim time for personal study of the Bible. God commands you to love Him with all of your mind, not just with someone else’s mind. Curatorship chooses the fallible words of man over the eternal, unchanging, inerrant Word of the Lord.

So, work to find parity between these two extremes. Make an honest appraisal of your current tendency toward either isolationism or curatorship. Acknowledge how pride might be influencing whichever end of the spectrum you are drawn to. And seek to strike a balance between the treasure of personal study and the gift of sound instruction. We need to know how to study the Bible on our own, and we need to put that knowledge into practice. But we also need the insights of those God has gifted to teach us. Personal study sharpens our awareness of the strengths and limitations of our teachers. Sound teaching sharpens our awareness of our own strengths and limitations as students. Both are needed for a Christ-follower to grow in wisdom. Both in balance are worthy of our time.


  1. Hi Jen. Thanks for this article. Recently I've been seeing the need for wisdom and discernment in who we listen to, both in my life and the lives of those around me. It is easy to be swept here and there by such a range of teaching. Really value the work of the Gospel Coalition and your involvement there to help us as women learn how to have discernment and also encourage us to delve into God's Word, trusting the Holy Spirit to fashion us more like Jesus. Hard balance sometimes between being an isolationist or a curator! Emily

  2. I'm the curator all the way. I feel like a biblical commentary addict suffering from crippling withdrawal right now as I'm doing Judges. James was hard to not seek outside input. This is KILLING ME.
    Here's the inner conversation everyday:

    Me: WHAT?! He sent his wife / concubine out to all of those men to be raped to death all night?! I have to find something to explain this!!

    Me with Jen Wilkin's voice in my head (MWJWVIMH): NOOOO! STOP! You are not allowed to use any commentary. You just need to be uncomfortable and pray for the Spirit to enlighten and help you wrestle with the text.

    Me: But J. sacrifices his daughter and, unlike Abraham, God didn't tell him to and doesn't stop him! I have no mental framework for this! I'm freaking out!

    (MWJWVIMH): Sorry! You can't seek outside comments. Just stop and be uncomfortable. Don't cheat!

    Me: O.k. MWJWVIMH, but I don't like you very much right now and I'm not happy. This is really, really, really uncomfortable. None of this makes any sense and although I can come up with wild speculations, I have no way of knowing if any of my ideas are crazy or close to the truth.

    (MWJWVIMH): That's o.k. Just don't look anything up.

    Me: Not o.k. for me! And this isn't even covered for WEEKS in FMWBS. Are you saying I have to wait until then without any help?!

    (MWJWVIMH): Yes.

    Me: . . . . See before comment about my unhappiness. . . .

    Seriously, though, I love this way of studying the bible even if it is insanely uncomfortable and making me twitchy. From the agonized look my husband is giving me after I bombard him with questions, I'm guessing he does not share my feelings ;)

    1. Ha! You totally CAN hear me in your head! Yeah, there's a whole lot of that "dwelling in the I-don't-know" stuff in the Judges study. It's definitely not for sissies. Sit tight - we'll sort out the carnage. I hope. :)

  3. Jen-Thanks for writing this post. I want to be a student of the word! Not an isolationist or a curator. I've been learning how to study the bible, and when I read Women of the Word last year it really encouraged and challenged me. Thank you for writing and thank you for spurring women on in the truth that the scriptures can stand alone when we come to them with the desire to hear from and seek God's voice for ourselves.

  4. I'm definitely more of a curator! I blame the school system (ha!) where you couldn't have a reasonable thesis on personal study or opinion alone. Such an emphasis on other scholars and what they say, then forming your opinion in light of them... I love to study but it's a discipline to put the commentaries and theology books AWAY and trust the spirit of truth in me as I read God's word. Also reacting against the "whatever-gods-word-says-to-ME-is-true" school of thought ;)

  5. Thank you for the challenge to be whole as a student of the Bible.

  6. I really appreciate this post! It can be easier and self-blinding to swing into one of these two types and simply blame personality or ability level. I would like to point out that there are seasons where you find yourself in one or the other "camp". When I was in college or had only one child, I had lots of time for personal study, in-depth prayer and searching for answers. Now that my life is very much more full with kids and all they require, I find that a study with more bite-sized pieces fits better. Thanks for encouraging balance!

  7. I'm a huge fan of your book and I just discovered your blog! I love this post in particular because for so long I was an isolationist and I'm just discovering the richness of wealth in what God has spoken to others!