If we are to be Bereans, we must not divorce the study of the Scriptures and doing of theology from the community. We need one another to discern the teaching of Scripture. Theology quite literally cannot be done apart from the church.
Growing up in conservative Baptist churches, there was no trait a Christian could possess of more value than knowledge of the Bible. Children’s programs gave awards for Scripture memory. Sunday sermons came from the Scriptures. VBS was dedicated to teaching children Bible stories. In times of grief or seasons of celebration, we turned to the Bible for solace or exultation. In an environment like that, one group from the Scripture was held forth as our role model and example. We were told to be a Berean.
Of course, this was not a rousing call to adopt Macedonian culture. Read what Scripture says about the Bereans in Acts 17:10–12:
The brothers immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea, and when they arrived they went into the Jewish synagogue. Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so. Many of them therefore believed, with not a few Greek women of high standing as well as men.
This conviction to be a Berean was ingrained in me from an early age. Even now, I can think of no greater exhortation to Christians than to know the Bible.
However, until very recently my fundamental understanding of what it meant to be a Berean was, I believe, flawed. At the very least, it was incomplete.
The picture was often painted for me as one where every Berean was actively searching through their Bibles. The Bereans, in my mind, were like an ultra-devoted group Bible study. Together they opened their Bibles and each of them refused to believe what was taught unless they could collectively flip to a certain page and attach a chapter and a verse to it. There’s only one problem with that image:
The Bereans had no Bibles.
This isn’t only true of the Bereans. It’s true of every single Christian church in the New Testament era. It was not common for average folks in the early church to have their own, personal copy of the Scriptures. It was nearly unheard of. It was not until the Reformation era that mass-production of the Scriptures was even possible. What they had instead was a community—in this case the synagogue, but also the temple—which had a collection of the writings we know as the Old Testament.
If that’s the case, and your conception of what it means to be a Berean is like mine was, then we would all benefit from re-conceiving what it means to search the Scripture as a Berean. There are three fundamental truths that I think can helps us form a more accurate conception of what it means to be a Berean and which can give us some insight into how theology was taught in the early church.
Bereans receive the truth.
I couldn’t help but notice the order of their seeking: the Bereans received, then examined, and finally believed the truth. In truth, this passage is a beautiful picture of the Reformation principle of Scripture as the norma normans. That means that while we have many norms of our own, Scripture is the ultimate norm that, so to speak, norms (or conforms) our norms. The Bereans hear the doctrinal truth through the apostolic preaching and verify it through the Scriptural truth. It is by the witness of the Scripture that they believe what they received.
This is an important distinction. The truth was brought to them as a conclusion from interpretation. The apostles taught them that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of God. This truth they then verified according to Scripture (at this point, the Old Testament texts they had at the synagogue). Then they believed.