The Doctor’s Exam and Reading Scripture
In her book Every Patient Tells a Story (New York: Broadway Books, 2009), Dr. Lisa Sanders addresses a number issues related to the “art of diagnosis”—exploring how doctors’ experience, training, and intuition aid them in rightly solving the most challenging of diagnostic problems.
In one of the sections of her book, she shares multiple firsthand accounts and draws on a variety of medical studies to bring to the readers’ awareness the sad demise of the physical exam. She observes that “these anecdotes reveal a truth already accepted by most doctors: the physical exam—once our most reliable tool in understanding and diagnosing a sick patient—is dead” (41).
She describes what has happened:
The physical exam was once the centerpiece of diagnosis. The patient’s story and a careful examination would usually suggest a diagnosis, and then tests, when available, could be used to confirm the finding. These days, when confronted with a sick patient, doctors often skip the exam altogether, instead shunting the patient directly to diagnostic imaging or the lab, where doctors can cast a wide net in search of something they might have found more quickly had they but looked. Sometimes a cursory physical examination is attempted but with few expectations as physicians, instead, eagerly await results of a test they hope will tell them the diagnosis (41).
Drawing on her own experiences as a doctor and marshaling current studies, she makes a case for the importance of the physical exam even in the age of high technology—she argues for “the fundamental importance of [a doctor] examining the patient” for himself (54). “A thorough physical examination can play a critical role in making a timely diagnosis—a role that cannot be duplicated by even the sophisticated tests we now have available” (57). She is arguing for a resurrection of a practice that is, in the minds of many, already long dead and buried.
So what bearing do Dr. Sanders’ observations about the physical examination have on reading the Bible? There might be a very significant parallel.
With the ready availability of countless Bible study tools, apps, on-line messages, blogs, posts, and internet-based Bible resources, when reading Scripture, it becomes easy to default to turning to those resources without doing a careful personal examination of the passage for oneself.
To paraphrase Sanders:
Personal study of the text was once the centerpiece of Bible study. Careful examination of the text would usually suggest some understanding and application, and then resources, when and if available, might be consulted to confirm what was seen and understood. These days, when confronted with a challenging passage (or even a not so challenging passage!), Bible readers often skip their own personal wrestling with the passage altogether, turning directly to the various resources they think will be able to provide meaning and application for them. Sometimes a cursory reading of the text is attempted but with few expectations as readers, instead, eagerly turn to other resources with the hope that those resources will tell them what the text before them is all about.
Dr. Sanders argues—along with a host of other authors and doctors she cites—that the personal, attentive, physical examination of the patient by a doctor is indispensable to good diagnosis and treatment. It should be equally clear that the personal, attentive, reading of the Scriptures by a follower of Jesus is indispensable for a growing life of faith.
It is not likely that most of the earliest followers of Jesus had their own manuscripts of the Old Testament Scriptures. They probably didn’t have written copies of the apostles’ teachings. But, they knew the Old Testament by heart. They learned from the apostles and their disciples the words and stories about Jesus. And what did they do when brought face to face with God’s word? One snapshot, preserved for us by Luke, provides some fascinating insight. When the apostle Paul showed up in the city of Berea, he taught—he spoke from the Scriptures and proclaimed a message about Jesus. And Luke wrote:
“Now these [in Berea] were more noble-minded than those in Thessalonica [where Paul had previously been], for they received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things [Paul was saying] were so.” (Acts 17:11)
Luke reports the commendable (“noble”) response of these Bereans. They willingly took in what they heard from Paul; they weren’t inattentive or dismissive. But they didn’t stop there. They personally “examined” the Scriptures. That’s the word Luke used in referring to Pilate’s judicial review of Jesus and the charges brought against Him (Luke 23:14) and in speaking of Peter and James being on trial before the Sanhedrin for healing a lame man (Acts 4:9).
They were engaged in a personal, attentive, examination of the texts Paul referred to and the Scriptures they knew. They weren’t going to defer even to Paul’s words without doing their own personal examination.
If you’ve been around church and small group studies for much time at all, you probably have your own anecdotes: “These anecdotes reveal a truth already accepted by many Christians: personal, attentive reading—once our most reliable tool in understanding and applying Scripture—seems to be dead.”
We can only hope that such anecdotes do not tell us the final part of the story.
Just as Dr. Sanders and others are seeking to renew and revitalize the practice of the physical exam, let’s vigorously pursue a renewal and revitalization of the practice of attentive, personal, examination of Scripture.