What is Bible Study?
Followers of the Christian religion have been studying the Bible for millenniums. At it's most basic level, studying the Bible involves reading it (or hearing it), understanding what God is saying through the writer of the text, and considering how it applies to life today. Bible study can be approached in numerous ways, according to individual churches as well as Christian denominations.
From when the Bible was written on ancient papyri to free Bible studies that are found online, Christians have always been intensely interested in what the Bible says, believing that is God's word to them. While it's true that at certain points in history some church leaders discouraged Christians to study the Bible on their today, this is practice is rarely found today.
Today, Christians study the Bible on their own, but it's also common to meet in fellowship groups to do Bible studies that are either led by a person or a book that guides them in their study.
Bible Study in the Early Church
It is indisputable that in Apostolic times the Old Testament was commonly read (John v, 47; Acts viii, 28; xvii, 11; II Tim. iii, 15). Followers of Roman Catholicism admit that this reading was not restricted in the first centuries, in spite of its abuse by Gnostics and other heretics. On the contrary, the reading of Scripture was urged (Justin Martyr); and Pamphilus, the friend of Eusebius, kept copies of Scripture to furnish to those who desired them.
John Chrysostom attached considerable importance to the reading of Scripture on the part of the laity and denounced the error that it was to be permitted only to monks and priests. He insisted upon access being given to the entire Bible, or at least to the New Testament. The women also, who were always at home, were diligently to read the Bible.
Jerome recommended the reading and studying of Scripture on the part of the women. The translations of the Bible, Saint Augustine considered a blessed means of propagating the Word of God among the nations; Gregory I recommended the reading of the Bible without placing any limitations on it.
Bible Study in the Middle Ages
Owing to lack of culture among the Germanic and Romanic peoples, there was for a long time no thought of restricting access to the Bible there. Translations of Biblical books into German began only in the Carolingian period and were not originally intended for the laity.
Nevertheless the people were anxious to have the divine service and the Scripture lessons read in the vernacular. John VIII in 880 permitted, after the reading of the Latin gospel, a translation into Slavonic; but Gregory VII, in a letter to Duke Vratislav of Bohemia in 1080 characterized the custom as unwise, bold, and forbidden. This was a formal prohibition, not of Bible reading in general, but of divine service in the vernacular.
With the appearance, in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, of the Albigenses and Waldenses, who appealed to the Bible in all their disputes with the Church, the hierarchy was furnished with a reason for shutting up the Word of God. The Synod of Toulouse in 1229 forbade the laity to have in their possession any copy of the books of the Old and the New Testament except the Psalter and such other portions as are contained in the Breviary or the Hours of the Blessed Mary. "We most strictly forbid these works in the vulgar tongue." The Synod of Tarragona (1234) ordered all vernacular versions to be brought to the bishop to be burned. James I renewed thin decision of the Tarragona synod in 1276. The synod held there in 1317 under Archbishop Ximenes prohibited to Beghards, Beguines, and tertiaries of the Franciscans the possession of theological books in the vernacular. The order of James I was renewed by later kings and confirmed by Paul II (1464-71). Ferdinand and Isabella (1474-1516) prohibited the translation of the Bible into the vernacular or the possession of such translations.
In England Wyclif's Bible-translation caused the resolution passed by the third Synod of Oxford (1408): "No one shall henceforth of his own authority translate any text of Scripture into English; and no part of any such book or treatise composed in the time of John Wycliffe or later shall be read in public or private, under pain of excommunication". But Sir Thomas More states that he had himself seen old Bibles which were examined by the bishop and left in the hands of good Catholic laymen.
Bible Study in the Catholic Church Since the Reformation
The Bible translation of Martin Luther and its propagation could not but influence the Roman Catholic Church. Humanism, through such men as Erasmus, advocated the reading of the Bible and the necessity of making it accessible by translations; but it was felt that Luther's translation must be offset by one prepared in the interest of the Church. Such editions were Emser's of 1527, and the Dietenberg Bible of 1534. The Church of Rome silently tolerated these translations.
Action by the Council of Trent
At last the Council of Trent took the matter in hand, and in its fourth session (Apr. 18, 1546) adopted the Decretum de editione et usu librorum sacrorum, which enacted the following: "This synod ordains and decrees that henceforth sacred Scripture, and especially the aforesaid old and vulgate edition, be printed in the most correct manner possible; and that it shall not be lawful for any one to print, or cause to be printed, any books whatever on sacred matters without the name of the author; or in future to sell them, or even to possess them, unless they shall have been first examined and approved of by the ordinary."
When the question of the translation of the Bible into the vernacular came up, Bishop Acqui of Piedmont and Cardinal Pacheco advocated its prohibition. This was strongly opposed by Cardinal Madruzzi, who claimed that "not the translations but the professors of Hebrew and Greek are the cause of the confusion in Germany; a prohibition would produce the worst impression in Germany." As no agreement could be had, the council appointed an index-commission to report to the pope, who was to give an authoritative decision.
Bible Study in the Greek Church
The Greek church knows of no such restriction of use of the Bible as that of the Roman Church. Nevertheless the Synod of Jerusalem of 1672 answered the first of the four questions: "Whether the Holy Scripture can be read by all Christians," in the negative. Nicholas I of Russia abolished in 1826 the Bible Society founded by Alexander I for the propagation of the Bible in the Russian vernacular.
Bible Study in Evangelical Churches
Luther strove to open the Bible to all, and his version served that purpose. The principle that every Evangelical Christian is at liberty to read the Bible remained uncontroverted, though Semler (De antiquo ecclesi statu commentatio, 37, 60, 68) makes the assertion that the sacred writings, especially the apostolic epistles, were not intended for the use of the people and the congregations; that in the ancient Church no universal use of the Bible existed, and that the catechumens especially were prohibited from using the Bible. Bible-compendiums for special purposes and separate circles also came into use in the Evangelical Church. Veit Dietrich published in 1541 his Summarium of the Old and the New Testament; Cromwell's soldiers had The Soldier's Pocket Bible of 1643 (facsimile edition,Cromwell's Soldier's Bible, London, 1895). The restriction upon Bible-reading in the Evangelical Church became of practical importance only in the schools. For didactic purposes Amos Comenius recommended compendiums and special manuals of Scripture, which the scholar was to use till he could read the Gospel in the original. The didactic needs were gradually satisfied by the introduction of text-books of "Biblical history," the Catechism, and collections of Bible sentences. From time to time the question has been agitated whether the whole Bible or so-called school Bibles should be used in the schools. The principal reason adduced in favor of the latter is that certain passages are objectionable because they deal with sexual relations. But these reasons are not well founded, since reading of the Bible has never been a cause of demoralization. The moral earnestness which without veiling calls things by their right names is to be preferred to a careful paraphrasing and veiling of the sense which only the more excite impure desires.
Source Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge" (in the public domain), "Bible Study Among the Laity" with minor edits.