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A Word from Dr. Jud Davis

August 14, 2020

Lilienthal’s Table

Monthly Reflections from Bryan College


In 1901, the Wright brothers tried to build the first airplane and found nothing but frustration. The wings they built did not have enough lift. The reason was that the aeronautical numbers on which they based their design were off. Otto Lilienthal had published a wonderful textbook, but the table of data assumed John Smeaton’s drag coefficient, and that number was wrong. It was only when the Wrights abandoned the textbook and built their own wind tunnel that things changed. They corrected the drag coefficient by testing 200 wing designs instead of Lilienthal’s one. By 1903, they had wings that would easily carry a man in powered flight.

I think often we approach Bible study the same way. If you want to know what the book of Romans says, what do you do? Whether it’s a seminary class or a Sunday school, typically you order the best commentary on the book and then you read that. In fact, you spend the majority of your time with that book instead of the Bible. You look to the experts and believe what they say.

But why do we do that? Is God not an effective communicator? Is the Bible somehow not for common people? We should read Romans first. We should spend 95% of our study time in the Bible and 5% checking what others say. It’s been my experience over and over again that if you will “Take up, and read” like Augustine, the Bible’s truths become perfectly clear. A wise man once said, “The Bible sheds a lot of light on commentaries.”

It takes an hour and 15 minutes to read Romans. Why not read and reread Romans asking these questions: Why did Paul write this book? What was the problem at the Roman church? What is Paul’s solution? How do the parts of this book fit together to make that argument? What is the main thing God wants me to know? What is the main thing God wants me to do?

When you come to a problem text, ask “What does the Bible say elsewhere?” How is this text like or unlike God’s other truths? Don’t be a secondary scholar, examine the data for yourself. Build your own wind tunnel and test your own wings.

If you have ever seen Lilienthal’s table, it has the typical beauty of a German textbook. I’m told by experts that his data is right; it’s just that the shape of his wing was wrong. The Wright’s table is on the back of a piece of wallpaper. It’s in the Smithsonian. As I remember it, it’s written in pencil, but it’s the data and wing design that built a plane that would fly.