How and Why do read the Bible? What do we read the Bible for? Although perhaps rarely asked out loud, I get the sense that these are questions that resonate with many Christians today.
In seminary, we were warned to keep up our personal devotional reading of Scripture, even though we’d be studying the Bible academically in some way or another virtually every semester. This was obvious to some of my classmates, but to some of us it was startling to hear. If the Bible is the Word of God, isn’t any reading of it going to be good for us? Well yes, but some are more helpful than others…
- I could pull out my Greek dictionary and translate a chapter of the New Testament, discovering all sorts of fun little gems that expand my appreciation for and knowledge of the original text.
- I could take some commentaries off the shelf and check out what other people have said about the same passage to get a more full picture of its teaching.
- I could read some less formal spiritual writings that reference a particular text to see how it has affected the lives of others.
- I could read the Bible prayerfully, seeking the Holy Spirit’s guidance, keeping vigil for how the text can and should change my life.
These are all valid goals, and useful in their own ways, but there’s a definite progression in those four approaches.
Translating and analysis certainly do yield good truths, but in that process there’s an alarming degree to which I’m in control of the text. In some of the classes I took in seminary, I sometimes got the impression that I was being encouraged to decide for myself what the ‘best’ grammatical analysis and translation choices might be, as if my opinion was just as valid as the professor’s. Yes, there’s a degree to which students ought to be empowered so they can grow in confidence, but there’s also the plain reality that my professors have PhD’s and I was still working my master’s degree. Most likely, I’ll never be as proficient in the original languages as my NT professors were.
Commentaries are a step down from original translation – the hardest academic work of text criticism and translation is done for you (and explained in varying degrees), so that it’s much more accessible to the average reader. Some parts of scripture are really complicated and confusing, so formal commentaries can be very helpful for making sense of them. What commentaries almost never do, though, is apply Scripture to every-day life. In general, they’re written in a primarily academic sense, so that they’ll be useful tools no matter who reads them in whatever century.
This is where informal spiritual writings come in. By “informal spiritual writings” I mean a wide range of things – personal reflections on scripture, sermons, lectionaries, biblical exhortations, the Apostolic Fathers, the Apocrypha, and so on. These tend to be more culturally-situated, written for a specific audience, so sometimes we have to learn about the authors’ history & culture to fully appreciate their writings. But anything that connects scripture to the basic human experiences in life is going to resonate with us on some level. Academic commentaries tend to be impersonal, but these are much more personal (or “practical,” dare I say).
Of course, reading the Bible on our own, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, is the most personal connection we can have to God’s written word. The way I’ve set up this four-step progression might lead one to assume that I’m exalting this as the best way to read scripture. In a way that’s correct, but I also want to point out the progression of information-mining in these four steps: first, the Bible has to be translated and interpreted into our own modern language. When we read it ourselves, we do so best in community – with the aid of preachers in our local churches, with some level of guidance from spiritual writings like Our Daily Bread or organized by some sort of lectionary. Ideally, these informal writings are informed by academic study of Scripture, such that everyone is able to benefit from the teachings of the great theologians of the Church in an accessible way.
The danger with omitting the “informal” category is two-fold: academic idolatry and personal idolatry. Personal idolatry is pretty straight-forward – me and my Bible know the truth, and I don’t care what anyone else says. This is an immature attitude and expressly condemned by St. Peter. Academic idolatry is trickier in a way, because it takes something respectable and exalts it beyond its proper place. I’ve written about this before, so I won’t repeat it all here.
So getting these four approaches to reading scripture properly ordered and balanced is a good thing. Derek Olsen, in an excellent article, outlines a similar idea in terms of a “neo-patristic” reading of Scripture. At the end of his article, he summarizes this full approach roughly as follows:
- Scripture’s best read in the context of liturgy (thus we read it as a community).
- The purpose of Scripture is summarized by 2 Tim. 3:16-17 and Ephesians 4:11-14, in short: building up the body unto salvation.
- We must always be on the lookout to learn how the Bible teaches us to love God and neighbor.
- The meaning of the biblical text is not only its literal meaning, but the fourfold meaning (as I’ve recently discussed also).
- We must remember the Bible’s dual authorship of individual men and the Holy Spirit.
- Academic study of the Bible is useful from all ages of history, not just one particular era.
However you frame it, something we all need to remember is that we must never enslave the Bible to anything, be it an academic idol, our isolated selfish selves, or anything in between. We’ve got to face up to the awkward fact that the pillar and foundation of the truth is not the Bible, but actually the Church, and thus we’ve got to treat the Bible accordingly.