Different Styles of Reading the Bible
Something that has cropped up in recent conversations with friends as well as come across in sermon recordings and YouTube videos is the question of how to read the Bible. I mean how in the practical sense:
- How much do I read at one time?
- How long should I spend reading at a given time?
- How much should my reading be planned?
There are a number of various ways that the Bible can be approached. All of them have their place, but some are more important than others. Here are a bunch of approaches that I’ve brainstormed lately, in order from shortest readings to longest: lectio divina, personally Spirit-directed reading, reading for comprehension, pericope-based reading, reading most/all of the Bible in a year, and historical-based reading. Let’s check out what each of these six are all about.
Lectio divina is an ancient discipline that combined reading, meditating, and praying. Simply put, it involves four steps:
- Read out loud something short: one verse, a quote, a short story or parable. Then think about what it means, exercising your mind.
- Contemplate that verse and its meaning in your heart. Rest in God’s presence as you “feel out” the meaning and depth of the verse.
- Pray the verse. Take it into dialogue with God as you imagine yourself in it or witnessing it or hearing it.
- Meditate on those thoughts (mind), feelings (heart), and dialogues (spirit). The verse can now begin to help you grow in your relationship with God.
Practically speaking, this is very challenging. It requires discipline, relative solitude & quiet (unless you’re amazingly good at ignoring distractions), and a fair chunk of time (around half an hour in total). It takes no time simply to read a verse or two of Scripture, but the process of lectio divina is rigorous and slow. Unlike many technical skills in the modern age, the better you are at lectio divina, the longer it takes. Personally, I have minimal experience with this discipline, but I have heard a number of testimonies regarding its value for others.
Personally Spirit-directed Reading
Sometimes God just draws us to certain pages of Scripture, certain verses, certain stories, certain psalms. Sometimes it’s a word of encouragement or direction for that moment in your day or that time in your life. Sometimes he draws us to the same passage(s) over and over again until we get the message; sometimes it constantly changes, as he teaches us new things from day to day.
This is an important form of Bible reading that every Christian should take care not to neglect. The Bible is, after all, one of the top three methods in which God speaks to us (alongside the Church and the direct-line Holy Spirit within us), so we should be attentive to how he might speak through the Bible.
However, this is a challenging method of reading the Scriptures. The best interpreter of Scripture is Scripture itself, so if we want to benefit the most from this, we need to be sure that we’re getting a steady diet of comprehensive Bible-reading, which does require some discipline. Even more importantly (and challenging) is the fact that we are living in a very selfish culture. There is a great temptation to gravitate toward our personal favorite verses and make ourselves believe that God is speaking specially to us through them. The whims of the self and the winds of the Spirit can be difficult to discern for the busy modern American disciple of Christ.
Reading for Comprehension
There are probably a million names for this method, so I’ll just describe it: read as much or as little as necessary to understand what you’ve read. If you’re reading from 1 Chronicles, you can get from chapter 1 to chapter 9 pretty quickly because basically the sole content of those chapters is Genealogy; there are no hard teachings or mysterious sayings to puzzle over. But if you take up Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, you will quickly run into some statements that are difficult to interpret as a complex theology is unearthed from the Scripture’s fertile soil. You may only be able to get through a paragraph of Paul’s writings before you have to stop and think for a while.
If you read solely for comprehension, it will (in the long run) slow you down. There are times to plow on and keep reading so you can get the big picture, and there are times to stop and dig deeper into the details that perplex the mind.
First, what’s a “pericope?” A pericope is a discrete passage that contains a complete thought. This could be a whole parable with Jesus’ introductory words and follow-up, a single-verse proverb, a single Psalm, a multi-chapter story, or a paragraph of Pauline teaching. So this may be longer or shorter than the previous approach. A pericope is usually what is read in church worship services, and what many seminaries today encourage their students to use as sermon texts. Public reading like that is probably the best context for this style of reading.
Oftentimes, Bibles have headers or subtitles that help to identify pericopes. Resultantly, this is an excellent method of Bible-reading for those unfamiliar with the Bible because it enables them to take in bite-sized chunks of Scripture that make sense on their own, aren’t overwhelmingly long, or frustratingly short. But as you grow in the discipline of Bible-reading, you’ll probably need to move on to the longer reading approaches (like the next two) as well as deeper approaches such as lectio divina.
Reading most/all the Bible in a year
This involves a Bible-Reading Plan (also known as a lectionary). This has been the top method for mature Christians since the Early Church. In fact, this practice was one of the major things that shaped the decisions that led to the recognition of the New Testament canon. I mean, by reading the writings of the Apostles on a regular basis both publicly and privately, the Early Church came to recognize the anointing of the Holy Spirit upon those writings, to the end that they were able to come together and agree what could be called Sacred Scripture!
There are a million ways of doing this. I posted links to a number of lectionaries here a while back, including one of my own which I have since revised though not posted. Sure, some are better than others, and some serve different purposes than others. The wisdom of Early Christianity teaches us that the best realization of this method is for the whole community to be reading the Scriptures together, rather than individually, but that doesn’t rule out the periodic need for an individual to pursue the reading of the Bible in a different way for a little while.
This is all about reading the material as if you were among its original audience. This is time-consuming, but worth a try every now and then. In many cases, this involves reading an entire book of the Bible, and preferably out loud. This isn’t a big deal with short letters like Philemon, Titus, or 1 John, but it can be harder to persevere reading all of Romans or Revelation or Deuteronomy out loud in one go. Yet, that’s how much of the Bible was first heard!
Especially with the New Testament letters, this is a useful method to try out every now and then; it helps you hear things you may never notice from other reading styles, be they silent, broken up into chunks, or both.
I’ve written before on the importance of balancing these approaches with which we read the Bible, so all I’ll say now is that it’s important both to study it with your mind and to meditate on it with your heart, to read it regularly in a disciplined manner and to be ready to read it spontaneously.
Finally, part of the reason that we bother trying to read the Bible is to understand it. As you all know, context is very important. Therefore, along with Bible-reading comes two other valuable reading resources: the additional Old Covenant books known as the Deuterocanon or Apocrypha and the writings of the Apostolic Fathers. The former writings help us see the context in which the Old Testament was understood as it came together as canonical scripture, and the latter writings help us see the context in which the New Testament was understood as it came together as canonical scripture. More on that here, if you’re still curious about that.