Reading the Bible

How do Christians Read the Bible?

The words of Scripture come alive as they touch the Holy Spirit alive and working in us. This is the same Spirit that inspired the writing, gathering, and editing of the Bible. That Spirit, alive in us and helping us to live a Christian life, also helps us to read Scripture in a way that it has an effect on our lives. 

Usually we read for information- to obtain an explanation for something, or to be entertained. Often people run into problems reading the Bible because they try to read it the way they read other books. In particular, we often read Scripture too quickly. As we read the Bible we should read it with a meditative heart. We place ourselves ‘under the text’ hoping to hear God speaking into our lives through the words we read and the meditation of our hearts as we ponder the words. We must resist standing over the text of Scripture as controllers and consumers. In reading Scripture we are not necessarily attempting to gain information, or get God to do what we want, or even to master the “text”. Rather, in reading Scripture we are allowing the “Text” to master us- to allow God to speak to us directly through the Word of God.

The Egyptian Orthodox monk ‘Matthew the Poor’ talks about ways of reading the Bible. He says, “There are two ways of reading:

“The first is when a man reads and puts himself and his mind in control of the text, trying to subject its meaning to his own understanding and then comparing it with the understanding of others.

“The second is when a man puts the text on a level above himself and tries to bring his mind into submission to its meaning, and even sets the text up as a judge over him, counting it as the highest criterion.

“The first is suitable for any book in the world, whether it be a work of science or of literature. The second is indispensable in reading the Bible. The first way gives man mastery over the world, which is his natural role. The second gives God mastery as the all-wise and all powerful Creator.

“But if man confuses the roles of these two methods, he stands to lose from them both, for if he reads science and literature as he should read the Gospel, he grows small in stature, his academic ability diminishes, and his dignity among the rest of creation dwindles.

“And if he reads the Bible as he should read science, he understands and feels God to be small; the divine being appears limited and his awesomeness fades. We acquire a false sense of our own superiority over divine things- the very same forbidden thing Adam committed in the beginning” (Matthew the Poor, The Communion of Love).

As Christians we read Scripture in a prayerful state hoping to encounter God and receive guidance for our life. As Christians we are guided in our discipleship by the teachings of Jesus as given to us by the Apostles as recorded in the pages of Scripture. Scripture carries authority to shape our lives as Christians because it is the teachings of the Apostles, and the Old Testament was held as authoritative by them and by Jesus himself.  “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). We also recognize that Scripture must be interpreted. We cannot just flip open the Bible blindly, point our finger onto the page, and use that as our guidance for the day. We need to interpret it wisely- hopefully as Jesus would have us read it.

The Bible is a story that progresses through time with Jesus Christ being the pinnacle of God’s revelation of who God is and what it means to live a faithful life. If Jesus is the pinnacle, then Jesus also becomes the lens by which we read the rest of the Bible. In a sense, we put on “Jesus glasses” as we read the Bible and are always seeking to understand the Bible in relation to his words and character. This means we cannot “proof text” by taking a piece of scripture out of context to prove our point. That piece of Scripture has to be understood and interpreted by its place in the bigger story and based on the bigger theological and ethical principles. This means that we don’t throw out pieces of Scripture as a part of a by-gone era, nor do we read it as if it has no context. We read it as a part of the story, while recognizing we are a people of this story. How does that part of the story speak to us in our part of the story?

We also need to be conscious of genre. When someone asks if you read the Bible “literally” we really have to ask what part of the Bible they referring to. The Bible contains numerous types of literature. For example when we read, “Let the rivers clap their hands, let the mountains sing together for joy” (Ps 98:8) we probably don’t want to read that literally. The genre is poetry, which often uses metaphor. And when we read, “So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released for them Barabbas, and having scourged Jesus, he delivered him to be crucified” (Mark 15:15) we probably want to read this literally because the genre is something like biography. So we cannot answer simply “yes” or “no” to the question “do you read the Bible literally?”   

The “three-legged stool” is a useful image to use, whereby Scripture is given primary place as the first leg. If something is said plainly in the canon of Scripture then our job is to shape our lives accordingly. If something is unclear in the Bible, then we invoke the second leg of the stool which is “Tradition”. Our spiritual ancestors (especially the saints) tried to shape their lives according to Scripture by the leading of the Holy Spirit. So, while Scripture might be silent (or unclear) on a particular issue it is likely that the Tradition has some wisdom to give the community. If Scripture is silent (or unclear) and the Tradition is silent (or unclear), then we move on to the third leg of the stool, which is “reason”. This is a specific understanding of reason. This is the reason of a mind that has been shaped by being immersed in Scripture and formed by the spiritual Traditions of the church. Through prayer and by the invocation of the wisdom of the Holy Spirit we attempt to discern an answer on the issue that stands before the community. This isn’t always easy or clear- especially because we do this with others. God works through the church, which makes it a complicated process indeed. It can be tremendously difficult to come to an answer, but that is part of becoming a mature Christian.       


Bible reading list

For those new to the Bible this may be a helpful order to read it in to get a sense of the overall story:

Genesis, Exodus, 1 Samuel, 2 Samuel, 1 Kings, 2 Kings, Matthew, Acts, Romans

Books that can help with reading the Bible

There are a variety of good study Bibles that provide notes and short articles to help you gain a greater understanding of what you’re reading.

These books will also be helpful:

How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth by Gordon Fee

How to Read the Bible Book by Book by Gordon Fee

You Can Understand the Bible by Peter Kreeft

The New Joy of Discovery in Bible Study by Oletta Wald

The Story We Find Ourselves In by Brian McLaren