Reading the Bible Well

Last week a colleague walked into one of our offices and asked, “Just how important is reading the Bible?” The response: “That all depends on just how much you hope to be transformed!”

We also told our colleague that for transformation to happen, she would need to read the Bible well. The idea of “reading the Bible well” led to a longer conversation about biblical interpretation and the Reformed approach to it.

Our colleague, however, came with an inherent mistrust of the idea that Scripture needed interpretation. “I don’t need to work to interpret the Bible,” she said. “I just read it literally and do what it says.”

The conversation then turned to the wisdom of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Data, one of the show’s characters, is a product of artificial intelligence who has no emotions. Data never laughs at any of the jokes told on the Starship Enterprise because he can only interpret literally. Because of his literal approach to everything, Data doesn’t understand humor, he can’t pick up on innuendo or idioms, and he often misses the point of an encounter altogether. Sometimes, we pointed out, a literal interpretation actually leads to the wrong interpretation, or away from the truth.

Having convinced our colleague that good interpretation of the Bible is indeed necessary, our conversation then turned to how to read the Bible well. We noted two realities: first, the books of the Bible were written in particular times and places, and second, those books represent a variety of literary genres.

Bridging the Historical Gap

The books in the Bible are from particular times and places, and some of those times were more than 3,500 years ago. This does not mean the Bible isn’t relevant. The Bible reveals truth entirely relevant to our lives today. But that truth comes to us embodied in historical and cultural situations.

God used human words in human history to give us eternal truths. So if we want to know what a text means today, we first have to do our best to figure out what it meant for readers then.

Think about Paul’s warning to women against wearing braided hair (1 Tim. 2:9). Was his point to forbid braids, pigtails, and dreadlocks for millennia to come? No. His point was that in that specific time and place, braids signified a wealthy status that should not be paraded in church. The timeless truth that Christians shouldn’t flaunt their wealth during worship is embodied in a historical particularity. Figuring out what Paul’s words meant for first century Christians helps us figure out what it means for us now.

Bridging this historical gap between the Bible then and now means asking good questions about the historical and cultural context of the passage in question. Questions like these:

When was it written?

What was going on in the world then?

Who was doing the writing?

To whom were they writing?

The easiest way to get at this kind of information is to find a good study Bible that includes it at the start of each book. Investing in a good “Introduction to the Bible” textbook or Bible dictionary and referring to it as you read can also help you find the answers to these questions.

Answering historical context questions gets you closer to knowing what the text might have meant to its earliest audience and thus what it means for us today.

As we read, it’s helpful to remember that the Scriptures are perfect in every way God needs them to be. So while some of the historical particularities might forever be lost on modern readers, we can take heart that God in his sovereignty chose to reveal his story to us this way. The fact that mystery and questions are forever part of reading the Bible is not the result of Yahweh goofing up.

That may be what Gregory of Nyssa was getting at when he wrote, “Concepts create idols, only wonder understands.” The Bible is less concerned with giving us airtight arguments than with provoking worship and transformation through our reading. It’s true that without addressing a bit of the Bible’s historical context, you are unlikely to interpret it well. But at the same time remember that any mystery you’re left with is not a mistake but an invitation.

Pick a Genre

Beyond the matter of historical context, we also need to read the Bible in light of the fact that it is a collection of books written in many different genres. If the Bible were written only in propositional statements, literal interpretation would serve just fine. But God brings us his truth through any number of genres such as poetry, song, law, letters, and narrative—which means we have to learn how to interpret according to what kind of literature we are reading.

A proverb, for example, is different from a promise. “Train up children in the way they should go, and when they are old they will not depart from it” (Prov. 22:6) is a guide, not a guarantee. A poem stating that God “shakes the earth from its place and makes its pillars tremble” (Job 9:6) isn’t meant for a geological textbook. And reading an epistle is reading someone else’s mail without having the full set of back-and-forth correspondence in front of you— “I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to agree with each other in the Lord” (Phil. 4:2). Remembering to ask yourself “What genre am I reading?” lays the groundwork for good interpretation.

Reading in Light of the Whole

As important as it is to remember that the Bible is a collection of many distinct books, good interpretation also requires attending to the Bible as one whole book.

Because the church of Christ believes that God is the author of Scripture and that the Holy Spirit guided the process

of canonization (choosing the books of the Bible), we find truth not only in each distinct biblical book, but also in the canon as a whole.

There is, after all, an overarching message or narrative that weaves its way through the Scriptures. It begins with Creation and the Fall and moves to Redemption and Consummation, the fulfillment of God’s plan.

The message of the Bible is found in the story of God creating and saving and finally revealing his kingdom on earth. It is found in the promise of Yahweh moving in history through the person of Jesus to take all that is broken and make it whole. Our interpretation should never be in conflict with the grand story of the Bible. Healthy Bible reading involves checking our interpretation against it. In other words, let the Bible interpret the Bible.

It’s Not About You

Reading the Bible well is not merely an external exercise. First we take into account the nature of the biblical text, interpreting each passage based on its historical context and genre.

But second we must take into account what we are like. This is the difference between reading for information and reading for transformation.

Too often we ask the Bible to be something it is not. We go to it looking for tips for sustaining a Christian marriage. We ask it to be a parenting manual or ask it to tell us how to pick the right job, the right college, or the right house. If we want to interpret the Bible well, however, we have to ask it the questions it is meant to answer.

For example, consider the creation account in Genesis 1. Christians have long used that text to argue over when and how the world was created. But that text was never intended to answer those questions. The historical and cultural context of the book of Genesis suggests that the creation story was written to help Israel (and now us) address the questions of who created the world and why.

Essentially, we must read both the black and the white of the text. We read what is printed in black letters, but we also read the empty white space on the page, taking stock of what is not written in the biblical text and letting the text be silent where it will.

Just as we need to be aware that the Bible is not a Magic 8-Ball we can simply shake and ask for the answers, Augustine reminds us also to consider our own posture and inclinations as we read.

Augustine compared the Bible to a very large room with a very low door. As big and brilliant and impressive as the Scriptures are, we must be willing to humble ourselves, to get low to the ground, if we want to enter into the wisdom of the text.

That means we allow the Scriptures to surprise us—we go in humbly, without the answers ready. In preaching, this manifests itself in a preacher who lets the text guide the sermon, rather than allowing his or her preconceived ideas to force the text to say something that it doesn’t (topical sermons too often fall into this category). Just as we want preachers who let the text speak, we want to practice such humility as we read the Scriptures for ourselves.

One of the ways to know whether you’re reading the Scriptures openly and in humility is to watch and see if God is realigning your view of who God is and who we are. If the Scriptures are actually “lenses of faith” the way John Calvin said they were, then they should change the way we see the world. When you put on a pair of glasses, you know they are doing their job when they change what you see. If you are reading the Scriptures and they aren’t impacting how you see all manner of things—like health care, sexuality, marriage, money, how you spend your time, sin, grace—then that’s a sign that your lens (your Bible reading) isn’t having the kind of impact or authority that it should.

Reading with humility means not going to the Scriptures to confirm our own thoughts about God, but instead asking God to form our thoughts through his Word. Consider asking God to use Scripture to change your mind about one thing this year.

Read with Others

Before believers each had their own personal copies of the Bible, the Scriptures were only ever heard in community. This remains an excellent way to hear God’s Word afresh.

We tend to hear things differently when we read with others, and a brother or sister can alert you to something in the text that you missed.

Better still, if you really want to make sure you aren’t just interpreting in such a way that you reaffirm everything you already believe, read the Bible with people who are different than you. Find people older or younger, richer or poorer, more urban or country than you. Find people of a different ethnicity or from a different political party or a different denomination and read the Scriptures with them!

Pray First

We end with the most important thing: pray first. As you sit to read—in the morning with your oatmeal, around the dinner table with family, in the quiet of your office, with friends over coffee—invite God’s Holy Spirit to guide you. Pray that you will hear what the Lord is saying, that the Spirit will weed out thoughts that are not from God and replace them with the vibrancy of the living Word. Pray for insight, for counsel, for comfort, for truth, but pray most of all to be transformed.

FOR DISCUSSION

1. What method do you use for reading the Bible?

2. Are you concerned with "good interpretation"? What tools do you use to help you read the Bible well?

3. What do you think of this statement: "The Bible is less concerned with giving us airtight arguments than with provoking worship and transformation through our reading"?

4. How can you read the Bible for transformation? Has the Bible changed your understanding of God, yourself, or the world?

5. What is the most helpful thing you've learned from the article or this discussion?

About the Authors

Mary Hulst is university pastor for Calvin University and teaches at Calvin Theological Seminary, Grand Rapids, Mich.

Aminah Al-Attas Bradford is associate chaplain for residence life at Calvin College, Grand Rapids.

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