Three Ways to Read the Bible Better
One of the oddities of Christianity is its dedication to a specific, authoritative Word of God.
This has always been a unique feature of the Abrahamic religions. No other faith systems share their dedication to the text. It is perhaps a reason for their resilience – by having such divinely-authorized documents, while abuses of power are still often present, they are often restrained by the fact that others have access to the same source of revelation. I, as a pastor, cannot say “Thus says the Lord” without you being able to check me chapter and verse and say, “Actually, no He doesn't.”
It is even more striking in our modern age. As intellectual heirs of the Enlightenment and as people steeped in a culture of individualism and consumerism, we are prone to want to reconstruct our faith to say whatever seems convenient or agreeable. Yet we likewise, if we are Christians, keep bumping up against the text of Scripture. It is like an anchor pulling against the currents of our age (or any age), forcing us to either cut the rope completely or acknowledge that we are straying from our foundation.
We as Christians are meant to be people of the Book. Luke extols the Bereans for just this pursuit: “Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.” (Acts 17:11) Notice what is being praised – not the Bereans unthinking acceptance of Paul's teachings but their diligence in testing it against the Scriptures. We are called to this same diligence.
Given all of this, one of the tasks we have as Christians is to become better readers of God's Word. Such growth includes becoming knowledgeable about Scripture and its background, but it also involves developing habits that help us read it well. Below, I want to suggest three of those habits that I think are helpful as we grow in this calling. These are not the first steps on the journey, nor are they the destination. Much more could be said about reading Scripture well. However, these are three ways I feel like people often go wrong in how they interpret the Bible, so I want to suggest them as correctives to errors we otherwise easily make.
1. We should always be open to different explanations of a Biblical text. We should, however, be wary of explaining them away.
This is really two thoughts at once, so let's start with the first of them. People seem to think that the best way to interpret the Bible is with a “plain, common-sense” reading of the text. This usually comes from a good desire to take God at His word and a suspicion of the exegetical gymnastics some undertake to justify their preconceived ideas. All of that is commendable.
The problem is that meanings that are often “plain” to us are plainly wrong to others. We all come to the Bible with a set of cultural and personal assumptions. We come predisposed to believe and think certain things. The easiest way to see this is to listen to people interpret Scripture in other cultural or historical settings, whether that means looking at global Christianity today or the way people read it at different points in the church. I will often read some discussion of a passage by a brother in Africa or a church father in the fourth century and be left scratching my head at how on earth they got that meaning from these words. The conclusion to draw, though, is not that they are obviously wrong but rather that maybe these verses are more complex than I think they are.
This observation is not to say that there aren't correct interpretations of a given passage. Instead, it is to remind us that we need a lot of humility about whether we have those right interpretations. When we encounter someone who reads a passage differently, we should always take that as an opportunity to explore and enter into a conversation. We might still conclude we were correct, but we might also learn we were wrong, or even just that we're not sure. Regardless, we have become better readers of that section of Scripture.
That said, we should be suspicious of explaining texts away. Culture and history can affect our interpretation, but so can sin. The most obthing think to be on our guard against is seen in a simple question we should ask every interpretation: does this explanation account for why the Bible says these words, or is it instead acting as if Scripture doesn't say it at all?
People are fond of explaining what St. Paul or Jesus or Moses didn't mean when they said something. Fair enough. However, the words are still there, and God put them there for some reason. If our interpretation cannot account for what they did mean and why they are a part of God's inspired Word, we have almost certainly failed to read the text well. Anyone who ends up with “did God really say?” as the center of their Biblical exegesis is taking the posture of the serpent, not a good reader.
2. Paragraphs, not words, are the basic unit of meaning.
Many people have the idea that words are the most meaningful parts of speech and that everything gets fuzzier from there. This is not the case. Take the word “bank.” It has an enormous range of meanings – a place to store money, the shore of a body of water, a maneuver with an airplane and a trick shot in pool. If I move the the level of the sentence and say, “It flooded the bank,” we might be getting closer to establishing meaning, but even that is ambiguous. If the paragraph around it is discussing a river, the sentence has a different meaning than if it is discussing a natural disaster or a financial collapse.
Preachers spend far too much time obsessing over specific words in the Bible. In part, this quirk is probably because we want to feel like all our training in Hebrew and Greek was worth something. Another part is probably because a word feels more tangible to our hearers than an overarching idea. There is nothing wrong in principle with discussing a word or two of the original languages, but it can lead us and our hearers into serious errors of interpretation. Words are flexible symbols, and importing all the possible meanings into a given occurrence results more often in us bending them to fit our desires than bending ourselves into the shape they are meant to give us.
The same obsession with small units of speech is true of laypeople who love proof texts and verses that fit in Facebook memes. Granted, we've moved up from the single word to a few phrases or even a sentence, but we are still dealing with a few words outside of their broader context. Just the other day I saw someone post an inspirational quote which, in its original setting, is a part of a speech where God mocks a tyrannical nation before graphically describing how He will annihilate them.
The solution to both of these issues is to start bigger. Read a paragraph or two of the Bible and ask yourself, “What is this about? What is the author trying to say?” Then look at each sentence and ask, “How does this bit fit into that overarching idea? What role does this serve in the broader argument?”
Now, there are pitfalls to this approach as well. The actual words and sentences do limit what a paragraph can mean. If we can't explain how they fit, that might be a sign that our overarching interpretation is flawed. However, until we can explain how it all fits together, we will often not fully appreciate what a given word or sentence in Scripture is actually saying.
3.. What goal is the writer trying to achieve?
People always speak with purpose. Language is not meant simply to communicate information but to do something to its hearers. If my wife tells me that the back door is open and I reply, “Thanks, good to know,” she will quite rightly feel like I have misunderstood her.
In some ways this is connected to what we said above – words and sentences have meaning within their larger context. However, this context isn't only the surrounding sentences but also the purpose of the writer. Are they trying to warn us? Challenge us? Encourage us? We need to hear what they say within that context.
One classic example of this is one of Jesus's hardest sayings. When He tells the rich young ruler to sell everything he owns, is that a command we all must obey to be faithful to Christ? Even those Christians who seem romantically inclined to say “yes” don't typically follow through in a life of absolute spiritual poverty. Given that the young ruler's question is “what must I do to be saved,” are we all therefore condemned?
The answer, if one pays attention to the story, rests in the purpose of Jesus's words. It is clear that the rich young ruler is a self-righteous fellow who believes himself morally perfect. Jesus is not telling him some universal law of God necessary for salvation. Instead, he is honing in on the deepest idol in the ruler's heart and then using it to prick the over-inflated balloon of his ego. Jesus's point is not that we all must do this in order to be saved but rather that, left to ourselves, none of us can do enough to earn salvation.
The beautiful thing about this last point is that it always drives us towards application. Scripture speaks in order to call us to do something – to embrace some belief or change some attitude or take some action. It isn't always obvious – sometimes it provokes such a response through a riddle or a story or even a bad example. However, the more we pay attention to what the text is trying to do to its original readers, the more we recognize that it is also trying to do things to us.
One last point – you might, in all of this, think such work to read Scripture well sounds daunting. Which in a sense it is. When we sit down with the Bible, we are reading the very Words of God. We should approach them with a soberness and a caution and even a sort of self-doubt. To lose such a spirit is to risk becoming the demagogue who twists the Bible to his own ends, and Scripture reserves especially harsh judgment for those who would pervert God's Word to serve their own agendas.
However, learning to read the Bible well is also well worth the effort. You don't have to absolutely master a text to have it speak to and move you. In the first place, the Spirit works in even our imperfect and shallow readings, renewing our hearts and minds. More than that though, what we are invited to do is to dive a little deeper. The great tragedy is that there are unimaginable beauties down beneath our surface readings but that we stay floating on our backs above them because putting on a snorkel and some fins just seems like too much bother.