One of the greatest gifts the Reformation gave the church was the widespread belief and insistence that the Bible should be translated into the language(s) of common people. Because of this shift in thinking and the ability to mass produce translations of the Bible, people all over the world can read the Scriptures for themselves. But the ability to do something does not guarantee that it will be done well. With that in mind, here are three, perhaps unexpected, keys to reading the Bible well.
Approach the Text with Humility
I believe that the Bible is true and trustworthy in all that it intends to teach and affirm.
The Bible is true; the Bible is trustworthy. The biblical authors had intentions when they wrote under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. This means that there is a point that the authors (human and divine) were trying to make.
The Bible is true and trustworthy, but interpretation of the Bible is not always. In fact, there are times that I need to hold my interpretation of the Scriptures rather loosely, especially when there are disagreements among well-studied and faithful saints about a particular passage or doctrine.
Approaching the Bible with humility means choosing to place myself and my theological, philosophical, moral, and political beliefs under the authority of the Scriptures. It means listening to the voices of those with whom we disagree, reading the text slowly, carefully, and deliberately as I seek to discern what it is actually saying, not simply assuming that it is saying what I think or believe it says. It means I come to the Bible willing to learn, willing to grow, and willing to change my mind.
Approach the Text with Curiosity
The Bible was written for us, but not to us. When you and I open the pages of Scripture, we are engaging an ancient and complex text that possesses timeless truths for the benefit of past, present, and future generations. Its truths and teachings are for us, but it was written to someone else first.
This does not make them less inspired, less true, or less trustworthy. Each portion of the Holy Scriptures arrived to a particular people, living in a particular time, facing particular challenges, with specific ideas about truth and reality. Authors wrote in a specific way through a particular literary genre and in a particular language. All of these specifics have an effect on how the text should be handled.
Reading the Bible well demands that we be curious; that we do our best to discover what the first readers would have understood the biblical authors to be saying BEFORE we attempt to proclaim what the passage means for us. We cannot declare what the text means until we discover what it meant.
To do this, the modern reader needs to develop a holy curiosity. We do this by asking questions. What kind of literature am I reading? Is it a poem, narrative, letter, prophecy, ancient case law, or a combination? What did the first readers assume about science, religion, truth, and reality? How does the historical context affect this passage? What is going on in the wider world that would affect how the audience hears and perceives these words? Does my modern translation adequately capture the meaning in the original language?
Curiosity helps us investigate the text for the purpose of mining out meaning rather than super-imposing our sensibilities onto the ancient and inspired text.
Approach the Text with Imagination
The Bible is not a textbook or theological encyclopedia. It is a divinely inspired library of ancient literature that tells the story of the entire world.
The Bible is much more than a series of words lying on a page. It is the story of how God the Creator pursues and redeems his wayward and broken creation. Reading with imagination helps us understand the means and methods of God.
We often read the Bible seeking prescriptive answers to specific modern questions. This is rarely, if ever, the best way to read the Holy Scriptures. More often than not, the Bible is descriptive rather than prescriptive. It tells us what happened in the past to other people rather than giving us instructions as to what we should do in the here and now.
When the Bible tells us that Gideon put out a fleece to discern God’s will, it is not giving us a strategy but inviting us into a story about God’s ability to use a cowardly and faithless servant. Reading of Abraham setting out to sacrifice Isaac invites us to feel the anguish of Sarah as she powerlessly watches her husband and son head off toward Moriah. The story of Jonah invites us to consider our own sin of prejudice and hatred as we encounter Jonah’s hatred for the Ninevites.
Reading the Bible with sanctified imagination allows us to put flesh back on the bone and reanimate lifeless corpses as we attempt to allow the Holy Spirit transformative access to our own faults and failings.
Humility helps us place ourselves under the authority of the text.
Curiosity allows us to dig deeply into the real meaning of the text for the purpose of understanding.
Imagination invites us to enter the text as we embrace the Spirit’s transformative and sanctifying work in our lives.