Friday, 24 April 2009

How to read the Bible

When reading the Bible it is very easy to get confused and lost. One only needs to search for a single passage to find a thousand interpretations. Is that how its meant to be? I believe not. The books (whatever you believe about them) were written for a specific purpose and therefore there is a correct reading somewhere. So what's gone wrong? I suggest two issues: 1) What the Bible is has been misunderstood, and 2) People do not know how to read a text properly. In this post I briefly want to talk about what the bible is and how it effects our reading of it and also give some simple skills which will helps you be able to understand the Bible as we ought. This is sometimes known as Hermeneutics or Exegesis). Please also bear in mind that I'm not there myself either, however this is simply trying to convey what I have learnt in the hope that it will bless you and your walk with God:

What is the Bible?
The Book that we know as the Bible is often misused, mainly because it is misunderstood. If you fancy reading another post I wrote on it see here. What follows is a list of things that the Bible is and its counterparts:

- The Bible was written by humans. Often Christians hold that the Bible was given to us by god verbatim. This is not true. Now that is not to say that God did not have a hand in its authorship (I believe he did) but it was by inspiration, not by dictation.

- The Bible contains stories. Often people take random quotes out of books and cite them to you as proof as if the whole of the Bible were a saying document of sorts. This is simply not the case. This is a miss-use of the Bible as it ignores both Genre and context (explored later).

- The Bible must be accompanied by the Holy Spirit to be of any use. The Bible itself (book) is not the word of God! It's a collection on ink marks of paper. Jesus is the word of God and I believe that we often mix the two up. The Bible is a great resource and contains the words that the Holy Spirit by inspiration can bring alive to us. We can learn from it by in-depth study but it is the Holy Spirit that speaks them to us and used it to change us

- The Bible is for us to learn and guide. Anyone who ever discussed Theology of any sort will know that soon the Bible is used as a weapon to break down. Used to quote at people to prove them wrong and you right, and not to build up, grow and learn. I'm guilty of this and need to watch myself. I even sometimes study for long periods, again, not to grow but to be smarter or to beat my opponents.

So now that we've looked about what the Bible is how do we access what it contains?

How to read the Bible

1) Pray: Like was said above if we expect to grow we need to be taught by God. Before we read then we need to pray, set our hearts at rest with him (as much as possible) and ask that he would teach us, and that we'd be different because of the reading.

2)Context: Don Carson once said at a Christian conference, "There are three rules of hermeneutics: Context, context, context!" Now that might sound quite strong but in reality its not. We do this with everything, from watching TV to playing sport. Say for example that you and a friend went to a sandwich shop and your friend didn't buy a sandwich but instead came up to you a said, "Mind if I have a bite?" Of course being the kind person you are you say "Not at all", at which point he leans across and bites you on the arm. You of course are shocked and enraged because although you didn't clearly state that you meant he may have a bite of your sandwich it was implied. There are various types of context, too many to go into now but a good place to start is to ask a few questions:
1) Where in the book is this placed?
2) What comes before it?
3) What comes after it?
This gives the literary context. If you get this then try historical context. These questions may help you start off:
1) Who was the author?
2) When was he writing?
3) Where was he writing to?
4) Why was he writing?
We all know the game. How many cars can you find in the Bible? Its not long till "He rides forth in Triumph" is quoted. Of course the context tells us that cars didn't exist yet and therefore not what its getting at!

3) Genre: Question: How many horns will you see on the Lambs head? Answer: None! Revelation is an apocalypse and not to be taken literally. It uses cryptography (hidden images) to explain things we don't understand. The same principle must be applied to all the books in the Bible. What Genre are they and how do I interpret them in light of it. The Bible contains poetry, song, history, prophecy, apocalypse, philosophy, wisdom literature, theological prose, but to name a few. Please treat it as such.

4) Cohesion: This works on a few levels. Firstly the book is coherent. so where there are apparent differences you must see whether these are there intentionally or not. For example in 1 Corinthians Paul says that women who prophesy must cover their heads, and then he says women shouldn’t speak. Obviously he is not saying that women must be mute in church. I'll leave you to look at the rest of the conclusions (*controversial*). Then we have other books the author has written, other books in that testament, then the whole Bible. The Bible cannot teach anything which a single book, on its own, doesn't teach, or even contradicts. It’s a logical conclusion but one which people often skip over.

5) Honesty: When you approach the Bible you must be honest. Too many people use it as a proof text of what they believe and not as a source of learning a growth. We mustn’t come with any pre-conceived ideas which we aim to prove as then the Bible gets twisted. We come humbly to listen and to learn. Every side has done this at some point, each of us have. We need to leave behind our pre-conceived ideas and try to learn what the Bible teaches and not what other teach us. This means that no-one is above reproach.

6) Discussion: This is not per se a hermeneutic tool however it can be useful. Often others see something you don't. Always be open to how others sees things, even if its not 'orthodox'. You never know. They may be right and you wrong.

What about disagreements?

So both you and others around you have tried to the best of your ability to do the above and yet disagree. What then? Don't panic! This is not necessarily a bad thing.
Try to discuss your methods and reasons with others. Perhaps they can see a gap in your argument, or vice versa. Bear in mind that you understanding will be under flux. You will know more later then you do now therefore opinions on a passage will change. Ask any pastor and they will tell you that they’ve preached at least one sermon they disagree with, probably more. Sometimes the context isn't clear. E.g. was Romans written to Jews, Gentiles, or both? In which case it’s expected that there will be disagreements. The rule of thumb is not to make dogma out of these passages.

End remarks
I hope that you continue to read the Bible and grow because of it. For further reading on this subject I suggest the following books:

- For those who like a challenge yet have no life I suggest the following book but be warned its a hefty one: Hermeneutic Spiral: A Comprehensive Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, Grant. R. Osborne (Here)

- For those who are just starting out or want something a bit simpler or an overview I recommend: Digging deeper: Tools to unearth the Bible's treasure, Andrew Beynon and Andrew Sach. (Here)

- Although I've not read it (although I intend to) SCM produce a series of study guides which are amazing, one of which is called "Biblical Hermeneutics" by David Holgate and Rachel Starr. (Here)

- Trying to get to grips with the Bibles Meta-narrative? Then try these: Understanding the Bible, John Stott (Here), or The 100 minute Bible , Michael Hinton and Helen Jenkins (Here)

Thanks to Bethyada for the concept of this post. Please go Here to see his.

Till next time!


  1. Can i recommend How to read the Bible for all its worth By Fee and Stuart. Its an excellent BEGINNERS guide on how to study the bible.

  2. You can indeed. Yet another great title!

  3. Good advice Pete. I would however like you to clearly expound your neo-orthodox position of teh scriptures in some greater detail; you the Bible is Not the Word of God post was heavy on assertion and not argument. On this point I'm agnostic for change, well at least for teh time being.

  4. Thanks Swifty (The Rambler).
    Firstly "Neo-orthodox", thats hilarious but I like it.
    Secondly, I'll get onto a clear exposition soon. It's worth reading Barth on it if you get a chance.