How ought we read the Bible?


(This post is part of a series. To see all posts in this topic, go to “Does the Bible really say that?”)

Reading For Understanding

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal...

You likely recognize this sentence as the opening to the Gettysburg Address, given by Lincoln in 1863. Some questions I asked in class:

  • Is that statement true?
  • Is it literally true?
  • Is it true for us?

Here's what I'm driving at. Our nation was not founded 87 years ago. It was not founded by my father, or yours, or Lincoln's for that matter. And can nations be conceived? That sounds like a complicated pregnancy. And - “all men are created equal” - what do you mean by men? What do you mean by created? And equal in what sense?

Here's the thing: Language is important. That makes it incredibly important that we do our part to understand it correctly.

Whenever we look at a historical document, we are reading someone else’s mail. That does not mean that it loses any value, but it does mean that we need to read it differently than if we were reading our own.

Some people call the Bible things like “God’s love letter to us” or “basic instructions before leaving earth”.  These are nice sentiments I suppose, but they are hugely inaccurate. The Bible is the means by which God has spoken to humanity for all time. For us to understand it properly, we must understand the principles of reading someone else’s mail.

I'm going to suggest something that you might think controversial. Don’t think in terms of taking the Bible literally. Rather, take the Bible properly. The fancy word for this practice is hermeneutics - the art and science of interpreting a text properly.

Some examples of things in the Bible we know intuitively not to take literally:

  • Herod was a fox. (Luke 13:32) ... Does Herod have a bushy, red tail?
  • Jesus is the door. (John 10:7) ... Is he wooden, with a knob and hinges?
  • God owns the cattle on 1000 hills. (Psalm 50:10) ... What about the cattle on the other hills?
  • Is there really lumber in your eyes? (Matthew 7:5)

When someone tells you a joke, you don't take it literally. (Did two guys really walk into a bar?)

When someone uses a metaphor, do you take them seriously? (Could you really eat a horse? Are cats and dogs really falling from the sky?)

Is that to say that none of these things convey meaning? Of course not! But if you have the wrong idea in mind you will walk away with an understanding that is completely at odds with what was intended. The same is true of the Bible. If we don’t read it properly, we will almost certainly misread it. Think in terms of your own experiences. Do you want to be taken literally or accurately?

So here's what I'm suggesting:  Read the Bible as the author intended it to be read.

Here are some ideas to use as a starting point for reading the Bible accurately.

Unless you have a very good reason to do otherwise, take a passage at its most obvious meaning. Don’t look for hidden messages or obscure parallels unless there is justification for doing so.

Never read a bible verse. For starters – ignore verse numbers. They are helpful as addresses, but they are artificial divisions. Read in logical chunks – almost certainly this will be at least a paragraph - probably more. If you want proof of this principle, grab a random book and read a random sentence and see if you think it accurately represents the author's intent.

Genre, genre, genre. History, poetry, proverb, promise, teaching, parable… All are written differently and have different purposes. Miss that and you've missed the point.

Consider the audience.  Different cultures have different motivations. In Jesus' time, the Greeks were motivated by knowledge, and the Romans by glory. A speaker (or writer) would address these groups differently. Different cultures value things differently. Again, Romans valued power, Jews valued God’s favor, and slaves valued freedom, just to name a few. Different audiences will appreciate (or completely misunderstand) peculiar figures of speech. Consider the following expressions popular today: baby boomer, backseat driver, brownie points, "I'm not looking to pin you down - just give me a ballpark." These all make perfect sense to us, but try explaining them to someone from another culture. Lastly, different cultures take different things for granted. Jews had an extensive understanding of the law, sacrifices, creation, captivity, the Messiah, and much more. A speaker addressing Jews would assume they had this knowledge and build upon it. Were they addressing another group, they might have to explain that background info - or they might approach the topic from an entirely different angle. (Compare Stephen's address in Acts 7 or Peter's sermon in Acts 2 to Paul's speech to the Athenians in Acts 17 or his address to the believers in Rome.)

Who wrote it? It can also be valuable to look at what we know about the author. What was their profession? What motivated them? Solomon and Moses had very different writing styles - so did David and Paul.

Some other tips for reading the Bible properly.

Exegesis, not isogesis. These are just fancy words to say that we ought to let the Bible interpret the Bible. Take the appropriate meaning from a text, don't bring your meaning to it.

The Bible was not written to us, but it was preserved for us. Keep in mind: you are reading someone else’s mail. When it says "you", more often than not it does not mean "you". Many times it does of course, but let the text make that clear - don't assume it. I think in terms of reading a box of letters I've found in my grandparents' attic. The letters between the two tell us an awful lot about the character of the two. They tell us about their values and sincerity. But when the letter says "I love you", that was from grandpa to grandma, to to you. Certainly grandpa loved me too, but I get that from my relationship with him - not from grandma's - although there relationship tells me a lot as well. The Bible is God's word to other people, which he preserved for us.

Study like Bereans. Luke pointed out how noble the Bereans were for examining the scriptures to see if what they had been told was true. (Acts 17:11) When we are seeking to understand a scripture we ought to do our homework. Does our understanding fit the rest of the text? Does it fit the rest of God's word? We must be diligent. (2 Tim 2:15) God will help us, but we must do the work.

There is no code. The Bible says what it says. God speaks through language, not by hiding things in it. Looking for secret mysteries or keys to hidden knowledge is an ancient heresy known as Gnosticism.

There is nothing new. The Bible says the same thing today that it said when it was written. The Bible means the same thing today that it meant when it was written. God does not change and his word does not change.

There are no private messages for you in the Bible. Again - it was written to a particular audience – not us. It contains eternal truths that God preserved intentionally to tell us something about himself. It is for us, but it was not written to us.

The Purpose

This post is an overview of the process we will be using in class. We will look at a number of familiar passages that are widely misunderstood. In most cases, they are misunderstood because they are short, pithy, and easily memorable. Often this has been reinforced by their overuse on bumper stickers and coffee mugs. Sadly, many very popular authors and teachers have reinforced these inaccurate uses. We’ll use some of the above principles to see where previous readers have gone wrong.

Lincoln's Gettysburg Address is a true and historical document. It remains meaningful today as long as we understand the author, his intent, his audience, the political and cultural climate in the time it was written, and the idioms used in that time. The Bible is on an entirely different level, but the same principles apply. If we are to be responsible readers, our time and effort spent in understanding a document should be commensurate to the document we are reading.

My purpose is not to rain on any parades. I believe that the Bible is inspired by God, that it is inerrant in its teachings, and as such it is authoritative for the Christian today. However, that does not mean we can use it any way we like. The Bible is a collection of documents written by men, inspired by God, addressed to specific people, and valuable to us. It is valuable because it tells us true things about God, any many of those things are directly or indirectly applicable to us today. Therefore, we should be interested in the truth and in reading it well. In the coming weeks, that will be our goal.


(This post is part of a series. To see all posts in this topic, go to “Does the Bible really say that?”)