Thursday, November 3, 2011

How to Read the Bible

The Bible is many things to many people.  For those of us who are Christ followers, it is a special book, or should I say collection of writings.  We believe it is inspired by God and given to enable us to know God and to be able to effectively serve him.  The Bible is considered to be something else altogether by those who are not followers of Jesus, but that is not a concern for this post.

Given that the Bible is our "owner's manual", how should we as believers read and understand it?  Some consider it to be inerrant, or without any error in its original form, while others will take exception to the correctness of some parts.  Some believe it should be taken literally, others figuratively, others symbolically or allegorically, while others will see some of two or three of these in its pages.  I do believe there are some general guidelines we can follow in making that determination, but it is not always real cut and dried.

In 2 Timothy 3:14-17 (NIV) Paul has this to say to Timothy.
"But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work."
In this passage Paul has a number of things to say about the scriptures.  He affirms that it is inspired, or God-breathed, and that it has great value for equipping God's servants for every good work via teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.  As believers we should be treating the Bible as essential for living in proper relationship with God.

But what does it mean that the Bible is inspired by God?  Some will attribute every word in the original manuscripts to be dictated by God.  Others will hold that only the thoughts that are expressed were inspired and that the individual human authors were free to use their own words.  And still others will limit inspiration to the general themes of the individual writings with much more latitude given to the human authors in how they express those themes.  So which is correct?  As much as I would love to give a definitive answer, I must confess that I don't know, although I lean to something between the second and third alternative.  But ultimately I don't believe the answer is really all that important.  What is important is that God has given us the Bible, this collection of writings, to enable us to serve him effectively.  

So what about the debate concerning whether one should take the Bible literally or figuratively?  The answer to this question is, I believe, 'yes'.  Sometimes one should take it literally and other times it should be read figuratively.  And some parts of the Bible are more appropriately taken allegorically, the parables of Jesus for instance.  The rule of thumb I would recommend is that one read the Bible literally, unless that reading doesn't make sense or it is clearly using a figure of speech.  An example of an appropriate time to read a passage figuratively is when Jesus identifies himself as the gate of the sheep pen and us as sheep (John 10:7).  He did not literally mean he was a gate and I am a sheep.  These are examples of figures of speech, which, while not literal, do serve to enhance the communication.

Another example would be Mark 9:43-48 where Jesus instructs us to pluck out an eye or cut off a hand or foot that causes us to sin.  I suspect no one really takes this passage literally; at least I have not seen many one eyed believers with missing hands and/or feet.  We rightly understand this passage to be telling us to remove from our lives those things that cause us to sin, rather than an admonition to self-mutilation.

There are two specific areas of the Bible that I believe need some warning when we undertake to read them.  The first of these is the Old Testament.  The Old Testament contains the writings that applied to the old covenant between God and the nation of Israel, a covenant based on obedience to the Law.  But as a believer in Jesus, you are not under that covenant.  Instead God has established a new covenant with us, a covenant based on grace.  As believers we are not judged according to our obedience to the Old Testament Law, including the 10 Commandments, and need to guard against replacing grace with obedience to the Law.  That is not to say that those rules there are bad, but that they are not the measure of our faithfulness to God.  We do generally ignore most of them anyway, but the ones we grab onto are too often used as a measure of our righteousness, rather than depending on God's righteousness that he gives to us in the blood of Jesus.

The other place that deserves special consideration is Revelation.  40 years ago I had a pretty good understanding of Revelation.  30 years ago I could almost quote it to you, although my understanding was not as good, and was in general entirely different that it had been a decade prior.  Now, I seldom spend much time with Revelation and am no longer convinced I understand much of anything in it.  Revelation is, I believe, filled with highly symbolic language and has just about as many interpretations as there are people interpreting it.  I am content now to see the theme of Revelation as being that God will reward those who are faithful to him, especially in times of trouble, and will destroy those who live in rebellion against him.  It is a call to God's people to be faithful unto death.  All the discussions about tribulationalism, millennialism, and 7 or 12 headed beasts no longer hold much interest for me.  Christ will return for me in his own time and way, regardless of how I interpret Revelation.

As I read the Bible, are there parts of the New Testament, apart from Revelation, that do not apply to me today?  An example of this is the place of women in the church.  While the New Testament writers elevated the place of women above the society of their day, they still had a subservient role both in the home and in the church.  While many would argue that the instruction of the New Testament concerning women in the church apply just as much to us today as they did 2000 years ago, in actual practice we demonstrate something else.  In 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 where Paul forbid women from speaking in church, was he speaking to our time and place as well, or just to the culture of the day.  I am inclined to believe that he would teach something entirely different about that in the culture of 21th century USA.  Public speaking of women is accepted here while it was not then.  In most of our churches today if women had to remain silent our gathering would be awful quiet.  Do be aware of cultural differences between the first century Roman world and the world of today as you read the Word and apply it to life.

Finally, I would not read the Bible as a science or history text; that is not what it is.  Instead read the Bible as the inspired word of God, given to you to enable your effective service.  Read it prayerfully, seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit.  And read it with the expectation that it will have something important to say to you, planning to conform your life to its teaching.


  1. Finally, I would not read the Bible as a science or history text; that is not what it is.

    OK, I will not read it as a science or history text.

    So what should I do when science contradicts direct claims made in the Bible?

    Claims that were considered literal till science falsified them.

    Shall I do what Christians do, and simply rename them metaphors?

    Shall I hunt out rationalizations?

    Or shall I look to contemporaneous fiction and draw the more logical conclusion that the two have more in common than Christians like to admit?

    Surely in the ten plagues, magicians make it rain frogs. (And Yahweh does likewise).

    Even if I grant that supernatural deities, if they exist can do this, men and magicians are men, cannot.

    So what to make of it?

    That raining frogs is a common metaphor of that era?

    If so, for what?

    Note that I am not treating it as a science text. It does not take science to tells us that men cannot make it rain frogs on their whim.

    You have only a few years, perhaps decades left to leave behind efforts that will help your progeny.

    Why waste it on a book, or on superstition? That is walking in an march to cure AIDS.

    Does ABSOLUTELY nothing to cure AIDS

  2. "So what should I do when science contradicts direct claims made in the Bible?"

    What you do is up to you. I believe that God created this world and that it can be clearly understood. So when the universe tells us that it is nearly 14 billion years old I figure that it is telling the truth. While the Bible doesn't really contradict that age, except in some peoples interpretation, it does indeed tell a different story of creation than modern science does. And I am content to accept what science tells us about it and accept the Genesis accounts of creation as legends that, in a pre-science world, helped people to make sense of their origins.

    "You have only a few years, perhaps decades left to leave behind efforts that will help your progeny. Why waste it on a book, or on superstition?"

    The best way I can help them is to help them to know their creator and the purpose he made them for.