January 3, 2020

How Are You Reading?

Reading the Bible a chore? Not if we do it carefully.

Gerardo Oudri

I first met Marcelo on a hot summer day. I was pastoring in northern Argentina, having a weekly Bible study with a couple who lived in a tiny village. Their house was small, and its tin roof made the heat almost unbearable.

Two weeks before, they had spoken to me about Marcelo. “He lives in San José,” they said. “He wants to study the Bible with you.”

They gave me his address, but I didn’t have anything on which to write it, so I forgot all about it. The following week the same thing: directions to Marcelo’s house, nothing to write on, I forgot.

Then on this hot afternoon, as we were nearing the end of our lesson, we heard someone outside clapping their hands (no doorbell). It was Marcelo. He had walked almost an hour at midday, with temperatures above 100F, because he was thirsty for the truth. After a short introduction he proceeded to ask question after question; about God, the Sabbath, the end-times, etc. Then he paused and said: “Pastor, I may sound confrontational, but don’t think I am trying to argue with you; I honestly want to know God’s truth.”

I felt guilty, humbled, and inspired. How can someone have such a passion, hunger, and thirst for God’s Word to walk an hour in the scorching sun simply to meet a stranger and ask him questions about the Bible? I had more factual knowledge about the Bible than Marcelo, but he had more passion and hunger for God’s Word than I did.

Not How Much but How

Reading the Bible is crucial to a healthy spiritual life. But how we read it is even more important. Whenever we hear “We ought to read the Bible more,” we should reply with a hearty “Amen!” But
how much we read God’s Word is not as important as how we read it; for how we read the Scriptures determines our relationship with God and others.

There are different reasons to read the Bible: as a routine; “it’s the Christian thing to do”; to argue with others; for doctrinal knowledge; or to know and experience God. The ultimate purpose in reading the Bible should be to know God more intimately, to know Him as He really is. For this to happen, we need to read it the right way.

I maintain that there is a crisis of Bible interpretation. In 2011, in an article for
Christianity Today, Todd Billings alluded to this crisis and observed: “The crisis does not simply involve a decline in the Bible’s authority. Even when the Bible is turned to as the authority, it’s not necessarily interpreted Christianly.”1 In other words, not only are Christians not reading the Bible as much—they are not reading it well.

Jesus, Salvation, the Bible

Jesus spoke about how to read the Bible. “On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he asked, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’” (Luke 10:25). The question is a good and important one; after all, is anything more important than eternal life?

Luke’s account leaves no room for doubt: the question was asked “to test Jesus.” Jesus did not dodge the query. He replied, as He often did, with questions of His own: “‘What is written in the Law?’ he replied. ‘
How do you read it?’” (verse 26).

I find it interesting that to the question “How can I be saved?” Jesus replied, “How do you read the Bible?” This is a profound and remarkable statement! Our spiritual health as followers of Jesus, both individually and corporately, as well as our eternal destiny, is directly related to how we read the Bible. In theological terms this “how” is called hermeneutics.

We need each other, not just for support and encouragement, but also for input and spiritual insights.

Hermeneutics comes from a Greek word that means “to interpret.” At its most basic level, hermeneutics deals with the following aspects of the Bible: the author/s, the text, and the readers (us). In other words, our presuppositions, attitudes, and approaches to the author/s, the text, and reader/s make up the “how” of reading the Bible.

Key to reading the Bible rightly is the question of authorship. There are different theories about the authorship of various books of the Bible. And we must look diligently at all the factual evidence so that we can stand on solid ground when we espouse a specific position. Beyond the human authorship of individual books, whether or not we believe in God as the ultimate author makes a big difference.

Even if one believes that God is the author behind the authors, what does that mean? Adventists believe in
thought, not verbal inspiration. Ellen White wrote: “The Bible is written by inspired men, but it is not God’s mode of thought and expression. . . . Inspiration acts not on the man’s words or his expressions but on the man himself, who, under the influence of the Holy Ghost, is imbued with thoughts.”2

Once we accept that the Bible is inspired by God (2 Tim. 3:16), we no longer see it as just another book. We Adventists consider ourselves heirs of the Reformation precisely because of our high view of the Bible. Like the Reformers, we believe in the principle of
sola scriptura.

Richard Davidson presents a list of principles of biblical interpretation under the umbrella of
sola scriptura, using the Latin terms by which these concepts first became known during the Protestant Reformation:

  1. Sola scriptura, “the Bible and the Bible only,” which highlights the primacy and supremacy of Scripture.
  2. Tota scriptura, “the totality of Scripture,” which implies that all Scripture is inspired by God; that the canon was divinely (not humanly) established; that all Scripture is a divine-human indivisible union; and that the Bible is equivalent to (and not just contains) the Word of God.
  3. Analogia scriptura, “the analogy of Scripture,” which involves three ideas: that Scripture interprets itself, and that there is both consistency and clarity throughout Scripture.
  4. Spiritalia spiritaliter examinatur, “spiritual things are spiritually discerned,” which relates to the role of the Holy Spirit in understanding and interpreting the Bible, as well as to the spiritual life of the interpreter.3

Can readers be totally objective and completely neutral in reading and interpreting God’s Word? Certainly not. Does that mean that interpretation equals relativism, or that there is no objective truth whatsoever? Not at all. What then?

We have to acknowledge that we each come to the text with our own limitations, with cultural and contextual baggage; we all see and understand the world differently. In this sense, there is never pure objectivity and neutrality in interpretation.

But whereas we each see the world in unique ways, we do not have to share  prevailing assumptions about it.
4 Rather, we have to recognize our presuppositions and humbly acknowledge that our views, as objective as we try to be, are always limited and partial.

Reading God’s Word Right

Here are 10 commandments for reading the Word of God, based primarily on Nehemiah 8.
5 The first five deal with the text of God’s Word, and the other five deal with us as readers.6

About the Word of God

  1. Read Carefully and Slowly (Neh. 8:3). We live in a world in which faster is better: fast food, fast computers, fast cars, etc. There’s nothing wrong with being effective and maximizing our use of time. But there are areas in our lives for which slower is better. Reading God’s Word belongs here. Slowing down helps us focus and pay attention to details, as well as to reflect, understand, and absorb better.
  2. Read Frequently (Neh. 8:18). It doesn’t matter how many times we read a Bible passage: chances are that every time we read it we will find something new and substantial that we have not seen before. Charles Spurgeon said, “Master those books you have. Read them thoroughly. Bathe in them until they saturate you. . . . Little learning and much pride comes from hasty reading.”7
  3. Read Aesthetically (Ps. 119:103). We have to be careful not to pursue biblical truth at the expense of biblical beauty. The beauty of God’s Word often supports and informs God’s truth. Christians sometimes use truth to prove other people wrong and win arguments. We should rather use the beauty of God’s Word to inspire. There is beauty in poetry; there is beauty in testimonies of hope and victory; there is beauty in grace and forgiveness. The Bible contains all of these and more.
  4. Read Contextually and Intertextually (2 Tim. 2:15; Luke 24:27). You may have heard this basic maxim of interpretation: “A text without its context is a pretext.” Every text must be understood in its context. First, its immediate context: the passages before and after our passage in question. Then the wider contexts: the book in which the passage is found, the section of the Bible, etc. Because God is the ultimate author, we must consider the entire biblical canon as the overall context.

This means reading intertextually, comparing texts and ideas with the rest of Scripture. As Jesus exemplified on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24), all Scripture points to Him.

  1. Read Literarily (Neh. 8). We have to pay attention to literary features, such as the structure of each passage. Nehemiah 8, for example, is written in a chiastic/parallel structure. The use of unique words, combinations of sentences and ideas, the genre used (poety, parable, narrative, etc.) are all important to our understanding of Scripture.

About Ourselves

  1. Read Prayerfully (Neh. 8:5, 6, 10). If we believe that the Bible is God’s Word, that He is the author behind the authors, we need to approach the Bible with the right spiritual attitude. Prayer is essential—not just a quick prayer as a formality before we start a meeting. We need an attitude of constant prayer to be able to receive God’s guidance and illumination. We need humility, total surrender, and acknowledgment that true wisdom comes only from God.
  2. Read Judiciously and Rigorously (Neh. 8:8). Spirituality should not be used as an excuse to ignore rigorous study. The Holy Spirit is the one who leads to all truth. But like the Bereans (Acts 17:11), we must do our part and examine the Scriptures. We need to use as many tools as we have at our disposal (concordances, commentaries, etc.), to study God’s Word carefully and responsibly.
  3. Read Corporately (Neh. 8:3; 2 Peter 1:20). We should never run “solo” as we pursue Bible truth. It’s acceptable to have personal convictions, but if I’m the only one who sees things a certain way, I may be missing or adding something extraneous. When we become followers of Jesus, we become members of His body. We need each other, not just for support and encouragement, but also for input and spiritual insights.
  4. Read Practically (Neh. 8:9). Bible study should impact our lives here and now. If I gain only head knowledge and abstract theological concepts but do not experience a transformed life, I have to revisit the text. When it is studied diligently, under the guidance and power of the Holy Spirit, the Bible brings about a burning desire for change and transformation (Luke 24:32).
  5. Read Morally (1 Cor. 13:1, 2). One of the dangers in Bible interpretation is to read our views into the text instead of allowing the text to inform our views. Throughout history, people have used the Bible to support all kinds of wrong causes and sinful behaviors (racism, anti-Semitism, slavery, etc.). Reading the Bible correctly, however, should lead us to love people more and better. The teacher of the law who came to test Jesus asked, “Who is my neighbor?” because he wanted to “justify himself” (Luke 10:29). That was his “how.”

Jesus replied to this question with a story, the well-known story of the good Samaritan. This story teaches us that going the extra mile, being willing to sacrifice ourselves for the well-being of others, even risking our lives to assist those in need, is often good evidence that one is reading God’s Word the right way.

Spiritual Nourishment

I met with Marcelo several times after our first encounter. We studied the Bible together in his home in San José, and he eventually decided to give his life to Jesus. I was privileged to witness one of the most beautiful things in this life: when spiritual hunger meets spiritual food, and spiritual thirst meets spiritual water.

Jesus offers spiritual food and water for humanity, and He can be found primarily and most fully in His Word. He said: “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about Me” (John 5:39).

To Jeremiah He also said: “You will seek Me and find Me when you seek Me with all your heart” (Jer. 29:13).

That is how we ought to read the Scriptures.

  1. www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2011/october/how-to-read-bible.html (Emphasis original.)
  2. Ellen G. White, Selected Messages (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1958), book 1, p. 21.
  3. Richard Davidson, “Interpreting Scripture According to the Scriptures: Toward an Understanding of Seventh-day Adventist Hermeneutics,” adventistbiblicalresearch.org/sites/default/files/pdf/interp%20scripture%20davidson.pdf.
  4. See Jens Zimmermann, short video on hermeneutics, www.youtube.com/watch?v=6wPTV5hyB0Y.
  5. This chapter contains a beautiful story about God’s people experiencing revival and transformation that is centered on the Word of God.
  6. This is adapted from a presentation for a Sabbath School class made by Jacques Doukhan on November 9, 2019. I use the content (with minor adaptations) with his permission.
  7. Charles Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students, p. 35.

Gerardo Oudri is pursuing a Ph.D. in systematic theology at Andrews University.