Not too long ago I read a blog post by my friend David Capes about how some prominent Christian leaders have been giving up on private Bible reading. As reasons they cite their lack of confidence in their interpretations of the Scriptures and also their (correct) belief that the Bible’s books were intended to be read publicly, not privately. Their goals seem to be that they (a) not misinterpret the Bible, and (b) not separate the Bible from its cultural context. So their conclusion is that they ought just not to approach the text at all on their own.
In one sense I think the humility of these leaders is refreshing. Unlike a lot of other religious leaders these days, they are not claiming a monopoly on Biblical interpretation! But at the end of the day, I agree with David’s blog post. I think that their decision to give up on private Bible reading is a bad idea. Think of the massive contemporary Biblical illiteracy problem. There are countless Christians and non-Christians alike nowadays who simply do not know what the Bible says. Consider just a few of the mistakes that have recently been made by the reporters and columnists of the New York Times. Such persons ought because of their education and cultural prominence to be more Biblically informed than your average citizen. But the New York Times has reported in recent months that Jesus is buried in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, that Easter celebrates Jesus’s ‘resurrection into heaven,’ that William Butler Yeats is the author of the Book of Hebrews, and that the Book of Romans calls for the execution of gays. Such claims are outrageous and they suggest – along with a lot of other evidence – that we are currently facing a plague of Biblical illiteracy. Our main goal right now ought not to be interpretive accuracy. It ought instead to be to fight ignorance. Today the Bible is read only sparingly in public outside of church services. If private Bible reading were to be lost, a major tool against Biblical illiteracy would be lost as well. To give up on private Bible reading because of one’s misinterpretation fears is to forget about how much easier misinterpretation will become once one does not know what the Bible says at all! We humans are far more likely to scramble spiritual truths if we never or only occasionally encounter them than if we encounter them frequently in both public and private settings. To give up entirely on private Bible reading because of one’s interpretive fears is to succumb to the inordinately pessimistic claims of postmodern theorists like Gadamer and Derrida about the difficulties of written texts.
Another reason for pursuing private Bible reading is that doing so facilitates the propositional knowledge of God. The historic tendency of evangelicals has been to prioritize the relational knowledge of God over the propositional. To give up on private Bible reading would be to further elevate the relational over the propositional, the experiential over the conceptual. Much healthier is a spiritual life that simultaneously emphasizes both ways of knowing God, rather than relational knowledge alone.
Again, still another justification for private Bible reading is that it enables conscientious laypersons to understand the Bible’s central themes. The Bible is not so nebulous that its core ideas are indiscernible to laypersons. Understanding the Bible is hard work, to be sure, but its ideas are accessible when seekers are willing to work hard and to subject themselves to appropriate interpretive boundaries. Of course, Bible readers ought always to be cautious. For instance, they ought self-consciously to seek out an interpretive community. Conscientious persons seek always to surround themselves with judicious interpretive assistants. No pastor or layperson ought ever to be a wholly private Bible reader. Community participation of at least some kind is essential for a judicious interpretation. What do I mean by a community? As my friend David says, what is meant especially is a virtual community of commentaries, lexical aids, sermon notes, and online videos. Such aids are natural countermeasures against bizarre or offbeat Biblical interpretations. They ought especially to be resonant for those Christian leaders who have been giving up on private Bible reading. After all, the motivation of those leaders has been their interpretive conscientiousness.
My own experiences of private Bible reading have been almost universally positive. My practice has been to seek first to grasp the facts of the text on my own and then only later to seek to understand it alongside others in community. My suspicion is that the private regimen that has been central to my own spiritual walk has been equally important as well in the lives of many of my fellow Christians.
Note: a version of this blog post appeared before on this blog. That earlier version has been substantially edited and updated here.