Saving the Bible from Ourselves

Saving the Bible from Ourselves December 3, 2016


Glenn Paauw is a founding Director at the Institute for Bible Reading. Historian Mark Noll and Old Testament (or as Glenn likes to say First Testament) scholar, Walter Brueggemann, offer praise for Paauw’s book.

David George Moore conducted this interview with Paauw. Dave blogs at and his videos can be found at

Moore: Give us a bit of the backstory that motivated you to write Saving the Bible from Ourselves.

Paauw: I learned from the Bible itself that it’s better to be honest about what’s wrong in a situation than to persist in pretending. With all the Bibles that are sold, all the verses that are quoted, and all the sermons that are preached, it’s easy to pretend that all is well in Bible Land. But in fact it is not well. There are two big problems. First, more and more people have flat out given up on the Bible and are simply ignoring it. Secondly, even those who are engaging with the Bible are not actually doing that well with it. I realized that my own longtime work in ministry and publishing was not actually helping people make a deep connection with the Bible.

It got me thinking about some fundamental questions: What is the Bible? and What are we supposed to do with it? As I reflected on this and researched the history of the Bible, it became clear that in the modern era we developed new and misleading answers to these questions. We’ve been misdirecting people on what to do with the Bible for several centuries now. My book advocates the recovery of an older, more authentic form of the Bible, and adopting new practices that follow from that form.

Moore: You have some fascinating insight on how we have cut our Bibles into bits and pieces. If you were king of the Bible publishing business, how would our Bibles be designed, or I should say, redesigned?

Paauw: Ah, feel the power! I would begin by requiring all Bible publishers to take the Hippocratic Oath: First, do no harm. Our published editions and formats should not massacre what was originally a collection of songs, proverbs, stories, letters, and more. For too long we’ve been satisfied with the misleading presentation of the Bible in a reference book format—a convenient handbook of sliced, columned, and numbered spiritual statements. We’ve underestimated the power of good design. We can bring readers substantial help with design that is attentive to readability and literary form.

Next, I would impose firm regulations on the kind of notes and helps we constantly surround the Bible text with. Do our add-ons invite good, in-depth, at-length contextual reading? Or do they propose shortcuts that isolate our favorite words and cherry-pick them without having to consider the Bible’s first audience and how they would have heard them? The Bible is certainly for us, but it was not written to us.

Moore: Years ago, William F. Buckley reminded his good friend, George Gilder, about the limits of technology. Buckley said fancy computer programs were not going to take away from the hard work of learning German. In the same way, is it saying too much that a redesigned Bible make people better readers and more obedient to Scripture?

Paauw: Good design is not everything, but it is a highly significant first and foundational step to better Bible engagement. The over-complicated modern Bible is perfect for snacking on Scripture McNuggets (as Philip Yancey calls them). The recent appearance of elegant new single-column, additives-free editions will go a long way toward inviting us to feast on the Bible instead.

Newly-designed formats will set the table well. But the good, hard work of reading and living the Bible well still remains. We must also relearn ancient ways of engaging the Scriptures. Rather than simply using the Bible for our own agendas, we must learn to lose ourselves in it through extended reading. As much as we are able, we must put ourselves into the cultures and mindsets of ancient peoples. We must regain the skill of reading the books together as a grand narrative of restorative justice and new life. We must lose our excessive individualism and rediscover practices of reading the Bible together, so we can honor the Bible’s goal of community formation. In short, we basically need a new paradigm for reading the Bible.

Moore: The Bible contains much poetry, but no mathematical formulas. How can we help others appreciate this in reflecting on Scripture?

Paauw: When the Bible’s authors and editors chose to use particular literary genres, they were in effect offering covenants to readers. Readers can accept those covenants by acknowledging those genres and then following the conventions that go with them. It dishonors the Bible not to read poetry as poetry, parables as parables, or apocalyptic visions as apocalyptic. A flat literalism does not do justice to the Bible God actually gave us. Once again, formatting can help with some of this. But as C. S. Lewis once said, the reader of any kind of literature has an obligation to first of all receive what the author intended. Our mindset has to shift from thinking How can I use this material for my own needs? to How can I enter into the original thought-world of this material? Reading back our own cultural assumptions and personal questions into the Bible is a constant temptation. The Bible is loaded with gifts for us, but we can only properly receive them if we will read the Bible on its own terms.

Moore: Are you advocating Bibles never have verse or chapter divisions? If so, do you see that hampering those who teach because they would not be able to cite the address?

Paauw: Chapter and verse numbers have one benefit: they help you find little pieces of the text more quickly. But the cost of this gain in efficiency has been enormous. The research is very clear: people are not reading or understanding this reference book. We need elegant new readers’ editions, and these are what we should think of as “regular” Bibles. Chapters and verses were both added in the interest of creating reference helps: commentaries (chapters) and concordances (verses). The numbers should never have invaded regular Bibles for regular readers. Of course, now that the reference edition already has such a long history, we likely can’t do away with it completely. But we should relegate it to occasional specialty use.

As for finding things in an additives-free edition, we could do what everyone before the 16th century had to do: learn to reference the Bible by content and context. Do we really need to list the finely-detailed chapter-and-verse address every time we use the Bible? Why? What’s wrong with simply saying things like, “Early in Luke’s Gospel, after his temptation by the devil, Jesus goes to the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth . . .”? This way, people would be picking up crucial surrounding context when we reference a Bible passage.

Moore: What are a few of the biggest takeaways you would hope for your readers?

Paauw: We’re due for a Bible revolution. Science historian Thomas Kuhn has shown us how paradigm shifts happen. When a certain way of seeing the world is recognized by enough people as having some core deficiency, then people are willing to rethink their basic assumptions. My dream is that more and more people would literally see the Bible differently, and having experienced a different kind of Bible, they would fundamentally change the way they read and understand and live the Bible. Then we will be in a position to receive all that the Bible has for us.

An example of the kind of Bible Glenn Paauw would like to see all Christians reading is here: NIV Books of the Bible

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  • Doug

    Perhaps slightly ironic that the (Roman Catholic) Jerusalem Bible started doing this in 1966 – single column, verse numbers made unobtrusive in normal book paragraph flow, poetry printed as poetry (a choice also made, interestingly, for major discourses in John) and a Readers’ edition looking fairly book-like, alongside a study edition. Oh, and free from the pressure of a KJV reading public, it was written in a remarkably fresh literary style.

  • danaames

    …because the translators had backgrounds in literature as well as linguistics. JRR Tolkein was responsible for the translation of the book of Jonah in the JB.


  • Alastair J Roberts

    This subject is so important.

    The Bible is the perfect example of a radically ‘de-condensed’ technology. The modern Bible and our forms of engagement with it are the product of a vast array of different technological and social developments, and the result is a dramatically different form of engagement with the text.

    The most significant of these developments include, but are by no means limited to: the movement from scroll to codex, settling of the canon, the development of the single volume pandect, the addition of spaces between words and the rise of silent reading, the steady growth of uniformity in biblical book order, mise-en-page, script, and addenda, the development of chapter numbers (early 13th century) and other paratextual tools in the medieval era (many of the key developments of the Bible in the direction of a reference volume long preceded the 16th century), the medieval movement of the sermon away from the breadth of scriptural narrative to the minutiae of more detached texts used for moral and doctrinal purposes, the invention of cheap movable type and developments in typesetting, advances in paper technology, mass literacy, widespread vernacular translations, verse numbers, steam printing, the development of digital and virtual texts, and the recent advent of readers’ editions of the Bible.

    Like any de-condensed technology, the dense meaning of the scriptural book as an object has been greatly diminished by technological developments that gradually abstracted the scriptural book from its once natural world and from the webs of meaning it once enjoyed.

    For instance, the earlier medieval Church Bible is worth reflecting upon as a physical object. It might have taken a flock of sheep to make a single book, the quality of books often depending upon the temperateness of the local climate (lots of rain=good grazing=healthy sheep=quality vellum=higher quality manuscripts). The book itself would have been produced by a network of largely local skilled craftsmen. The book would have been commissioned or created by a particular community, and perhaps given to a church or religious community by a rich patron. The text would have been a genealogical descendent of earlier texts that were copied (quite unlike mass production or digital replication of texts as principles of textual dissemination). The text was a unique creation of craftsmanship, craftsmanship that can often be traced back to particular hands, but which also has a clear provenance. The Bible would have partaken of the uniqueness of an artwork, but would have been deeply embedded in a world, unlike the object in the gallery.

    The Bible would have been a liturgical object, processed into worship in some cases, a material entity invested with deep religious and symbolic value. The book was talismanic, as a condensation of religious meaning. Perhaps in some cases it would have been given treasure binding. It would primarily have been read aloud by a trained lector, and performed in other ways in variegated liturgical forms. The text would overwhelmingly have been encountered through the ear, rather than the eye, and within the context of the gathered congregation. A symbolic and ‘talismanic’ liturgical book belonging to a particular church, representing the community’s intergenerational relationship with Scripture, possessing the uniqueness of an artistic object, the deep provenance of its craftsmanship and materiality, and expressing its meaning within the performance of the liturgy, is a remarkably different sort of thing from the modern privately owned, mass produced text, principally encountered in silent and private reading.

    The modern Bible undoubtedly has its benefits, but the modern Bible is increasingly a text torn less from the rich textual world in which we were once bound with it. If we begun to realize what the de-condensation of the technology of Scripture had taken from us, I suspect that we would be much better able to recognize that these losses are reflected in diminished doctrines of Scripture, that our doctrines of Scripture are frequently premised upon the removal of the rich world of the text that the modern technology of the Bible has indirectly effected.

    We had a fun discussion of this and related issues of Bible design with J. Mark Bertrand of the Bible Design Blog a few weeks ago on the Mere Fidelity podcast.

  • jh

    Well, the hand written versions were pieces of art. I have a beautiful preserved page that contains the Magnificat. The embellishment artwork is exquisite.

  • Larry S

    I’m wondering if the author discusses the impact of electronic Bibles on how we read the text. And I’m wondering if electronic bibles have started to be formatted to address some of the issues Paauw raises.

    It has been more than two years since I actually held a “real” bible.

  • Alastair J Roberts

    You might be interested in J. Mark Bertrand’s recent essay on this subject. We also discuss the issue in the podcast I linked in my earlier comment on this post.

  • Glenn Paauw

    Larry, my discussions so far have been with print publishers, and there is an encouraging sign in the growth of “reader’s” Bibles. There is a direct challenge to electronic Bible publishers in the book. So far, I haven’t seen anything new from them.

  • DonaldByronJohnson

    I have seen TBOTB in electronic form.

  • Jeff Y

    Very good. I like a number of these suggestions. Especially on genre and history. And on perhaps doing away with verses.

    I do think it goes deeper, however, and perhaps this is picked up in the book. I actually think having the Bible in one volume, as “one book,” can also be a hindrance. This will never happen, but what if the Bible were sold book by book or in an encyclopedia set? Yes, we do need to see a unifying thread (and I believe Jesus is ultimately that source). That’s vital. But it might help to realize it’s not “a book” but a group of books. I see Glenn touches on reading the Bible in its ancient context. I think that is one of the radical shifts in the last 200 years that has been there in the scholarly world but is now trickling down to the pews through the works of people like Wright, Enns, Sparks, etc. But, there should be a greater push here to recognize that there is not a “direct transferability” (as Roy Ciampa puts it) from the Biblical text to modern culture. In my engagement, I’ve seen many concede, “Oh, yeah, gotta get a little historical context, and when I do, then I will understand it.” As Christian Smith notes, many only use historical context in an ad hoc fashion – picking and choosing. I think the reality is we have to be radically humbled by the ancient contexts of Scripture and our lack of knowledge (even many scholars did not consider ANE cosmic geography until recent times). It’s like having to be crushed by sin – we need to be crushed by our arrogance about the “plain” meaning of the Bible (that expectation of “plain meaning” and understanding led to some 650,000 to 800,000 deaths in the Civil War; as Mark Noll’s book chronicles – and I don’t think that was purely a product of the verses or misunderstanding genre). And, in conjunction there is Christian Smith’s cautionary warning about “democratic perspicuity” (except, my own understanding, of course, which is the right one 😉 ). Our modern cultural hermeneutics (the past 250-300 years) present a great challenge.

    I would also suggest that “reading in community” has to go beyond the local church. I’ve sat in many local churches (some pretty large; with multiple preachers) and often what we get is, no offense intended (I’ve been a contributor to this quite often), “a pooled, collective ignorance,” and everyone walks away patting themselves on the back for another great study of the Bible where we found ourselves generally right again. I would say that there needs to be an openness to recognizing the real challenges of Biblical scholarship to the Bible as well as entering deeply into community with those who are exploring its historical context (and not just from one or two conservatives – I love the new Bible that John Walton and Craig Keener have put out – but more can be done there). This is a challenge but walking by faith vs certainty is a healthy corrective, in my view.

    Anyone can still benefit from the Bible and find God and Christ and learn to walk with love – The Jesus Creed – without all that. But, I think the problems arise when we start to learn a little, then insist on particular positions, condemn those who differ (or divide). That’s where, perhaps, we need to be willing to recognize that it is often the things we may think are most clear that are really more problematic than we would imagine; and hold our positions with open palms; dig a great deal deeper into the genre, historical and cultural contexts, as well as recognize our modern understanding may change how we read certain texts. In essence, recognize the constant challenge of bridging the “two horizons” (Thiselton).

  • Alastair J Roberts

    This will never happen, but what if the Bible were sold book by book or in an encyclopedia set?

    It has happened! See, for instance, the recent six volume ESV Reader’s Bible (I have a copy and it is incredible) or the Bibliotheca project.

  • Alastair J Roberts

    The benefit of something like the ESV Reader’s Bible is that it isn’t trying to be everything, so it can do what it does exceedingly well. Most Bibles are the book equivalent of a Swiss Army Knife.