Reading the Bible: A Few More Thoughts

Reading the Bible: A Few More Thoughts August 22, 2011

Recently we talked about the Bible in church. 

What I mean is that we’re revisiting some basics this summer and we recently explored the question: “What is the Bible?”.  In response to our discussion in worship a Calvary member sent an email asking for some tips on jumping back in to regular Bible study.  I remembered I have actually written a blog entry about this before, but since I got the email while I was at Preacher Camp, I asked my colleagues for their thoughts.  Jim Somerville shared something he recently prepared for folks at his church, and with his permission I share it here:

How to Read the Bible

Here are some suggestions inspired by Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart’s book, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth (Zondervan Press, 1981).

  1. Start with a good translation of the Bible.  My personal preference is the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), which strives to be as inclusive as possible while maintaining a faithfulness to the original Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic languages.  The HarperCollins Study Bible has almost as many notes as it has text, providing ready answers to most of my questions.  Fee and Stuart also recommend Today’s New International Version (TNIV). 
  2. Get ready to read.  Sit at a desk or table where you can spread out a little, where you can open the Bible and also take notes.  Make sure you have adequate lighting and reading glasses if you need them (I seem to need them more and more).  Let’s say you’re working on Luke 4:14-30 (just as an example): take some time to read the introduction to Luke in your study Bible; find out who Luke was, when he wrote, and what he was trying to accomplish; find out how a Gospel is different from other kinds of literature in the Bible (history, poetry, prophecy, epistles, etc.) and think about why it makes a difference. 
  3. Say a prayer for illumination.  If it was the Holy Spirit who inspired the biblical authors to write (and it was), it will be the Holy Spirit who helps us understand what they wrote.  Ask the Spirit to open your mind, heart, and soul to the truth of God’s word, and to teach you through the words of the text.  The meaning of a passage is often found not in the words themselves, but in that space between the words and the reader where the Spirit does its best work.
  4. Read the text.  Read it several times, slowly.  Let it sink in.  Make sure you don’t add anything that isn’t there or subtract anything that is.  I talked to someone recently who said he was amazed at how Jesus just “disappeared” at the end of this reading from Luke 4.  “Disappeared?” I asked.  “Yeah!  He just–poof!–disappeared!”  Fortunately I had my Bible with me, and when we looked at the text it said that Jesus “passed through the midst of them and went on his way” (Luke 4:30).  That’s not really the same thing as “disappearing,” is it?
  5. Write down your questions.  If you are reading for understanding (and not just inspiration) you will have questions: What was that synagogue in Nazareth like?  Did they have other scrolls, or just the scroll of Isaiah?  Why did Jesus sit down to teach?  Where was his mother when all this happened?  Why did the people try to throw him off a cliff?  Write down all the questions you have.  Don’t hold back.  The Bible can take it (smile).
  6. Look up the answers.  This is when you consult a good Bible dictionary or a commentary.  Not before you’ve written down your questions—after.  Otherwise you will read answers to questions you have never asked, and yawn your way through the commentaries.  If you are looking for answers to your own questions, however, it can be like going on a treasure hunt—exciting!  I keep the Mercer Dictionary of the Bible on my shelves and try to keep a commentary on each book of the Bible written by the foremost scholar on that book.  Bible dictionaries and commentaries are always available in your church library, and many of them are excellent. I would recommend the New Interpreters Dictionary of the Bible as one of the best commentary sets.

Only when you have done this kind of careful exegesis are you ready to do hermeneutics: to bring the meaning of the text from “then and there” to “here and now.”  One of the real problems with so much “interpretation” of scripture is that people try to do hermeneutics before they’ve done exegesis.  They try to apply a text to the here and now without ever knowing what it meant there and then.  Fee and Stuart warn us that, “A text can never mean what it never meant.”  That’s another way of saying you have to do your homework.  You have to know what a text meant in its original context before you can understand what it might mean for us today.

This is a different way to read the Bible than the devotional reading I do during my “quiet time.”  This is serious study.  But if you read the Bible in this way from time to time I think you will find it richly rewarding.  Like the people in Nehemiah 8, you may go your way “to eat and drink…and make great rejoicing,” because you have understood the words of the Bible.

—Jim Somerville


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