How do you read the Bible? What is your style as a Christian, as a follower of Jesus? Are these two questions related?
First, let’s talk about your style. What does your faith do for you? How do you relate to the Deity? What is it you want from your daily dose of religion?
Maybe you are a person whose faith is all about encouragement amid difficulty. You, along with most people, have a hard life. Every day presents more challenges to be overcome. What you need from God is a bit of grounding. You need to be reminded that he is with you, that this won’t last forever, and that you will eventually triumph. You just don’t know how you could get through the day without a quiet moment, a little scripture, and an encouraging devotional paragraph.
If that is you, your faith is of a therapeutic style. You need help and God is there to provide it. He will never leave you or forsake you, although you might forget it for a bit, or even forsake him for a while. The Great Therapist welcomes you back with open arms and provides what you need. At least for another day. Going to church on Sunday is a major recharge of the batteries for another week because you get to sing happy songs and hear encouraging words. The therapeutic model is what works for you.
Or maybe you are a person who reads the Bible in community. Your scripture interpreter is a community of preachers and teachers who show you what is important to take into your daily life. Perhaps the community is mostly about the therapeutic effects of the Bible and the faith, but there are other models available as well. The main point of the community model is that one does not go off the script. Ideas are not welcome unless they come from the community knowledge base. The individual is subsumed, in some degree, into the hive.
This model can lead to various types of celebrity worship, if we are not careful. Even a small church pastor can assume supposed authority where it is unwarranted. The megachurch model leads to magnification of this problem. The penultimate effect may be abuse of power, which can take multiple forms, including sexual abuse, shunning, canceling, public shaming.
Don’t get me wrong; the Bible is to be read in community. I should not isolate myself from the thoughts and interpretations of others. This kind of control is absolutely integral to keeping myself from going off the deep end in my interpretation. But this should not be the only Bible reading I do. That would stunt my spiritual growth.
You might be a person for whom the Bible is a systematic theology book, though scrambled up and in need of organization. The Bible, for you, is a collection of propositions about God and his world. The trick is to find them and put them into the categories of modern thought and classification. To do that, attention to context may or may not be important. What matters is the system.
Maybe your goal is to convince unbelievers of the truth of the Bible and you are trying to build arguments that are difficult to refute. Or perhaps your method is to find the errors in the teachings of others. Maybe you even run a website devoted to outing false teachings and false teachers. You probably call it a discernment ministry because you believe you have a gift for discernment that most Christians are missing. When you get down to the bottom of your thoughts, you probably agree with Jean Cauvin and the Institutes in almost everything.
I have not exhausted to potential models you may be attached or attracted to. Maybe you read the Bible as literature and like to compare it to other forms of literature. Maybe you just read the Bible as a devotional exercise. Maybe you have a more unique way to read, or maybe you are syncretistic and combine one or more of the models I have or have not mentioned. I know that some people are committed to an inductive approach excluding any other methods of reading scripture.
But how, then, should we read the Bible?
First, and very importantly, start reading and understanding the text by discerning what the original author was saying to the original audience. All good interpretation starts there. Without that basic step, it is too easy to try to jump to how the text might apply to me. It is a long way from there to here.
Understanding the original meaning requires understanding the genre of the text. Writers express themselves in many ways: poetry, narrative, allegory, and legend are just a few of the ways. If you read poetry as narrative, you’ll miss the meaning. And vice versa. Understanding the type of writing you are reading is essential.
One must also consider the context of the text. It is almost a hallmark of devotional reading (I could almost say Hallmark™) to extract a verse from its context to enable a devotional or inspirational use of the verse that the original writer did not intend.
“I can do all things”, “mount up with wings as eagles”, “peace beyond understanding”, “as for me and my house”, “I will never leave you or forsake you” spring to mind. Anything you might see on a wall hanging is suspect regarding context.
The text cannot mean what it never meant. That well-worn maxim is true. It doesn’t mean the application of the text cannot change. It does mean that the first step is to understand what the writer meant. This is to guard against twisting the text to mean something it cannot mean and applying it to a situation that it cannot be applied to.
If you are not a biblical scholar—or even if you are—you may need help with step one. Our times are different, our culture is different, our languages are different from those of the writers. You need to find some good commentaries that you can trust.
Only after this first step is done are you free to move on to asking how this scripture applies to me and my situation. I cannot offer much advice about how to proceed in this step because it is so dependent on 1) the meaning of the text and 2) the situation being analyzed. I can only tell you and urge you to make sure that your application of the text remains under that control of the original meaning of the text.
The text cannot mean what it never meant.
Reading the Bible correctly may mean changing your style. It may mean getting somewhat out of step with your community. It may even invoke an existential change in your life as it has in mine. Reading the Bible may turn your whole life upside down. It may lead you to a level of discipleship you never imagined. You might become some kind of Jesus freak. You may even lose some friends. So be prepared.
The Bible is dangerous.