Healthy Theology 6: Reading Well
“Reading is an immense gift, but only if the words are assimilated, taken into the soul—eaten, chewed, gnawed, and received in unhurried delight.” — Eugene Peterson, Eat This Book
DEVELOP AN ETHIC OF READING
In the last post, I asked you to consider the following scenario: if there were a “preface” to Holy Scripture—showing us what lens with which to read, understand, and live out the great teachings of God—what would it include? Christian reflection for two thousand years has offered us some helpful suggestions. Perhaps it would begin by stressing the importance of believing well—rooting our faith in central truths which lay at the heart of the Christian message. But it would also remind us of the importance of reading well.
I believe Scripture is our first and primary means of knowing the will of God, and ought to be our final authority. I imagine many readers would affirm the same thing. But perhaps you’ve noticed that, across the religious spectrum and across the globe, we simply do not all see the Bible alike. Why do you think this is so?
Perhaps the problem is ignorance. It seems reasonable that some people do not read the Bible correctly because they do not know or understand its contents. That can certainly lead to severe disagreement. Perhaps the problem is apathy. I imagine there are some who just don’t care what is recorded in Holy Scripture. Perhaps the problem is an evil heart. A heart bent on the self will inevitably shy away from corrective teachings by a Holy God.
But are these the only possible options? What do we say when two earnest and sincere people with ample minds and good hearts fail to see eye-to-eye on what Scripture is all about? One truth is that each of us—all of us—wear certain lenses and have certain blinders. If we could recognize what lenses we use, and learn to evaluate these in the light of healthy alternatives, we may find a way forward. Christians, through the centuries, have offered us some “helps” toward a better reading of Scripture that can help both parties see more clearly than ever before. We may call it an “ethic” of reading. So, how can we learn to read well?
KNOW YOUR INFLUENCES: REASON, TRADITION, & EXPERIENCE
When we open our Bibles, we all bring reason (in varying amounts) to the text. We assume (rightly) that God gave us brains and intended for us to use them. When Jesus says “if your right eye offends you, pluck it out”, we immediately sense that he doesn’t mean that literally. But when the Bible says “do not murder”, we know it means do not take someone’s life unlawfully. Reason helps us communicate with others, since we are constantly deciding how to interpret words, signs, and symbols on a daily basis. If we didn’t apply our reason, we would be in all sorts of trouble.
But reason has its limits. The phrase “common sense is not so common” reminds us that we are often far less rational than we assume. In addition, sometimes our religious commitments cloud our reason (in ways we don’t even realize). Have you ever said “even if it doesn’t make sense, I will obey the Lord”? Does this mean that reason is a help or a harm in such circumstances? Perhaps you can see the problem. And our reason is shaped by education, experience, and a number of other influences. Reasonable people disagree. The fact is that in addition to “Scripture alone,” we all bring reason to the text; recognizing this can help us. Yet my reasoning power alone is simply not an absolutely safe guide for knowing truth.
When we open our Bibles, we all bring tradition (in varying amounts) to the text. We assume (rightly) that many “new ideas” are not new, but are old ideas defeated long ago. We know that we do not need to reinvent the wheel in every generation, and that tradition is often “the wisdom of the ages”. Tradition connects us with Christian history, and adds weight to our conscience when we wonder if we are the only ones who see things a certain way.
But tradition has its limits. Tradition is often diverse. You can usually find various views with a long pedigree. In some cases, tradition continues to develop, which blurs our understanding of what “tradition” is! Tradition, if wrong, can become less of an anchor stone on which to stand, and more of a millstone hung around our necks. The fact is that in addition to “Scripture alone,” we all bring varying amounts of tradition to the text; recognizing this can help us. Yet tradition alone is simply not an absolutely safe guide for knowing truth.
When we open our Bibles, we all bring experience (in varying amounts) to the text. We assume (rightly) that having experienced something gives us a better perspective. We are likely to know that some Proverbs–such as “a soft answer turns away wrath” or “train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it”–are general truths (not absolute truths) precisely because we have experienced life. We may suggest reading a passage differently because we “tried that way” in the past, and found it wanting. Experience can be a great teacher, helping us avoid past mistakes, and shining a light on wise past decisions. “In one sense we do not simply read Scripture alone. We bring tools from our toolbox that shape how we read.”
“In one sense we do not simply read Scripture alone. We bring tools from our toolbox that shape how we read.”
But experience has its limits. Your experience in life differs from my mine. How could we determine whose experience is more true? Experiences can be mistaken, misunderstood, misinterpreted, and misapplied. It is very difficult to even consider Bible passages that conflict with our experience, often causing us to remove possible readings by choosing our interpreted experience over all other suggestions. How do I question my own experience when the community of faith disagrees with me? The fact is that in addition to “Scripture alone,” we all bring varying amounts of experience to the text; recognizing this can help us. Yet experience alone is not an absolutely safe guide for knowing truth.
It is clear, then, that in one sense we do not simply read Scripture alone. We bring tools from our toolbox that shape how we read. But if we recognize this interplay between reason, tradition, and experience, we will be in a better position to question our reading of the text, to compare it with other people’s reason, tradition, and experience, and constantly reconsider how best to let Scripture have priority in our lives.
KNOW YOURSELF… AND THE ATTITUDE OF YOUR HEART
The Bible is holy, beautiful, and life-changing. But history tells us that it has been used to hurt, bludgeon, destroy, and abuse. This affects not only how others view Christians, but how they view Scripture. If we wish to get the most out of Scripture, we must examine the motives and intentions which we bring to our reading of Scripture. Jeff Childers provides five general suggestions which seem to offer a great start.
Read Honestly. Most Christians are aware that how we read the Bible is shaped by the tools and methods we use. It is helpful to recognize that our methods are not always “neutral”—we privilege some things over others. Knowing what we privilege and why we privilege them can help us be better students of Scripture. The environment in which we were raised, the faith culture of which we are aware, and the instruction we have received can often determine not only the methods we use, or the answers we find, but even the questions we ask. Honesty demands some sort of self-awareness.
Read Humbly. Just as there is always the danger of misunderstanding your friends when they text, tweet, or talk with you, imagine the danger of misunderstanding words that were written 2,000 years ago, to people in a different culture, in another language? A humble reading is one that is open to learning, recognizing that we don’t have it all figured out. But a humble reading does not lack confidence. There may be a learning gap, but the Bible teaches that God’s Holy Spirit is at work to bridge that gap. So be humble about the distance, yet confident about God’s involvement in helping us understand.
Read Prayerfully. The Bible emphasizes that the attitude of your heart matters immensely. Coming face to face with Scripture often provides illumination as much as it provides instruction. Dr. Tom Olbricht once wisely stated that the Bible is not written primarily to answer our questions so much as the Bible is written to question us. Read the Bible with an openness to be corrected, challenged, and changed. Allow your time in the word to be a transformative experience as you seek time with God.
Read Theologically. Make a commitment to read from the center with the whole in mind. Do not miss the forest through the trees. With any book, chapter, paragraph, or verse, ask yourself how the passage fits with and enhances our view of God’s story of redemption in Christ. What does this passage say about the character of God? How does this passage lead me to greater discipleship in service to Christ? How does this section of Scripture make me aware of my own sinfulness, God’s own righteousness, or the Holy Spirit’s work in glorifying Christ? There are no throw away lines in all of Scripture, and every passage (in context) contains the Gospel story in miniature. Read every story in the light of God’s finished work in Christ, and His continual work through the power of the Spirit, and you just may find yourself reading the Bible with fresh lenses and a renewed heart.
Read Communally. Most books of the Bible were written to communities, not individuals–and even those written to individuals were meant to be read to the community. The word “you” is plural much more often than singular in the New Testament. The promises of God are more often given to churches than to individuals. The Bible was always meant to be read in a way that iron sharpens iron. The idea that we can (or should) all go to our own ivory towers, read on our own, then come out with perfect agreement is not only unlikely, but not what God intended. In addition, consider the idea that your community is wider than your local church (including all Christians), longer than your own lifetime (including those who have gone before), and deeper than your own perspective (including ideas you disagree with, but are willing to consider to challenge and sharpen you). In Ephesians 3, Paul prays that each individual will be able to comprehend “with all the saints” the love of Christ, which “surpasses knowledge.” I believe his point is simple: no one person will get the full story; we need each other. It is in the community of God’s people, in the shared reading of Scripture, that we find encouragement to reflect, share, challenge, and agree.
RESOURCES FOR FURTHER REFLECTION
Article: “Thinking Theologically: Bible, Tradition, Reason, and Experience” by Savi Hensman
(photo credit: Shawn Harquail)
Nathan Guy believes the passionate pursuit of truth, goodness, and beauty culminates in Jesus Christ. He received formal training in philosophy, theology, biblical studies, and cultural & political ethics from Oxford, Cambridge, and the LSE. He lives in Florence, Alabama, where he serves as President of Mars Hill Bible School.