Even a causal glance at the “Christendom” of the present day reveals a multitude of ways in which people have read and used the Bible. At one extreme, some groups attribute very little weight to the Bible at all, and their reading of it tends to be on the same level as one would read a great novel. For them the Bible is interesting and may cause one to think, but in the end it is not the “final word” when it comes to life, God, or anything else. At the other extreme, some people read the Bible as if it were only and simply a list of literal “Do’s” and “Don’ts.” Most people who care to read the Bible at all probably fall somewhere in between these extremes.
Two Ways to Read the Bible
On closer inspection, I would suggest that there are two basic ways in which people read the Bible. There are those who read the Bible superficially, and there are those who read it more accurately. Now the alarming news is that sometimes it is sincerely religious people who make the mistake of reading the Bible superficially. Think of the difference between the way the Jews of Jesus’ day handled the Scriptures (take Matt 19.18-20 or Matt 15.3-6 as an example), and the way Jesus approached it (compare Matt 22.31-32). The Jews of Jesus’ day are a good example of highly religious people who had read the Scriptures superficially.
What is this superficial kind of reading? It is, among other things, often a self-centered and a this-worldly reading. In other words, people who take this approach often believe that the Bible is about some earthly condition or situation that will come about for them if they can understand how to get it from God. The condition may be the hope of an earthly kingdom, or it may be the prospect of getting rich, or it may be some nebulous sense of intellectual enlightenment, but whatever form it takes this approach to the Bible says that the Bible is about me and what good things God will do for me in my present life if I can just manage to please God. This is, generally speaking, the approach to religion of most pagans in the ancient world, and it is the approach to the Bible that is commonly found among the television evangelists today (especially those who preach the “Health and Wealth Gospel”). The tragic thing about this approach to the Bible is that it actually prevents the Bible from communicating its message. When we read the Bible through the lens of our own hopes and aspirations, the result is that we convince ourselves that the Bible really is talking about such things when in fact it is otherwise. In the end we only become self-deceived as we read the Bible in this way.
What about the other way of reading the Bible? How can we make sure we are reading it correctly and accurately?
Getting It Right
The answer is that we need to let the Bible itself show us the way. What we need to do is adopt the perspective of the Bible authors themselves (if we indeed believe that they were inspired by the Holy Spirit), and learn to read the Scriptures like they did. Then we will be reading the Bible as God meant it to be read; then the Bible will be communicating its message more clearly to us.
Now I realize that things are not always black-and-white. The fact is that some people manage to understand some parts of the Bible accurately while reading other parts superficially. Some parts of the Bible are “naturally” easy to understand correctly (although some people manage to misunderstand even the easy parts), and others are more difficult. Yet it is not a matter of percentages, as if the person who reads 51% of the Bible more accurately is the better Bible reader than the person who only gets 27% of it correctly. Furthermore, the Bible does not begin with a list of hermeneutical rules. Instead, God expects us to pick up the Bible and simply “listen.” He wants us to learn His view of things and see the story from His point of view. When we let the Bible simply tell its story on its own terms, then we are reading it correctly. When we bring our own self-seeking agendas to it, then we end up preventing the Bible from communicating to us, and the result is that we read it superficially.
We are talking here about first getting the right orientation, the right perspective. The orientation determines, in a large measure, the destination.
So what does the Bible tell us about this? Does the Bible reveal a particular perspective through which we are to understand the Biblical story? Is there a particular orientation which the Bible itself presents to us, for us to adopt as the way we look at things? I believe the answer to these questions is “yes,” and in the following installments on this topic I hope to help you see it.
Before we do that, however, a fundamental starting-point needs to be established. If we truly believe that the Bible is the word of God, then it would be best to begin reading the Bible with the understanding that it is God’s revelation of Himself to us. In other words, the Bible is primarily about God. That is to say, it is not primarily about us. Oh, we are involved to be sure, and God makes some wonderful offers and invitations to us in His word. But the Bible is not about satisfying our self-centered personal ambitions and worldly dreams. It is not some kind of code for getting rich or for dominating the world (like a political nation-state would). It is the revelation of God about Himself. It is the story, told by God Himself, of what God has done, is doing, and will do, a story that invites us to share the benefits of God’s wonderful activity.
For those who are a little more brave, this article will give you a brief introduction to what this series will be exploring (although we will be looking at the Biblical documents): http://jamestabor.com/2012/09/17/getting-a-handle-on-apocalyptic-messianic-eschatology/