All sorts of people read the Bible, but apparently the meanings they derive from the text differ. This is not just because the scripture is a complex book with many layers of meaning. It is also because we read the Bible with different intentions, expectations, and commitments as readers. In addition, our background, our worldview, and our life story affect the way we read the sacred text.
Some people read the Bible out of curiosity without being committed to it as a text that reveals the truth of God. Others read it as a sacred text or scripture in which God speaks to them. No matter where you stand in terms of your belief in God, two things will tremendously affect your reading of the Bible. By the way, the effects of these factors do not depend on your awareness of them although after you become aware, they may change the dynamics of your reading. Here are the two factors: 1) your perspective; 2) your social location and context.
In the simplest terms, your perspective is the way you look at life and think about life. It includes your assumptions, your beliefs, your frame of reference, etc. Your social location comes from the relationships and community within which you live. Think of a freshwater fish vs. a saltwater fish. Both of them are in water (or in their own environment) without being “in the know.” But their environment affects them to the point that as a rule a freshwater fish doesn’t live in saltwater and vice versa. Social location can be part of the context but not always. There are many contexts, but we are going to focus on the simplest one: your situation. Your context is your immediate situation that affects your reading of the sacred text. For example, a person in a war-torn country who reads the Bible to find hope reads it in one particular context. When that same person reads the Bible in an affluent church to implicitly argue against some doctrinal position that a majority of given church members holds, his context changes, and so do the things the individual notices in the text.
Your perspective, your social location, and your context are connected. A person who grew up in a poor neighborhood and a tightly knit community that relied on one another (social location) will read the “give us our daily bread” differently from the person who grew up in an affluent neighborhood and relied on money rather close friendships to deal with life problems.
But don’t despair. This doesn’t mean that we are suffocating in the clutches of our inescapable limitations. As long as you — believer — are willing to read the Bible as a story book and not as a math book, you will always find some insights into the truth of the Spirit.
Approaching the Bible as a Scripture
What does it meant to read the Bible as a scripture?
In short, it means reading the Bible with the belief that it is telling the truth about God. It means taking the Bible as the sacred text with an openness that allows it to shape our theological imagination and life. It means privileging the Bible above all other texts and standing by the countless generations who did so.
But enough of rhetoric.
When it comes to everyday life, it’s not easy to read the Bible as the sacred text and live by the voice we hear in it because the scripture says a lot of things, some of which are prone to create cognitive dissonance.
Fortunately, there are scholars who have invested their minds in order to understand how we can read the Bible as Christians both with integrity and with respect to the findings of biblical criticism.
Here I will introduce you to the work of a scholar whose book on how to read the Bible as scripture enriched my own approach to the holy book. I “stole” many insights from his book, and four signs you will read in a minute are “stolen” straight out of Joel B. Green’s book, Seized by Truth: Reading the Bible as Scripture. In that book, Green comes up with four criteria that define what it means to read the Bible as scripture. But he also shows that reading the Bible as scripture means reading the text for conversion. In his explanation, conversion means allowing the scripture to shape our worldview and imagination as the Spirit works in us so that we can be changed into the person God wants us to be.
To that end, Green offers these theological presumptions:
1) reading the Bible should be ecclesially-located;
2) it should be theologically-fashioned;
3) it should be critically-engaged;
4) it should be Spirit-imbued.
Ecclesially-located means, as Christians, we should read the Bible in light of what the church has historically taught about the scripture and the way it has interpreted the book. Various interpretive traditions of the church inform our reading.
This, however, does not exclude the achievements of research on and about the Bible; that’s where the critically-engaged reading comes in. The Bible has been researched from various perspectives, and some of the findings need to be taken into account, however unpleasant they may be. We are called to wrestle with the scripture so that we may hear the Spirit and evaluate our interpretive traditions in light of new insights.
The theologically-fashioned reading is another way of saying that we need to take into account what the church believes about the scripture and what is the overarching story of God within the text. We read the text to see God and his movement through history. Here creedal statements of the church come into play, but they shouldn’t be idolized either.
As for Spirit-imbued reading, it means that we surrender ourselves to the Spirit and read the Bible prayerfully within the community of believers. Instead of our mastering the Bible, we let the Scripture shape us as we see Christ in its pages.
Now, notice that none of these work as a step-by-step guide. These are general ideas or principles that should lead our readings. The huge part of reading the Scripture as a Christian is the self-awareness as a reader and the resistance to the allure of mechanistic reading: “do this, do that, analyze this and, voila, you have the meaning that God buried in the Scripture.” In contrast, reading the Bible as scripture requires us to take into account where we are in our spiritual journey to God and to be ready for certain disciplined yet spontaneous promptings of the Spirit.
I hope this helps. If you have some concerns about your reading of the scripture, comment and let me know. If you liked the post, please take a moment and share it: let others find insight too. Also, check the blog posts (linked) below. They will enrich your scripture-reading experience.