Because the Bible is an old book with a rich history, humans have been reading it in various ways. This is not true just for the church. In academia, there are various ways of reading the Bible called “methods” which are essentially specific ways of interpreting the Bible from a concrete perspective. Communities of believers dotting our planet accept some of these ways and refuse others. For example, a mystical or an allegorical reading of the Bible is still surviving. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, you will find the continuing allegorical reading tradition that appropriates ancient Greek ideas. On the other hand, churches still have difficulty warming up to a feminist reading (or interpretation) of the Bible.
No matter your stance on the various methods and ways of reading of the Bible, it is wise to know some of them and use them in your Bible study. They will do two things for you. First, they will deepen your understanding of the Bible and reveal the nuances of the text. Second, they will challenge your deep-seated notions about what counts and what does not count toward interpretation when you read the holy book.
But before I dive into the meaty matters of the subject, let me tell you that to me, Bible reading methods are different from Bible reading ways. It may sound like a word game, but there is a subtle difference between them. Methods of studying the Bible tend to be academic and research-based. The critical-historical method and the feminist method of reading the Bible are both academic methods. You can use them, but you may want to first have a firm grasp of these methods because they are specialized, and they use special concepts you may not find in everyday life. Like you may not have heard of hermeneutics of suspicion. On the other hand, ways of reading the Bible are more down-to-earth practices that you may find in churches. These ways are informed or influenced by academic study, but their concern is not of ivory-tower concerns. They are often relaxed and may not be as rigorous as some methods. I have seen several ways of reading the Bible in churches, and here I will distill them for your benefit.
However, be aware that ways of reading the Bible do not replace a serious study of the Bible. Rather, ways of reading the Bible are just gateways to your in-depth Bible study.
All these methods and practical ways of reading the sacred text matter. Ignoring some of them simply because you disagree is a mistake because even from an atheistic reading of the Bible, you can learn something — like what are the most challenging passages with difficulties that need to be addressed. Notice that all ways of reading the Bible fall somewhere between two distilled options that can be taken to the extreme if you’re not careful.
A) An analytical reading of the Bible is when you read the Bible in order to break down the text based on certain criteria. This reading deals with the words, their connotations, word structure, word frequency, the development of meanings, grammar, etc. At its best, an analytical reading uses the tools from other fields to understand the text in depth. For example, an analytical reading of a biblical text may analyze extra-biblical resources in order to understand the prophecies of Jesus Christ in its historical context. At its worst, an analytical reading is a dissection of the text that misses the forest in quest for the tree of life. Also, an analytical reading requires certain skills like being able to read Greek or Hebrew.
B) A reflective reading of the Bible is when you read the Bible in order to let it guide your imagination so that you can glimpse God’s will in the text. A reflective reading of the text is more relaxed, more attuned to the reader’s inner world, and permits disciplined flights of imagination in service of understanding and personalizing the text better. In some mystical traditions of Christianity, practitioners are encouraged to imagine the events described in the text in order to identify with them. In a reflective reading, the text is the center around which our mind revolves. At its worst, a reflective reading is a trampoline to jump into our self-centered self, never to return back to the biblical text again.
Now let’s look at three ways of reading the Bible that will deepen your understanding of the Bible. These three ways are defined by the purpose of each that frames the way we read the text.
When you have a topic in your mind and you turn to a particular passage of the Bible because of that topic, you are reading the Bible topically. Say, if you are interested in divorce and want to know what the Bible teaches about the subject, then you flip the book open to Matthew 19:2–9. Notice that a topical reading of the Bible does not necessarily mean you choose only the passages that specifically mention the key words of your subject matter. If you think you can find something about divorce in, say, Book of Numbers and choose a particular passage you think would give you some insights, then you are still doing a topical reading of the Bible because your reading is framed by the topic. A topical reading of the Bible is the most frequently used way of reading the scripture.
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2.Reading the Bible for Patterns
This is a topical reading of the Bible on the scale of the whole Bible. It is more sophisticated than the topical reading previously mentioned because it requires you to wade through a lot of information. Some of that biblical data may seem irrelevant but not be so. And some of that information may look relevant but not be so. Reading the Bible for a pattern also requires some knowledge of logic, rhetoric, and text composition in addition to extra-biblical knowledge about the Bible. Say you are interested in what the Bible teaches about money. So you go hunting for biblical verses that mention money.
But that’s only the beginning. Because the Bible may not speak about money directly. It may use various words such as wealth, silver, gold, and many others to mean money or wealth. Besides, you may want to know the context of each passage and the development of biblical thought on money and their relations. Certain passages on money will look like they make sense, but you may be missing the actual meaning because the verse may address a very specific concern that is absent from our world. To know that concern, you would want to explore the particular verse you are dealing with.
For example, in the Old Testament sometimes wealth and money appear to be one of many blessings that God bestows upon his people. In the New Testament, money is not treated that favorably. Remember mammoth? To know the reasons for that change and to contextualize the biblical teaching on money, you may want to explore the intertestamental period between the two testaments that is not represented in the Bible. Between the Old Testament and the New Testament, there are several hundred years of break, and no book from that period is in the biblical canon. So unless you check what happened during that period, your understanding of the biblical pattern may not be as deep as you want it to be.
3.Cover-to-Cover Reading of the Bible (for familiarity)
A cover-to-cover reading of the Bible is to read the Bible from the first page to the last in order to familiarize yourself with the book, its main topics, and structure. This is the least appreciated way of reading the sacred book that I know of. A cover-to-cover reading of the Bible is not easy because some texts within the sacred book are very difficult to plow through. They refer to obscure events, places, and people that make the text virtually unintelligible unless you consult some specialized literature. But even so, every Christian ought to read the whole of the Bible to discover its hidden gems. The type of translation and edition of the Bible is critical for a cover-to-cover reading, but this reading would determine your overall experience of the book. The majority of people are familiar with the Bible either from hearing it in church or reading chunks of it in the media.
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4.Expository Reading of the Bible
When a pastor reads the Bible for preaching purposes and prepares by doing research on the text, he reads it for exposition. Here I use the word “exposition” in a broader sense than you would use in specialized literature. I use it to indicate a specific method of preaching. A pastor’s or a believer’s reading of the Bible for exposition in order to present it later requires taking into account the concerns brought in by the group of people being preached to. It also requires a certain kind of approach to the text because the text is used to communicate with people about their real-life concerns. An expository reading of the Bible may focus on key words, dramatize certain aspects of the text, and may accept or refuse certain commentaries’ decisions on the text’s meaning. An expository reading is often self-aware and has to find a balance between the text’s meaning, the congregation’s or believers’ readiness to accept that meaning, and the political environment. For example, if a pastor reads David and Bathsheba’s story to preach from it, he might be concerned about its implications about God’s character. Is God unjust by choosing a man who does such an unjust thing (plotting and killing Uriah to get his wife)? So even though the minister may want to address it while in a topical reading for personal use, that may not be appropriate in an expository reading.
Now, that said, remember that there are no clear-cut differences between these ways of reading the Bible. Often you will find that all these various ways are combined because they overlap.
Do you know other ways of reading the Bible? Have you ever heard of an unusual way of reading the sacred text? Leave a comment, and let us know what is your favorite way.