We are nearly at the end of this series of posts on Understanding the Bible in the 21st century. Today: in the light of all I’ve concluded so far, how should we read the Bible and apply it?
Why read the Bible?
If the Bible isn’t the inerrant Word of God, why read it at all?
- Nothing else we read is inerrant, yet we still read and benefit, so that shouldn’t stop us. And if the Holy Spirit guides us, we can have confidence in the outcome.
- Jesus and his apostles treated their scriptures, our Old Testament, as important sources of divine truth and therefore as authoritative, although, as we have seen, this didn’t prevent them from being rather flexible with their meaning sometimes. If we want to follow Jesus, we should do the same.
- The Bible claims to be inspired by God and useful for our growth in understanding, faith and obedience. If we believe that claim (as Jesus and his apostles seem to have) and want to grow in understanding, faith and obedience, we will want to read the Bible and understand it.
Our priorities in reading must surely be:
- The gospels: we are following Jesus, so understanding what he taught, what he wants of us, and understanding his thinking will all be of greatest importance to us.
- The rest of the New Testament outlines what Jesus’ apostles have to say about living in the new covenant with God. We need to understand this.
- The Old Testament is the old covenant, and so does not have the same authority for us. But it is nevertheless the scriptures Jesus knew, and helps us properly understand him. Even if we are unsure about parts of the Old Testament, we still learn something of God through them. They will be lower priority for the christian who understands the two covenants, but still important.
How does God speak to us through the Bible?
The important thing is not to have the right doctrine about the Bible, but to allow God to speak to us through our reading, and then obeying what we learn.
We read a clear teaching
Sometimes we simply learn something we didn’t know before, and need to act on it. The first time we read Jesus’ commands to love our enemies, pray for those who treat us badly and forgive those who wrong us, it may be a bit of a shock, but we have no trouble understanding, and we then have to choose if we will try to obey.
Often we pick up things slowly, gradually understanding the mind of God on a subject – for example, as we watch Jesus in action in the gospels, we see he didn’t treat people in a formulaic manner, but each person was treated as an individual. Gradually we come to understand that God is like that too, and so should we be, for example, in our evangelism. This learning continues our whole life.
The Spirit’s illumination
Sometimes the Holy Spirit brings something to our attention. It may not have been the original meaning of the author, but God nevertheless uses it to draw our attention to some truth we need to know. Other times the Spirit brings something to mind that we learnt or read a long time ago – sort of put aside for a rainy day.
Fact and faith
Readers of this blog will probably know I believe following Jesus involves a combination of evidence or facts, and faith. For some of us, this principle is fundamental.
If we read and believe the historians, there are many parts of the Bible which we can be assured are historically accurate, but there are many other parts about which the historians are uncertain or conclude are not historical. But if we believe in Jesus, we can trust God to have ensured the truth about Jesus wasn’t lost or badly garbled. Therefore we can believe in faith that even the sections that may be unhistorical can communicate God’s truths. Something doesn’t have to be historical to teach us – as the parable of the prodigal son shows us.
Sometimes we need to learn facts and get background information or expert teaching on word meanings and culture. But other times, we need to trust the Spirit to speak to us.
Getting the facts
Get the background from experts
Each book of the Bible was written for a purpose and into a particular cultural context. It is good to understand these, to avoid misunderstanding the text. This will often require expert information.
Broadly, we need to understand that there are two covenants and two Testaments, and progression in God’s revelation within that broad scheme. This changes how we read the Bible. For example, Old Testament laws and standards no longer apply to us, and we should read the OT more as a story which reveals God in a less didactic way.
Much of what is written and said about Jesus in christian circles does not reflect his life in first century Palestine. For example, his priorities were the kingdom of God, which is much broader than the agenda of most churches. We need to understand who Jesus was, and not just what modern churches say about him.
Get the big picture
Generally avoid simple “proof texts” which isolate a sentence or two from their context. It is best to try to learn general principles and the teachings of whole books, and so become more familiar with God’s thinking.
Breadth is good
It is helpful not to depend too much on reading experts or listening to sermons. Read background information by authors from outside your faith tradition, to get a new perspective. Better still, if you have the time and interest, do some research yourself – e.g. use an online resource like Bible Gateway to do your own word studies.
For example, a word study of “worship” (there are several Greek words) shows that in the New Testament it isn’t ever used (to my knowledge) in the context of christians meeting together, but represents what they used to do in the Old Testament temple, or a life dedicated to God’s service, or a persons attitude to Jesus when he was on earth, or what is described in Revelation. This changes how we see some things!
Hearing the Spirit
Those are all ways to get more information, but we also need the Holy Spirit to guide us into all truth (John 16:13). Just as we saw Jesus and the apostles creatively apply Old Testament passages in new ways, it may be that the Spirit will lead Jesus’ followers into new understandings today.
For example, there has been much argument about the role of women in leadership in the church, and use of different Bible passages and different interpretations to justify the different positions. One is left with the impression that passages are chosen and interpreted to justify conclusions already drawn – in other words, the scripture is not an authority but a justification. I suggest the guidance of the Spirit to the whole church would be a better means of reaching an understanding.
But this requires that we christians pray earnestly for the Spirit’s guidance on interpreting the Bible, and be willing to let go of entrenched positions if required. Broad unity across the entire church would be a strong sign of the Spirit’s leading.
Just do it!
I am convinced that we don’t need an inerrant Bible to learn from God – in fact, viewing the Bible as inerrant may make us less likely to seek the Holy Spirit’s illumination. But if we accept the Bible as it is, pray for the Spirit’s guidance, and seek to understand and obey what we learn, I am sure we can all see him more clearly, love him more dearly and follow him more nearly, day by day.
May it be that way for you.
The Bible: where the rubber hits the road
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Thank you for this excellent series. Honestly, you haven’t told me much that I didn’t already learn in seminary…but there were a few little nuggets here and there that helped…
What is more important is the service this series does to those who haven’t had formal training in understanding how to read the Bible. Gutenburg did a good thing making the Bible accessible to the masses… but I fear that we Protestants and Anabaptists alike have done a bad thing in that we assume that because it is available that we will always read it properly.
Loved this line, unkleE: “… we need to understand that there are two covenants and two Testaments, and progression in God’s revelation within that broad scheme.”
This is a challenging series. I disagree with parts, agree much with others, and you’ve opened my eyes in still others.
Thanks for your comments guys. I have been learning myself while doing it.
Robert, I am a little surprised that most of what I said you learned in seminary, for I felt I was taking a slightly unusual line. What seminary was that? I guess it confirms what I have learnt recently – that I am, underneath, an Anabaptist!
Well, it certainly wasn’t an Anabaptist seminary… Biblical Theological Seminary (http://www.biblical.edu). However, it is a seminary that focuses on training missional leadership, people who are trained to go out and engage God’s mission where God is at work. This takes a MUCH different view than standard seminary as, instead of being indoctrinated with particular systematics and hermeneutics, you get trained in broad base.
My professors of OT and NT and theology spent a lot of time talking about what the Bible WAS and what the Bible wasn’t… and, as I said, they covered a LOT of the same ground.
I think, though, missional theologians like Dr. David Fitch and others find themselves gravitating towards Anabaptist thought because Anabaptist thought aims more towards engaging the person of Jesus and the story of God than in the traditional protestant methodologies born out of the Enlightenment and modernism.
I looked it up and it looks like an excellent seminary. And it is in Hatfield PA, so it must be good! : )
I am encouraged that your lecturers covered a lot of the same ground. I mostly work these things out for myself, and cross check against experts when I can. So to find other experts who have come to similar conclusions is encouraging.
“the person of Jesus and the story of God”
I do like that phrased! It sums up a lot of what I think is important.
I remember an old Hebrew Christian I knew years ago used to say “a verse out of context is a pretext” – seems like he would’ve agreed with your advice!
Yes, I would generally agree. I think God can teach us through a single verse, but it is best if we see the bigger picture as well.