How to Read and Understand the Bible
In the Anglican Tradition, the reading, hearing and understanding of the bible is a central tenant. The Collect for Advent 2 in the Book of Common Prayer reminds us of this,
Blessed Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of they holy Word, we may embrace, and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.
In what follows I am going to unpack this collect and thus answer the following questions: One, what is the bible? Two, in what way does the bible have authority? Three, how do we read the bible so we can understand it? Four how our attitude towards the bible impacts our understanding of it?
What is the bible? The collect says the Lord has caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning. When we hear this some mistakenly think God has dictated every single word, period and comma to the biblical authors. But this is mistaken. God did have something to do with the original creation of the bible yet not at the expense of human creativity. Human authors wrote the books of the bible very much like any other author writes a book we might buy in a bookstore. What makes these, in some cases poorly written and edited set of texts, God’s holy Word is that God has chosen to reveal Himself and thus speak to us in them. Therefore the reasons we hear, read, mark, learn and inwardly digest the bible as God’s Word is because God has chosen to use it as an instrument of His self-communicating presence.
What does this mean for the authority of Scripture? The authority of Scripture does not lie, as some Evangelicals claim, in the very words of the bible, but instead in the Word of God – Jesus Christ – who makes use of the bible to, not only reveal Himself, but to encounter us in person by the power of the Holy Spirit. Another way to look at how God and the bible connects to each is sacramentally. That is to say, as God makes use of the bread and the wine as a means of His grace, so does God make use of the Bible to reveal Himself in Jesus. Just as God does not become the bread and the wine, nor does God become the Bible, contrary to a fundamentalist’s approach to the Bible in which case, the Bible becomes an idol! We accept the bible as an authoritative text for directing our lives, not because there is something inherent in the words of the text, but because they serve as instruments or witnesses to the revealing present of Jesus Christ.
How then do we read and interpret the bible so we can understand it? Since specific individuals wrote the different texts of the bible to specific people for specific reasons we must treat them, to a degree, as we would treat any other texts of literature. We wisely hear them, read, mark, learn, and thus inwardly digest them … by patiently taking into account various human elements of the text such as its historical context, literature genre (e.g. whether its poetic, narrative, metaphoric etc.), original language (Hebrew or Greek), and its grammatical rules and forms. And therefore we must read and interpret the bible patiently so we can inwardly digest and understand them. Reading so we understand the bible takes effort. That’s why it’s important to read the biblical text carefully, use commentaries every now and then and try to figure out what biblical passages think mean with others, for instance, in bible study groups. Reading, interpreting and understanding the bible is a practice that is developed with effort over time.
But as I said earlier on, we approach reading the bible in this way only to a degree. Since the bible is also God’s holy Word, what orients all of our reading strategies and practices is the subject matter, main theme or character of the bible, the risen Jesus Christ. Everything we discover in the bible, including in the Old Testament, has its reference point in our risen Lord. Therefore, everything we read in the bible has Jesus of Nazareth who was born in Bethlehem, lived in that region, died on a cross and rose from the dead as its hub and center.
But true understanding of the bible also requires a certain attitude or orientation towards the bible! What do I mean? For example, in much of Anglican worship today there is a tendency to have a high expectation of the Eucharistic in worship but a low expectation of the Bible. Liturgically, we see the ministry of the Word on Sunday morning as something we have to get through so we can get to the really interesting bit of the service – the moment of consecration during the Eucharist. This low level of expectation is reflected in the way we read Scripture in worship – as if it was never read before or very quickly – and by a low regard for preaching – both by preachers and the congregation. Only if we come to the reading, hearing and proclamation of the bible with an expectation that God will speak to us, as the collect says, of the comfort and the hope of everlasting life can true understanding be realized. Only when we expect to be encountered by Jesus Christ as Lord can the words of the bible deliver to us a message of comfort and hope. And therefore, a proper reading of the Bible recognizes that we don’t handle the Bible; the Bible handles and masters us.
So have I helped you understand how to read the bible or are you more confused than ever? If you are stilled confused take heart. The first disciples of Jesus could not understand God’s Word even though He was standing before their very eyes in the flesh. Only when the resurrected Jesus opened their hearts and minds to see and understand did they truly see and understand Jesus. If Jesus could break through the confused state of his first disciples so can He do so when you read the bible.