Scripture in Lent Part 2: How do we read this thing?
Last time we took a more up close look at the process that gets us from Oral Tradition to printed bibles. This time we are going to look at the different ways we study scripture.
The first way we read Scripture is devotionally. This is often what we mean when we talk about having a quiet time or daily bible study. This is when we read the bible specifically to hear what God might be speaking to us. We focus on God’s commands and God’s promises so we can carry those things with us throughout our daily lives. To read devotionally its often helpful to set aside a daily and regular time of silence or worshipful music and prayer. When you read devotionally you aren’t just wanting to understand but to be transformed, to have a conversation with God.
The second way we read Scripture is to understand a specific section or book of the bible. This is very important. Scripture is God’s word but God has chosen to mingle and inhabit that word in human words which comes from a specific time and place. What a 1st century Pharisaic Jew turned Christian with strong Grecco-Roman influence (Paul) or a Judean prophet of the 8th century (Isaiah) might mean by a phrase is not always obvious to us. We need to read for understanding much the same way we would try to understand something like Shakespeare. We try and get our heads into their worldview so we can understand their phrases and stories the way they were meant. When we read this way we often focus on reading whole books through, looking at questions like genre, history and language. To do this we often go to outside sources like histories or commentaries where specialists answer some of these complicated questions for us. When we understand the book and where it comes from it is easier to hear what God might be speaking through it.
The third way we read Scripture is to understand a specific issue or question we might be struggling with. This can be a very difficult approach. We might use tools like indexes to see where certain topics are referenced throughout Scripture. When we read this way it is important we gather the sometimes contrasting answers of Scripture (Pray for those who persecute you v. Eye for an eye) to get the full view of how God and God’s people have answered these questions. We also need to see those verses and passages the way they are situated in a chapter or book of scripture. But it is also important we remember that some parts of Scripture are more authoritative for us as Christians. The life and words of Jesus are the core of what we believe and follow, we should weigh different voices in Scripture with this in mind. We also generally take the New Testament to be more authoritative than the Hebrew Scriptures because it builds upon and even changes some of the earlier traditions. This process can be complicated but it is also, often, the main place where practice meets theology and we put our faith into action.
So why do we have these three different lenses for reading scripture? Its because only all three together can sufficiently honor what Scripture is. In the bible we see God’s word and inspiration coming together with human authors in real communities with real needs at a specific moment in history. If we read the bible only for devotional purposes we will neglect God’s choice to use these very real human situations to speak into the world. We will misunderstand God’s Word if we can’t understand the human word that delivers it. Thankfully God didn’t choose to speak for all time through a theology textbook. God gave us letters and stories and laws and songs and visions, written by real authors to real communities for specific reasons. Paul clearly didn’t expect his letters to become Scripture. But God chose them, with their unique historical moments, to deliver divine Word to us.
So what are your thoughts on reading Scripture? Do you see a sense of reading that isn’t covered here? (Other than entertainment, Sarah) Do you have a regular bible study plan? What helps you to better understand Scripture? Leave a question or comment or send me an email and let me know!