Why Read Scripture?
It is said that you study the Bible to know God. But the truth is, you won't fully know God. Think of another mystery about knowing someone else: about how you never really, fully get to know your friends, your children, or your spouse. There's always the unexpected, the surprise, the seemingly out-of-character action, something new, or something that's been there all along but you didn't notice it or it hadn't come up before. A complete knowledge of anyone (including yourself) is a mystery that's out of human reach. Yet, you do in a sense, know them: you develop an understanding in which you have more than enough trust to go by as you relate to them. The same is true of knowing God -- only, God is so complex it boggles the mind. God does not remove the mystery, but through Scripture you can develop this same kind of understanding, solidarity, and trust. It's not just a 'basic' knowledge, either; you can understand God and divine purposes with awesome depth. You can learn enough to grasp who God is, what God's about, how a life of following Jesus can be lived out, and where it's headed. Enough to catch the virus of God's good news and have it lodge itself in every cell. The Bible is there because God wants you to know. Not a full comprehension of the relationship, but an apprehension of it that's more than enough for it to be not only God's way, but yours too. Through the Bible, far more than anywhere else, the Spirit reveals what God is up to so you can recognize when it's happening around you and within you. You can move forward from there.
What the Scriptures Are Not
There are lots of ways the Scriptures have been brought into our lives. Some of those are popular, but have little or nothing to do with its purpose.
- The Scriptures were not written, gathered, and kept over the years just to be a bin for holding grand truths and stories with morals that have good effects. (What happens from it is ultimately our responsibility - and it may not always be something good.)
- The Bible was written by people, for people, and not handed down perfect from on high. The Holy Spirit inspired the people who wrote, the people who handed it down through the years, and the people who read it today (like you), in many different ways.
- The Scriptures are indeed for you, but not just you. It is for you as part of a believing community, and you as part of a world in which this community has a mission from Christ.
- Though anyone can be led by the Spirit to find in it answers to many great mysteries, and even find from it the right questions to ask, it's not a question book or an answer book, and only for brief moments does it use question-and-answer methods.
- The Scriptures are not a moot court for hypothetical cases. It doesn't put a question out there to see what the thinkers of the day see in it, as is often true with the Talmud.
- The Bible's not firstly a book about mysteries or wisdom or morality or dogma; at its heart, it isn't even a book about religion.
- It's not enough to study Scripture well, or to be able to remember a scriptural section or verse at any given moment, or to have supposed mastery of scriptural subjects or of the text. You have to enter into a dialogue -- a kind of wrestling match -- for the Spirit to do its intended work through the Bible.
The Scriptures Are a Library
The Bible is not a single book. It is a library of books, all written by different authors at different times, all written under the influence of the Holy Spirit with one purpose in mind. You might develop strength of character from its examples, pattern your life according to the moral values in it, and even impact the world with something it taught you. That's worked for over a billion people over the years. But that's not why it's there. The Testaments written with a very different purpose in mind: the Spirit uses it to reveal the purpose, vision, and love of God, and to start, shape, and deepen faith in Christ. The Spirit made it to show how Christ recreated our relationship with God. When you read it without faith, you miss the whole point of having it. The Scriptures are great because of the Great One who stands behind it and that Great One's love for us, a love that came to us, suffered death, and overcame even death so that we might also overcome it. The medium (of print or speech or Web) is not the message; the God who Reveals is the message, and the medium is the messenger. Even more, the message is that of a love letter, rather than a rap sheet or a facts list. And like with a love letter, it's less how it's said than Who says it and why.
Another viewpoint is found in the Evangelical Covenant Church's Resource Paper on how they read Scripture.
The Bible is Literature
The Bible is a set of written documents, a library about God's core works among people. (That's why we call it "Scripture", and say "It is written...".) That means it works by way of literary forms such as poetry, story, commentary, and testimony, grammar and format, just like this article does. It covers incidents in history, and thus it is a part of the history of its time as also learned from archaeology and from other writings. If you try to understand Scripture without paying attention to this truth, almost immediately your understanding will go off-track. You'll think something is telling you fact when it's poetry, or history when it's allegory or parable. This mistake diverts you from what is actually being said.
There's a current school of thought called 'the narrative method' which comes in here. I'll simplify it too much here: the 'context' for everything in this Holy Testimony is its overall story line or 'meta-narrative'. All parts of the story find their meaning within the course of the overall story. The method isn't without its problems. The story is much greater than the sum of its parts, but you can't really know the story without grasping its parts, especially when the story develops from real life. Each passage, even each word, must have its full due and not be dismissed, even the most disgusting parts, even when it seems to go against the narrative. That said, the 'narrative' methods focus on what's most important about the Bible. The rest of it may be good to know, helpful, and even God's blessing for you, but it is the overall story line that gives us the 'why' for each passage's being there.
Have A Thirst to Learn
To learn of God requires that you thirst to find out. It's the same thirst you have for learning your lover, or the field of work you most want to do. Knowing plenty isn't good enough; there's always more, better, more robust and full. Keep reading, keep listening to others when they communicate about what Scripture says. One teacher will speak of its beauty, another of its plan or path, yet another about its ugly parts and its puzzles, and still another of its usefulness. Maybe one Bible verse will teach Scripture's gospel heart, while another will overturn the tables on your misunderstandings or how you're being cowardly in applying it. Maybe someone will puncture your excess zeal, or show how you put off doing what God is calling you to do, or thank you for doing it right. But you have to thirst. You don't have to spend 24/7 on it -- that would seriously get in the way of why you're thirsting. Some people just read a section of scripture of the day from a pre-set plan. But be intentional - be eager to learn. And be disciplined - many folks have taken on the discipline of daily scripture readings, not as a law, but as a good habit. Remember that 'consensus' is a somewhat-informed, commonly-held opinion that's begging to be challenged. Question, challenge, wrestle, and sometimes even insistently reject what you hear. Doubt your knowledge, your assumptions, your doubts themselves, and don't believe everything that you think. Trust instead that the Spirit is at work, and it is this same Spirit that communicates through the Scriptures beyond and above anything else. God wants you to know. The One you thirst to know is the One who loves you so much that you have been made a part of the homecoming party. What's not to love about that?
"Faith is the master, and reason the maid-servant."
----- Martin Luther
"The Bible’s way of talking about the Bible is "Word" and a word is spoken by a Person, who is engaged in a covenant relationship of love, and the proper response to the Word from God is to listen because, as covenant people, we want to know what God says and do what he wants."
----- Scot McKnight
"Consider that the first time someone spoke of God in the third person and therefore no longer with God but about God was that very moment when the question resounded, 'Did God really say?' (Genesis 3:1). This fact ought to make us think."
----- Helmut Thielicke
"The Bible is not a book of science. The Bible is a book of Redemption."
----- Billy Graham
"Through this experience I found that the Bible was not adequate. I needed God in a personal way -- not as an object of my study, but as friend, guide, comforter. I needed an existential experience of the Holy One. Quite frankly, I found that the Bible was not the answer. I found the Scriptures to be helpful -- even authoritatively helpful -- as a guide. But without my feeling God, the Bible gave me little solace.
In the midst of this 'summer from hell', I began to examine what had become of my faith. I found a longing to get closer to God, but found myself unable to do so through my normal means: exegesis, Scripture reading, more exegesis. I believe that I had depersonalized God so much that when I really needed him I didn't know how to relate."
----- Daniel Wallace, about what happened during his son's bout with rare cancer. In *Christianity Today*, 12 Sept 1994.
- Look at the list of words that are used for describing the Holy Writ. Which one(s) mean the most to you? Why? Which one do you have the hardest time accepting? Why?
- What one thing most puzzles you about the Bible? Or about how other folks you know approach it?
For those whose churches/cells/small groups have had to scripturally re-examine its actions or stance on a specific matter:
- How did you turn to the Word of God in this process? What else did you use?
- What most helped you understand what was happening in the real-life stories of your own experiences and those of other people?
- Were you able to form consensus?
- At what point did you discover that change was needed and actions must be taken?
- In what ways was Scripture helpful? Useful? Was there a way it might have held you back in any way from fixing the situation? How?
Have you dared do these with the Holy Writ?
- Write down what you experience when reading or hearing Scripture. (I don't mean what you're 'supposed to' experience. What do you experience?)
- Choose a book of the Bible you've never read before, and read it aloud at the loudness and speed you would use in ordinary speech. Read it all the way through, even the technical parts. This can be done a chapter or two a day, which gives you more time to think about it.
- Or, choose a poetic passage, such as in the Psalms, Song of Songs, or Lamentations. Read it aloud, slowly, giving yourself time to savor it and let it sink in.
- Think of Scriptural ideas, symbol, or passages that have affected your life through non-Christian or general-public sources or people. (They're all over the place, but you may have to think a bit to find them.)
- Name one thing you have learned from the Scriptures.
- When you're studying the Gospel, try memorizing some of the key summary lines Jesus says, or have daily scriptures of encouragement, or some of the promises Jesus makes to His followers.
- If you're reading it in a church study group, try asking yourselves the question: What does Scripture say about our part in the mission of Christ's followers, acting together as his Body?
Next page: How Can the Scriptures Teach Me?