Welcome to part four of The Bible and How to Read It series. In part one, we discussed what the Bible is. In part two, we examined how to read it. In part three, we explored how to understand it. Here, we’ll consider how to study it.
A key feature of ancient Jewish literature is that it lacks the details modern readers come to expect. For example, the Biblical authors withhold physical descriptions of most of the people they write about. They only give them when those physical characteristics play a role in the story. In a seemingly odd-placed passage in 2 Samuel 14, Absalom, David’s son, is described as more handsome than anyone in Israel with hair so thick it weighed five pounds when he cut it at the end of every year. Only four chapters later we see why the author gives us this detail about his hair. At one point after trying to usurp his father’s kingship, he rides away from his father’s men and is caught up in the thick branches of a tree by his thick hair where one of David’s men kills him.
The lack of particular details means that the ones we do have and how they are arranged carry more weight. The authors chose and organized them the way they did to help us understand the bigger truths they are trying to communicate beyond simple historical facts. It also produces a dense way of writing that creates ambiguity for the reader. The authors use this ambiguity to fill the text with double meanings that invite us to pause and ponder all of what’s being said.
We are neither expected to make all these connections on a single reading nor notice or understand them on our own. Personal Bible reading is good and important. We are also not called to study the Bible cloistered in our rooms. Reading, understanding, and studying Scripture is a life-long process of contemplation in conversation with others.
We are first called to study the Bible in conversation with itself. The principle is often summarized as Scripture interprets Scripture. We use the easy-to-understand parts of the Bible to help us understand the more difficult parts.
However, the principle goes beyond that. The Old Testament writers used ambiguities and double meanings to create themes and patterns throughout the entire Old Testament. Genesis 2 sets one such theme with the tree of life from the Garden of Eden. From then on, we see trees play a life and death role both literally and metaphorically. This pattern is so persistent I cannot fit it all here. But to get an idea see Gen. 2:8-9; 6:14; Ex. 15:25; Num. 21:4; Deut. 21:22-23; Ps. 1:1-3; Prov. 3:18; 11:30; 13:20; 15:4; Ezek. 47:12; John 3:14-15; Acts 5:30; 10:39; 13:29; Gal. 3:13; 1 Peter 2:24; Rev. 2:7; 22:2, 14.
The apostolical authors of the New Testament carried these themes and patterns through in their writing, both building and expounding upon them. But they had a key that unlocked them: Christ. Jesus, twice in Luke 24, explains to his disciples that the entire Old Testament points to his life, suffering, death, and resurrection on behalf of the world.
This Christ key has also been given to us. In this way, we not only read the Bible in conversation with itself, but also with the God whose word it is. It is his word of law, broken by us, that shows us our need for rescue. It is his word of promise, made and fulfilled by his Son, to us. In other words, it is his word of and about Christ. And his word has the power to create and sustain faith in us because his Spirit is the one who, through it, preaches Christ crucified for our sins to us (John 16:13-15).
And as God used human authors to record his words and action in history, he also uses humans to preach and teach his word. In addition to being called to read the Bible in conversation with itself and with God we are called to read the Bible within a community. We read it and talk about it at home with parents, siblings, and children. We read it and talk about it with friends. We read and talk about it with pastors and other trusted teachers of the church. This is one way to safeguard against error and misreading.
Another way to avoid misunderstanding God’s word is to study it with those who have gone before us. Those theologians whose thoughts and teachings have come down to us. Read the teachings of church fathers like Athanasius, and Augustine. Seek out medieval theologians like Thomas Aquinas and John Duns Scotus. Read the reformers like Luther, Melanchthon, Cranmer, and Calvin. And read those more recent theologians who have gone before us like C.S. Lewis, Robert Farrar Capon, Gehard Forde, and Norman Nagel. We also need not look far to find these sinner/saints who have gone before us. We can look to our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents.
The list of theologians who have passed into the church triumphant is endless. It is impossible to read them all. But these are the foundations on which today’s theologians and theological writers stand. When they are ignored it is most often to our detriment.
In the same vein of studying with those who have gone before, we can study Scripture with the Creeds. We can ask, does what I think the Bible is teaching in this passage line up with what the creeds confess about God and who he is?
We do not need to study the Bible alone, nor should we. Through faith given by the power of the Holy Spirit and in community with other believers past and present, we can know what God’s Words of promise are and what they mean for us—that Christ’s incarnation was promised and fulfilled. That Christ has died; that Christ has risen; that Christ will come again.