How do we read the Bible well? Part 2

2.1 Starting with yourself

I believe that to become competent Bible readers we must “start with ourselves,” for various reasons. First, one’s theology (or simply, ‘theories about God’) significantly effect how one views the process of reading and the nature of the Bible as a text. Second, one’s philosophy effects one’s expectations about the results of reading. Third, one’s practical understandings also condition one’s agenda and hopes when it comes to Bible readings. As all of these are important I will take a moment to explain each.

Before doing so, I want to underscore that theological, philosophical, and practical concerns exist for every reader, whether s/he is aware of them or not. As such, perhaps the greatest obstacle that can arise for Bible readers is to remain unaware of these concerns, such that they function as powerful but invisible assumptions, assumptions that have the power to determine ‘how’ and ‘why’ we read and what we take to be the meaning and implications of what we read.

Let’s begin with some theological views that can make Bible reading, ironically, very difficult.

2.2 Consider your theology

Unless we consider our theories about God—our theologies—we will continue to read the Bible as we always have. And if we “do what we’ve always done, we’ll get what we’ve always gotten.”

Example 1

Here’s an example: some folks believe that the Holy Spirit gives or communicates the Bible’s correct meaning to Christians. In this case a Christian need do nothing more to understand the Bible correctly: s/he already has the right understanding of any passage! Now so long as those who hold this view are clear and unconfused about the Bible’s meaning then it seems logical that they have nothing new to learner, and so they should expect to “get what they always got” when reading the Bible.

Difficulties arises, of course, when another Christian who is equally endowed with the Holy Spirit comes up with a different meaning for the same passage. What do we do? Clearly we need to re-think this view, and even to reconsider it’s nature as being theological. Specifically, aside from the impossibility of substantiating this view (either biblically or practically) this view is not actually a “theology” but is instead a way of “starting with ourselves”: elevating our personal intuitions to the rank of judge and excluding other standards of judgment on the basis of a (false) theological claim.

We address this issue—and others like it—by becoming aware of ourselves, both generally and specifically. Generally, we need to develop an awareness of the motivations that prompt human beings to hold certain beliefs, and particularly to become aware of what is called “false consciousness,” by which people claim to hold a belief for one reason while actually holding it for a very different reason.

For example, false consciousnesses is at play when Christians claim to believe something about God yet they support this truth claim with Bible readings that are extremely questionable or even widely rejected by those who know the Bible well. So what’s going on? Well, seen from the perspective of false consciousnesses the person claims to believe because of the truthfulness of the view but, where this truthfulness is very unlikely (or even impossible) then its clear that the person really holds the belief for another reason, not its truth.

Through the skilled use of suspicion, which could be defined as a “wary awareness of the human propensity for self-deceit” (where self-deceit results in my willingness to embrace false consciousnesses as a means of achieving illicit goals or achieving valid goals for the wrong reasons) we can dig under or behind the stated claims and decipher more truthful motivations.

In this case, some possible motivations are: confusion, fear, or utility, to name a few.

-Confusion. It is confusing to have to work out the Bible’s meaning for oneself, and to ease my anxiety about facing this confusion I believe that the Holy Spirit communicates biblical meaning (and legitimate my belief with the self-deceptive claim that I believe it because it is true).

-Fear. Even worse, where one must work out the Bible’s meaning for oneself there is the risk that one cannot determine what the Bible means with certainty, and so one’s relationship with God (and entire belief system) could be threatened. Here again, I legitimate my belief with the self-deceptive claim that I believe it because it is true.

-Utility. In addition to being confusing and frightening it is a lot of work to try to develop Bible reading competencies, and just “living life” takes so much time. So my belief that the Holy Spirit communicates biblical meaning is useful in that it allows me to spend time on more important or imminent matters.


A second example is the issue of what kind of text the Bible is: a unique text or a typical text, like any other? Those who would see it as unique, or special, typically emphasize the role that God has played in creating (or even authoring) the Bible. Yet those who exclude—or marginalize—the Bible’s typical, textual aspects in favour of its special, divine aspects often underplay the literary, linguistic, and even historical considerations that contribute to the Bible’s meaning. The result is that we overplay God’s part and underplay our own.

Those who would see it as a text “like any other” would emphasize the text’s nature and aspects as text. In other words, the fact that the Bible’s books contains genres, that they display such literary features as metaphor, rhetoric, etc. Yet those who exclude the Bible’s very claims to be inspired and to offer specific and important truths about God often overplay the textual considerations and underplay the personal ones, such as the generosity, patience, and tolerance necessary to treat the Bible respectfully even when biblical claims seem confusing, unbelievable, or distasteful.

Instead, when we see that the Bible is both special and typical we are be cognizant of fostering (and bringing) the full range of skills and dispositions to bear when Bible reading, and thereby to develop more correct understandings, as is our goal.

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