How do we read the Bible well? Part 4

2.4 Consider your view of the Church

It might surprise you to think that one’s view of the church, or ecclesiology, is an important component in competent Bible reading. Yet when we recall how, in the New Testament, the church is described as “a body” then this begins to lead in the right direction. Specifically, when we accept the notion that the church is a body then we can more easily agree to a couple of key ideas about Bible reading.

First, each member of the body is not identical: key differences between Christians allow the church to function optimally. As such, Christians need not simply recognize their limitations (regarding the many difficult aspects of reading the Bible well) but also can benefit from the gifts and talents of other Christians. In other words, it is not simply that resources are available within the Christian body but, more positively stated, Christians believe that God has equipped the church with the resources needed for success.

Second, and similar to the first point, we are able to rely on fellow members of the body in carrying out our various tasks, including Bible reading. In this way Christians can rely on biblical scholars (in the sense of not having to “re-invent the wheel” and do all of the work that they have done). Relying on scholars does not mean accepting their views or conclusions uncritically, but gladly engaging with the hard work that has already been done in order best to read the Bible as effectively as possible.

As an aside, a key implication of this sort of “critical engagement” with biblical scholars is that Christian communities, if not individual Christians, need to develop the insights required to adjudicate between experts. Sound daunting? Thankfully these insights can be developed as we engage more fully with the considerations explained in this document. More specifics on this later.

2.5 Consider the Bible

So why not start with the Bible? I hope that the preceding points have illustrated why we need to start with ourselves and our views: in order that we will be able to read the Bible better, and understand it more correctly, as per our goal!

Also, in addition to our external or physical resources there are internal, mental resources that are important. Notably, there are certain dispositions that will foster better results and others that can lead to worse results. To have a clearer understanding of these dispositions think of the Bible as a person—how do you aim to treat others? As Christians we typically seek to “love others as ourselves”: what would it mean to treat the Bible as a person?

If the Bible were a person we would want to treat him or her compassionately. We would want to approach him or her with honesty and with a listening attitude, yet also by balancing openness with a critical perspective. We would also want to value the relationship enough to engage any “differences of opinion” or points of confusion with further effort on our part to undertand (through research and investigation). Further, just like a commitment to a long-term relationship, we would want to view Bible reading not as an activity but as a lifestyle, something that is simply “part of who we are.”

These are but a few examples of the dispositions required for competent Bible reading.

2.5.1 Consider your “Bible-related” resources

Where interpretation is unavoidable resources are essential. So what resources do you think can help you interpret the Bible better?

I want to suggest a few types of resources, typically books though sometimes videos, that I and others have found helpful in this regard. I will start with the most general and move to the most specific:

1a) Introductory Guides are the most general and often both introduce the subject matter and address common concerns or confusions. Stephen Barton’s Invitation to the Bible is very helpful.

1b) Reading Guides, such how to read the Bible or New Testament are more technique-oriented, focusing on reading awareness and skills. Such books as Gordon Fee’s How to Read the Bible for All it’s Worth or Rece and Beardslee’s Reading the Bible: A Guide are helpful.

2) Exegesis Handbooks are similar but somewhat more specific than reading Guides, and are also helpful. See Douglas Stuart’s Old Testament Exegesis as an example.  See here for an explanation of “exegesis.”

3) Biblical Introductions, such as introductions to the Old or New Testament, offer specific information about the literary and theology of their subjects. Paul Achtemeier’s Introducing the New Testament: Its Literature and Theology is quite good.

4) Commentaries focus on a specific biblical book or part of a biblical book. Commentaries come in a wide range, from general and accessible to detailed and scholarly. For the budget minded the Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Revised Edition contains abridged commentary by a variety of major scholars and covers the entire New Testament in a 13 volume set.

5) Scholarly Articles are the most specific information generally available. Articles on biblical texts can cover anything from an entire section of 10-15 verses down to a part of a single verse. In most cases scholarly articles are dense and will require 2-3 readings to be understood. Also, these articles can be tougher to source: you will likely need accesses to the ATLA (American Theological Libraries Association) database at a local theological library, where you can search by verse, by author, or by topic.

Overall, I suggest the Christians focus on categories 1a, 1b, 3 and 4. Or, for category 4, you could ensure that your church has a full set of commentaries that balance accessibility and detail. See here for a detailed explanation / buyer’s guide of the various types of commentaries.

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