Every Christian reads the bible, but not every Christian reads it well. The bible can be a complex book at times. Few take the time or give the bible the attention it deserves. Here then are ten tips to help you navigate what is, in my opinion, the most read, yet least understood book on the planet.
#1 Hold Truth in Tension
The bible is written in a paradox. Not because it is purposefully trying to confuse the reader, but because of the object of it’s witness. The bible itself does not contain truth, it gives witness to The Truth, the Word of God, Jesus Christ. It therefore gives witness to a reality, a person, Who is far beyond our comprehension. The bible therefore speaks in paradox because it keeps at its center the fact that God is not a stagnant being or a book we read. God is living and active, and therefore, God is free and unbound by our concepts.
Therefore, the bible, in giving witness to the eternal God, is a paradoxical book because it seeks to grasp at the diversity in the heart of God. God is free, and in His freedom He is not understood so simply as to be made into a list of attributes or actions. The bible is a book of tension. There are two sides to truth in the scriptures, don’t be quick to drop one side of that tension in favor of the other. Hold truth in tension. 1
#2 Keep Christ Central
The bible, in and of itself, is useless if it does not lead you to Jesus. The person of Christ should be therefore central to all of the scriptures. Whenever you read the bible, read it with Jesus at the forefront of your mind. For example, you cannot read the Old Testament without keeping the proper context. The context is always Jesus. He is the ultimate reality that the bible gives witness to. He is at the center of the bible. Keep Christ central every time you read the bible. Don’t read the bible behind the back of Jesus, trying to discover truth that is somehow “higher” then the person of Christ. Read the bible in a strictly Christocentric way. Jesus is the Word of God, He is what the Father has to say to the human race. The bible is not the Word of God, but it gives witness to the Word. Therefore, read the bible with the presupposition of meeting the Divine Word in human words. 2
#3 Don’t Take it Literally
Reading the bible in English, 2,000 years divorced from culture, language, and history, and thinking that this is an effective way to understand the bible, is just plain ridiculous. Don’t take the bible so literally. There are many factors to consider before you make any judgements about what the bible is trying to say. Don’t forget the fact that when you read the bible in english, you are reading it far removed from the culture or the original audience. The bible isn’t originally written to you. Paul never wrote his letters with the intention of the church reading it for 2,000 years. Many of the books in the bible can’t be taken so literally simply because they are not written for us today. They are still true, and they still have value in teaching us about the culture and society of Israel and the coming of Christ. But to read the bible now, 2,000 years later, and to take it literally is a bad idea.
A sad example of where this can go wrong is in the countless stories of those who have used the bible, taking it literally, to kill, promote slavery, and discriminate against others. The bible in the hands of a literalist is a dangerous book that promotes sexism, slavery, and the murder of Homosexuals. 3 It’s important not to take the bible literally, but to take time to understand the culture, language, and history of the bible before you make any judgements.
#4 Study Historical Context
What happened in 70 Ad? What took place in Israel’s history between 607-586 BC? Studying the history that stands behind the scriptures is crucially important in understanding the bible itself. Without knowing the history behind the bible, it would be like trying to read a letter written from President Franklin D. Roosevelt to Adolf Hitler without knowing what took place during World War II. Knowing what is taking place in the history of Israel gives insight into the Prophetic books, the Psalms, and the Old Testament Literature. The same is true for the New Testament writings. Without knowing the widespread persecution, the coming destruction of the temple, and other events in the early church you may easily misunderstand the writings of Paul. Understanding history is important to understanding this historical document we call the bible. The bible is firmly rooted in history, and it would be an error to remove it from that history.
#5 Read Multiple Translations
Reading many different translations has been helpful for me personal. It helps me in two ways. First, to find more enjoyment out of my bible reading. It makes it interesting to read many different translations, comparing the translations in order to dive deeper into the texts. Bible reading gets stagnant and boring if you read only one translation for years. Expanding your translation library can bring new life to your reading. Second, owning multiple translations gives me the ability to see many different perspectives on the text. If it’s either a paraphrase, a literal translation, or a thought for thought translation, there are many schools of thought in how to read the bible. Therefore, each translation offers a unique perspective on the bible. Comparing multiple translations is useful in grasping the bible better. 4
#6 Listen to Theology
C.S. Lewis writes that “if you do not listen to theology, that will not mean that you have no ideas about God. It will mean that you have a lot of wrong ones—bad, muddled, out-of-date ideas.” 5 Theology is a form a repentance because Theology means changing your mind and changing the ways you think about God. Therefore, theology is essential in our thinking about God. Everyone has a theology, but few take the time to examine or refresh their theology. It’s important to be continuously learning and growing in God, and one of the best ways to do that is by listening to great theology. Some of my favorite theologians to listen to are C. Baxter Kruger, Karl Barth, and T.F. Torrance. Theology has a way of refreshing your outlook on the bible, and helping you see things that you may have missed before.
#7 Study Church History
For 2,000 years the church has collectively read, studied, and thought through many of the ideas regarding the scriptures and the God of the scriptures. This conversation is one that we today get to join in. It is freeing to know that Christianity is an ongoing conversation about faith. It means that we don’t have to re-invent the wheel, but that faith is a conversation that has been happening for centuries. We can learn from the church fathers, and the many theologians throughout history. To ignore church history would be to ignore our heritage as believers. We are not alone in this journey, we have saints both today and in the past who have walked beside us in this journey in discovering God. 6 Read old books by the men and women throughout our history who have made a notable impact on Christianity. For example, read the early church fathers like Athanasius, Basil, Hilary, and Augustine. Also read the reformers like Calvin and Luther, or the medieval theologians like Anselm or Bernard of Clairvaux.
#8 Keep Books in Their Place
The bible is a collection of books that fit into certain specific categories. It ranges from poetic books, to historical books, to letters, to apocalypse literature; to Gospel accounts. It is important to keep the books of the bible in their proper context. You wouldn’t read a fiction book like a non-fiction book would you? You wouldn’t read Harry Potter as if Hogwarts were actually a real place, and the stories were true? It’s important to do the same with the books of the bible. Keep the specific genres and intended audiences in their proper place. Don’t read Paul like you read David. David wrote poetic Psalms that expressed emotion, prophecies, and prayers. Paul wrote to explain theology, to encourage the church, and to instruct. You can’t read one like the other. Read the bible in its proper context as a collection of books that fit within certain categories. Take the time to study the audience of each book, and the context in which they are written.
Additionally, read books, not verses. The bible is meant to be grasped as a whole, not as single verses divorced from the rest of the bible. Read whole letters of Paul, not just verses or chapters. Take the bible as a whole, not in part.
#9 Embrace Mystery
Be okay with saying “I don’t know” in the face of difficult texts. Don’t feel like you have to understand everything that is being said. Oftentimes I read passages in the bible that confuse me, I am okay with saying I don’t understand everything. It is far better to say that you don’t know something then to pretend that you do know something. You will make errors any time you try to force an interpretation instead of allowing for mystery. Embrace mystery in the bible and be okay with the unknown. Don’t try to remove mystery for the sake of understanding. You will often end us with cheap answers, or bad theology.
# 10 Don’t Be Dogmatic, Be Fluid
Don’t be stuck in a system that does not allow for questioning and searching for truth. Don’t give into dogma that denies the movement of progress in theology. Don’t get stuck into a system to claims to be perfect, and rejects anyone who disagrees with it without having a conversation with them. Nothing is above questioning. The truth remains truth in the face of all questioning, and in fact is strengthened when challenged. So if it is really true, your questions will not harm it. Don’t be dogmatic, or feel satisfied with cheap answers to hard questions. Always learn, always grow, always progress deeper into the endless depths of God’s truth.
Reading the bible can be a joy as much as it can be a frustration. It’s both difficult and worthwhile to take the time to explore the bible and read it well. I hope these brief tips can help you find new life in the bible, and new joy in your journey with God.
Any tips you would add? Let me know in a comment below!
Like this article? Help me expand my reach by sharing:
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- Here’s an example. ↩
- A favorite quote of mine from Jurgen Moltman: “I read the bible with a presupposition to meet the Divine Word in human words.” ↩
- See this article on Biblcalism ↩
- Here are a few translations I recommend ↩
- Mere Christianity ↩
- I’ve written some along these lines here. ↩