How to be a Better Biblical Scholar/Christian: On Actually Reading the Bible

When was the last time you read through the Bible? I must confess to having never actually read through the Bible, though I have listened to it through on audiobook, once. (Mind you, the earliest faith communities did not read the Bible, they listened to it read aloud.) With that admission, I am obviously not one of those who believes that reading through the entire Bible, particularly reading through it every year, is one of the higher Christian virtues, though I respect those who, like my parents, do it year after year.

Biblical scholars/enthusiasts can get away with not reading their Bibles, rather conveniently, by talking about the Bible and about how to read the Bible. I agree with Charles Halton, however, who in one of our recent discussions suggested that the scholarship of those who talk about the Bible, particularly how to read the Bible, tends to be less persuasive when they don’t actually read it (and this occurs more often than one might think). One can easily extend this observation to the transformation evident in the lives of those who talk about versus those who actually read the Bible.

In this respect, I appreciated the following observations from L. Gregory Jones who, in his essay “Formed and Transformed by Scripture: Character, Community, and Authority in Biblical Interpretation” in Character and Scripture: Moral Formation, Community, and Biblical Interpretation, writes:

American Christians have increasingly lost a familiarity with ruled patterns for reading the Bible, the kind of familiarity that shapes people’s lives and, at its best, enlivens a scriptural imagination. Indeed, this loss is at least in part a consequence of an increasing preoccupation with questions of biblical method and biblical authority. As Christians in modernity have increasingly argued about the appropriate method or methods for biblical study, as well as the perceived status of Scripture’s authority, we have failed to attend adequately to the task of actually reading the texts themselves. . . . Further, our loss of familiarity with Scripture is also a cause of our preoccupation with biblical method and biblical authority. The less familiar we are with the texts of Scripture in all their diversity and complexity, the easier it is for us to remain at a more generalized level of argument about whether Scripture has authority or not — or, more accurately put, what kind of authority diverse people are willing to ascribe to Scripture. (20)

Jones goes on to point out that this preoccupation is “morally convenient.” He cites a United Methodist Bishop, Kenneth Carder, who pointedly writes: “It is much easier to argue about evolution and creation than it is to live as though this is God’s world. Or, debating whether a ‘great fish’ really swallowed Jonah is far less costly and risky than acknowledging that God loves our enemies as much as God loves us.”

Methods of biblical interpretation are fascinating and, for biblical scholars and serious Bible students, a necessary object of study, but they are not (or should not be) an end unto themselves.


16 thoughts on “How to be a Better Biblical Scholar/Christian: On Actually Reading the Bible

    1. I find it odd that you would ask me how I think the Bible should be read in the comment to a post that critiques that very question divorced from actually engaging the Bible. Moreover, the dichotomy you set up–magic book or pragmatic document–is terribly artificial, as if those were my only two choices. I’m not sure what you are getting at, but I’m not biting.

  1. Dear Joe,

    I appreciate the fact that some scholars and serious students seem to be “going back to the Bible.” While many pastors/preachers read more about the text than the text itself, I personally have always found the greatest revelation of Scripture to come from Scripture itself. Of course, I am not naive enough to think each individual who reads the Bible will come away with the same interpretations and conclusions; however, if a person isn’t even bothering to go to the text they can hardly wonder why they don’t seem to get anything out of “Bible study.”

    Reading the Scriptures without making any effort to force or pull out a preset idea is one of my greatest joys. I wished more people involved in ministry felt the same.


  2. As a (good?) Protestant, I must confess to being entirely on board with a return to the biblical text. If something ‘in the faith’ or even in scholarship (an accusation I often level against theologians and, at times, church historians) does not have at least the plausibility of a biblical foundation I’m not too terribly interested. But I must also confess that such a posture is a bit ironic, given that I hold the biblical text in high regard but affirm that inerrancy and inspiration are not part of the complex. And I am always intrigued when I am accused of being a conservative because I advocate such a view. Really, it’s just because I’m Protestant (oh, and a biblical scholar). I just can’t fight it!

  3. When people talk about “going back to the scriptures” what they really mean is “going back to the most recent Protestant canon”…

    No one seems to want to consider any scripture prior to “The Reformers” when they usurped the Pope and rewrote the canon.

  4. Depends on what you mean by “revere.” I don’t understand canonical status to be a prerequisite for ‘reverence’ (whatever you may mean by that).

    I’m also a bit skeptical of what you’re proposing happened during the Protestant Reformation. And, in the interest of full disclosure, my wife is Catholic, so I’d like to think we’ve breached that chasm!

  5. Bill, the advice in the above quote need not presuppose one particular “biblical” canon. If you are protestant, then read the protestant Bible. If you are Catholic, add Enoch and a few others. If you are a Samaritan, cut most of the books out. The point of this post was not to state what belongs to “the Bible,” but what people who profess to some kind of “biblical” canon should be doing with that “Bible.”

  6. Great post, Joseph. I got into the “Jonah” discussion this weekend at our semi-regular coffeehounds meeting. There are those, especially of our church tradition that can’t grasp the concept of myth being used to convey God’s revealing of himself to humanity. It probably didn’t help that one of the persons present thinks our nation will one day become a Muslim caliphate, which seems to be his greatest fear. . .naturally, the “point” of a book like Jonah might be missed!

  7. I’ve (hopefully temporarily) changed my settings so that I must approve all comments. If Bill (WoundedEgo) wants to respond to the substance of the post, I will approve his comments. Otherwise, I’m just going to delete them. My blog, my prerogative.

  8. Thanks for a post that makes me think. I believe Ken Carder’s observation is spot on. Never thought of it that way. He used to pastor a Methodist Church in Oak Ridge, TN a couple of decades ago. I believe I’ve heard him. I’m Church of Christ but I’ve attended there at the invitation of a close friend on several occasions.

    It seems to me that we are not trained to hear text read, whether its the Bible or any other material unless it is very short. And those who read are not trained to read either, that makes it difficult. Most of the time our readers in our service seem to be in hurry and its over by the time I’m tuned in.

    Lastly, I’m not that much of a fan of reading and reading only. We do not read alone by ourselves. We read by the community that raised us. While there is value in that, I think there so much more of value that can only be obtained by the hard work of study and making use of the hard work of scholars.

  9. Joseph – If I am following you right – it is important, as a Christian, let alone a Biblical Scholar/Theologian, Pastor, Bible Teacher, etc… to actually spend time reading the Bible, either alone or with others (both are needed), aloud or silently to oneself (both are needed), and that, through the WHOLE BIBLE, yes?

    If so, yes yes yes! Perhaps not every year, year after year, but often enough to maintain (and improve upon) an overall comprehensive understanding of the Bible and its message of salvation and the God who offers it freely to all.

    As I understand it, one main point of the Scriptures is to make us “wise unto salvation,” and to know God and be known by him, how else can that happen if we don’t actually read the Bible?

    ps, this is why I am a strong advocate of Inductive Bible Study (such as what one sees with Precept Ministries) – it makes people read the Bible over and over and over again.

    I hope I am not missing the point.

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