Shaped By Scripture: Two Different Ways of Reading the Bible

One of the most important jobs of a pastor is to share tools that will help those who want to follow Jesus grow deeper in faith and love. One thing I realized after six years of ministry is that I was asking people to read the Bible in different ways without explaining exactly what this might look like. This short article is intended to address one aspect of the frequently asked question, “How do I read the Bible?” There are two different ways of reading scripture, and both are important.

THE FIRST WAY of reading scripture is in-depth Bible Study. This way of reading seeks to understand the Bible in its original historical and cultural context. It asks questions like: Who is the author of this book? Who was the intended audience? When was it written, and what was going on culturally, politically, and socially? What is the genre of this passage of scripture, and what was the purpose of the writing? What does this word or phrase mean in Greek or Hebrew?

This way of reading scripture is an attempt to love God with our mind (to be good stewards of the gift of reason) and to draw inspiration and insight from the people of God who came before us. However, since these kinds of questions are difficult to answer without academic training in biblical studies and ancient languages, the average lay person is largely dependent on the scholarly work of others. Since this is the case, it is extremely important to get the best resources available so we can access the most accurate information.

The single best resource you can purchase to help answer these difficult questions is a good study Bible. There are some important things to consider when making your selection. First, you need to get a good translation. I recommend either the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) or the New International Version (NIV). Second, make sure that the study Bible has introductions, notes, commentaries, and other helps that are informed by the most current scholarship in biblical studies. You do not want to get a Bible that uncritically parrots tradition and ignores the last fifty years of scholarly research. Third, remember that explanatory notes will usually be denominationally biased. For example, the commentary in a Catholic study Bible will differ in significant ways from a Wesleyan study Bible. You should take this into consideration when making your selection. Although there are many good Bibles to choose from, my personal recommendation for mainline Protestants is The New Interpreters Study Bible (Nashville: Abingdon 2003). The Bible that you chose for study is very important because not all “Study Bibles” are equal, and if you purchase one that ignores contemporary scholarship then your learning will be fraught with misinformation. As you get more serious about Bible study and run into more difficult passages, you might want to secure a scholarly commentary or word study. Since commentaries are usually single author writings, it is important to select one that is written by a genuine expert in the text you are reading. If your pastor been trained at a reputable seminary or divinity school then s/he can help you find a solid resource.

As a Pastor, I think that this kind of in-depth Bible study should be done at least once a week, and it is usually best done in a group setting led by a competent and well-informed teacher.

THE SECOND WAY we read scripture is devotionally and meditatively. Instead of focusing on what the Bible meant in its historical-cultural context, you are reading the Bible to listen for God’s message directly to you! Instead of taking the words apart for detailed analysis, you are bringing them together in your innermost being, letting them penetrate into the most hidden corners of your heart. Prayerfully reading scripture will allow you to hear the still small voice of God so that you can discern God’s next steps for your life. This might come as a word of inspiration, healing, and comfort, or a word of conviction, correction, or judgment. It all depends on where you are and what you need to heal and grow.

In my experience, the best way to read scripture devotionally is the ancient practice of Lectio Divina. Below is a guide on how to do this, which I learned from the monks at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit (Conyers, GA).

  1. Lectio: Carefully select a book of the Bible (e.g. Psalms, one of the Gospels, one of the Epistles). Read very slowly (like a cow chewing cud). You are not reading for information but formation. You are listening for God to speak to you through the words of the Bible, and you have to read slowly and with focus and expectation so as not to miss the “still small voice” (1 Kings 19:11-13). So, read very slowly until a word, image, or verse speaks to your heart and then stop immediately. Close your eyes and focusing on this word, image, or verse, say it over and over again slowly to memorize it in your heart. This is God speaking to you. The next day, you will pick up exactly where you left off in the Bible reading. It might take several weeks and even months to read one book of the Bible in this way. But it is more important to hear God’s voice than to finish a chapter, section, or even sentence.
  2. Meditatio: Ponder this in your heart. Ask, “Why did God speak to my heart through this word, image or verse?” Think about and reflect on it in personal and concrete ways. This will show you where you need insight, encouragement, correction, or change. It is sometimes helpful to journal these thoughts.
  3. Oratio: Enter into conversational prayer with God from the heart. Be honest about how you feel. Make a decision about how you will respond in concrete ways to be obedient. This conversational prayer leads to application in your daily life.
  4. Contemplatio: Close your eyes and clear your mind. Try to simply be with God in stillness and silence—without words, thoughts, or images. This will be very difficult if meditation has not been a regular part of your devotional life. Most will struggle with what contemplatives call “monkey mind,” the experience of restlessness and a barrage of unwanted thoughts. But continue to relax into God’s presence and after recognizing the thoughts, gently let them go. (I will be publishing on article on meditation in the near future that will be helpful for the beginner.) The main idea is to simply be in God’s presence without any agenda, knowing that God wants to spend time with you.

Whereas I recommend doing in-depth study at least once a week, daily devotional reading is most beneficial.

So if you want to grow as a disciple of Jesus, remember that both of these ways of reading scripture is important. Be intentional about setting aside some time in your busy schedule to be shaped by scripture.

(©2015 This article may not be reproduced without written permission from the author.)