17th Century Advice on How to Read the Bible Well (Not as a Consumer)
As Christians we know how important it is for us to grow in our understanding of God's word. The Bible itself tells us repeatedly how important it is for us to be a people shaped by the Word of God. As we recently saw in 1 Peter, the apostle commands us to "long" for the word as infants long for milk. That is a striking image and makes a powerful point of how necessary the Bible is for our growth as Christians.
That being said, the topic of this post is to give some advice on HOW to read your bible. Sometimes we have so much emphasis (and rightly so) on reading the Scripture, that we don't think about how it is to be read so that it is most profitable for us. And certainly, how we read it matters. The Bible is not a magic book such that simply opening it and skimming our eyes over the words imparts spiritual benefit. We must read it well if we would benefit. But how do we do that? Fortunately, we are not the first generation of Christians to wrestle with this question, so let me draw your attention to some ancient advice from our larger catechism.
WLC Q 157 ”How is the Word of God to be read?"
Answer: "The Holy Scriptures are to be read with an high and reverent esteem of them; with a firm persuasion that they are the very Word of God, and that he only can enable us to understand them; with desire to know, believe, and obey the will of God revealed in them; with diligence, and attention to the matter and scope of them; with meditation, application, self-denial, and prayer."
Let me suggest 4 principals for reading our Bibles well that flow out of this direction from the catechism as it applies to our very hectic and buys lives today.
- Preparation is important for reading the bible
If we are not getting much out of our reading, it may be that are preparation is inadequate. The Bible is not just any book, it is the very Word of God which speaks to us today. Taking time, as the catechism encourages us, to prayerfully ask God to open up his word for us, to be attentive to his voice, and to calm and quiet our busy minds so that we can focus on what he says, is important.
- Read the bible with full attention
We live in a distracted age, and as many writers (both Christian and non-Christian) have observed, the internet has taught us to scroll and skim as quickly as possible and made it more difficult for us to do deep reading of any text. We are much better at scanning and skimming, trying to pick out pertinent information in as little time as possible. Reading with full concentration and attention is difficult for us. When we come to the word of God, however, this is exactly what we must try to cultivate. Distracted, skimming reading, will not be of great benefit to us. We must read, as the catechism reminds us, with "diligence." I recently heard a Christian leader comment on how the I-phone alone has decimated the spiritual disciplines for many Christians. Even when they read, they are checking their phones, their thoughts distracted by always being connected. Put the I-phone away!
- Read the Bible Exhaustively
All of the Bible is God's word to us, and profitable for our instruction and growth in godliness (2 Tim 3:15-16). Therefore, it should be our desire to read and understand the full "matter and scope of them." That is, we should want to know the scriptures from cover to cover, exhaustively. While daily devotionals that pick out a verse or two can be a great help, it is important for Christians to read the entire Bible, books at a time, so that we can understand the overall story line of the Bible and how each book fits into God's one plan of redemption. This takes discipline on our part, as each of us naturally are much more prone to only read the parts of the Bible we find easier to understand or "inspiring," but in doing so we miss much of what God has to say to us.
Many years ago in his book Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer made this same observation, stating his concern that for many believers "the Scripture reading consists only of a few, brief selected verses, which are to form the guiding thought of the day." While he acknowledges that these kind of devotionals can be "a real blessing to all who have ever used them," yet he goes on to say that "there can be equally little doubt that brief verses cannot and should not take the place of reading the Scripture as a whole. The verse for the day is still not the Holy Scripture...Holy Scripture is more than a watchword...It is Gods revealed word for all men, for all times. Holy Scripture does not consist of individual passages; it is a unit and is intended to be used as such."
- Read the Bible to Listen to God's Voice
We have to remember every time we come to the Scripture that it is, as the catechism says we come to "the very word of God." That means that we are not merely reading words on a page, but hearing the voice of God speaking to us. In other words, the goal of reading the Bible is to be passionate hearers of God's word. We should not read the Bible impersonally, just to gather information as we might read any other book. We read the Bible as one in relationship with God who is speaking to us through his Word. Sometimes in an effort to read as much as possible as quickly as possible, we find ourselves in the position of having read the scripture but not really listened to the scripture. We came to the Scripture in the posture of a consumer, not of a listener. We must read the Bible not only to gain more head knowledge (although that is important), but because in the Scripture we hear the voice of our Savior and “taste and see that he is good” (1 Peter 2:1-3).