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Tuesday, November 30, 2004

How to read the Bible

Recently, I posted a meditation on a passage of Scripture in Exodus chapter 3. I used an often, but easily, overlooked instruction that God gave to Moses to remove his sandals, as a springboard to finding out both what the instruction might mean or perhaps, what it entails, or implies, and also, more importantly, to describe the implications of an encounter with God.

A commenter suggests that what I wrote, while in principle is true, and is taught in other scriptures, was not explicitly taught in the text from which I was quoting. This is no just any ordinary commenter, but Jeremy Pierce, aka Parableman, a well-loved blogger described by The Bible Archive, as a blogger who “offers philosophical thought-flow balanced with strong convictions making something which is often completely engrossing. I may not agree with all of his positions but this dear Brother can deftly argue from philosophy and Scripture.” Like the author of TBA, I do not agree with everything Jeremy says, but I respect him as someone who thinks deeply and carefully about these things.

So, that started a series of comments back and forth between Jeremy and myself, and also started me thinking about the legitimacy of much of our meditation upon scriptural texts and about the legitimacy some kinds of devotional Scriptural reading. Jeremy pointed out that the principles that my extrapolating from an often overlooked instruction from God to Moses to remove his sandals contains a biblical principle taught elsewhere in Scriptures but not necessarily taught by the text under consideration.

While I believe that the point I made in my meditative post did not contradict the principle Jeremy highlighted, I believe Jeremy's point is very instructive and insightful. Often it is very tempting to proof-text our doctrine, or favorite teaching, by mis-reading and mis-quoting Scripture. You may or may not have heard about the man who sincerely desired to be led by Scriptures. He decided to use a little bit of "finger lucky-dipping" by opening the Bible and letting it fall on a page and closing his eyes, he points with his finger onto a verse at random. He assumes that whatever he points to contains the biblical mandate for his life. When he opened his eyes, he was chagrined to find his finger at a rather unpalatable verse: "So Judas threw the money into the temple and left. Then he went away and hanged himself." Disturbed, he decided to give it another go. The second time his finger fell on the following verse: "Jesus told him, 'Go and do likewise.’" Exasperated, he tried a final time, and this time he was really distraught for his finger fell squarely upon, "What you are about to do, do quickly!"

While our proof-texting may not be as humorous and outrageous as the story, it nonetheless involves a distortion of scriptural principles and is contrary to what the scriptures teach. It is especially dangerous to take a verse out of context and build doctrine out of it. A good example of this can be seen in the nineteenth century when even ministers argued that slavery is not only acceptable, but approved by God because there are scriptural verses on the duties of slaves, and masters. (Note: I know this brief statement about scriptural support for slavery might open a can of worms, as Jeremy pointed out in commenting to my rough draft, but I will leave it here without further comment as an illustration of how misquoting and misapplication of scriptures can lead to unpalatable consequences).

So I am thinking of doing a series on How to Read the Bible. I believe there are many different ways to read the Bible. Here are some of the main ones:
(1) Reading the Bible devotionally
(2) Reading the Bible as part of a Bible Study exercise
(3) Reading the Bible as part of an Exegesis

These are just three of the different ways to read the Scriptures, I will expand on each of the types of Bible reading methods in up-coming posts. For now, the most important point to come away from this article is that the Bible is given to us not to decorate our coffee table, nor is it as a fashion accessory, but it is given to us to be read.

One of my mentors used to lament the fact that while we have a Bible on our bedside table, or on our book shelf, we seldom stretch out our hands to take it and read it, yet we will travel miles, navigate thick bumper-to-bumper traffic and go through sun, hail and rain to listen to the visiting bible teacher or itinerant preacher to listen to their preaching. Yet, all the time, God is waiting to speak to us through His word. So, stop reading this blog already! Open your Bible, and read it! J

Next time, I will write a little more about how to read it devotionally.

UPDATE: You can find Part II of this series here.