For Instruction, Doctrine, and Morals: The Art of Reading

What does it mean to be a reader? What’s actually happening when someone reads a text? Ever since the rise of post-modernism these kinds of questions have been in vogue. And though many of the popular answers today are new, the questions themselves are not. In fact, he Bible itself as well as many of its early readers, wrestled well with what it means to read, giving us a definition to a biblical art of reading. I want to explore briefly five components to what it means to read the Bible.

Reading the Bible Spiritually

            Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthian 2:14 that the natural person, is counter-distinction from the spiritual person, does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. Paul maintains that if any reading of God’s word is to be true reading, reading that leads to understanding, it must be done by the Spirit. Until the Spirit of God opens the eyes of a man, that man’s understanding is veiled to what the Scripture’s are actually saying! Paul gets at this in 2 Corinthians 3 when he writes that even to this day when the Israelites read God’s word a veil lies over their hearts.

            So much could be said about this and how we understand reading, interpretation, preaching, and so on. Craig A. Carter in his fantastic book Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition rightly brings out the implications of this in how the church has unwittingly adopted hermeneutical principles from an unbiblical enlightenment worldview. So much so that now in many institutions which seek to teach the Bible and its meaning, the atheist is valued as a more objective reader; someone better suited to understand the text!

            This though is diametrically opposed to Paul’s understanding of reading. For Paul, it is only “when one turns to the Lord that the veil [of understanding] is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Corinthians 3:16-17). Carter, in quoting theologian John Webster, rightly states that exegesis, understanding what we’re reading, is an attempt to hear what the Spirit says to the churches.[1]

            This also means that reading the Bible Spiritually will lead to a Christocentric reading. As James Houston, in his essay “Toward A Biblical Spirituality” says that “being transformed by the personal presence of Christ in all the Scriptures, is what ‘exemplary reading‘ is all about. Beyond the text and page of Scripture, one is challenged and transformed by the person of Jesus Christ himself.”[2]

            And this leads us to the second point.

Reading the Bible Righteously

            When we read Scripture we must do so righteously. In fact, Paul makes this charge against the Corinthian Christians saying, “I could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ... for while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way (1 Corinthians 3:1-2). The principle is this: Reading the Bible Spiritually, controlled and led by the Spirit of Christ, must lead to a righteousness of life, that is, being led and conformed to the image of Christ. This is precisely why Paul says that to understand the Scriptures we must have the mind of Christ (1 Cor. 2:16).

            It is in having the mind of Christ where our hearts, our desires, and our presuppositions are reordered to know and understand rightly. In other words, how we live deeply corresponds to what we understand. Is this not what Jesus means when addressing the Pharisee’s in John 8? He asks them, “Why do you not understand what I say?” That’s the question, right? Here is the incarnate Word, the clearest revelation of God to man, and yet, still, these Pharisee’s cannot understand. Why? Listen to Jesus’ stinging answer.

            “It is because you cannot bear to hear my word. You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies. But because I tell the truth, you do not believe me.... If I tell the truth, why do you not believe me? Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God (John 8:39-47).”

            Hans Boersma highlights how this was the understanding of the early church. For the Patristic “one needs virtue to be able to understand or appropriate the biblical text properly. Furthermore, for Nyssa, the very subject matter of the text is virtue. The ultimate reason for this is that he believes virtue, in its true sense, should be spelled with a capital V, since God himself is virtue... Since the biblical text has God for its true subject matter, it has virtue for its subject matter. And finally, since it is our aim to share more deeply in the life of God, virtue is also the very aim of biblical interpretation.”[3]

            Thus, reading the Bible Spiritually leads to reading the Bible righteously.

Reading the Bible Prayerfully

            All of this demands that we read the Bible prayerfully. We won’t delve into this point, but the previous two points should make it abundantly clear. If I - a man prone to sin and in my flesh tempted to indulge the desires of a deceitful heart - if I should ever come to rightly understand and rightly apply and finally submit to God’s holy word, then I am in deep need of God’s help! We must come to the Bible prayerfully, beseeching God’s grace to read well and read obediently.

Reading the Bible Biblically

            Fourthly, reading God’s word obediently must mean that we read God’s word on its own terms. Thus we should read the Bible biblically. Much of the history of Bible reading might well be summed up in the words, “Did God actually say” (Genesis 3:1)? As fallen men and women we are tempted to read God’s word under the dominion of our own principles and presuppositions rather than bringing our thoughts and theories under the dominion of God’s word.

            This entails then that the reader of God’s word, work hard at understanding the rules and regulations of the Word. There is a regulative principle at work in how we read the Bible. And at the very foundation of this principle is the conviction that all of God’s word is truthful and without error. “Sanctify them in the truth, your word is truth” (John 17:17).

Reading the Bible Worshipfully

            This leads us lastly to the point that we should be reading God’s word worshipfully. Consider the example of king Josiah, who upon reading God’s law for the first time, responded first in repentance and then experienced a revival of worship. “When the king heard the words of the Book of the Law, he tore his clothes” (2 Kings 22:11). He was struck under deep conviction that his life was not in accordance with what the Bible required of him. His response of repentance was right, he “humbled himself, tore his clothes, and wept before the Lord” (2 Kings 22:19).

            But he also gave himself to worshiping God obediently! “And the king went up to the house of the Lord...and he read in their hearing all the words of the Book of the Covenant that had been found in the house of the Lord. And the king stood by the pillar and made a covenant before the Lord, to walk after the Lord and to keep his commandments and his testimonies and his statutes with all his heart and all his soul, to perform the words of this covenant that were written in this book. And all the people joined in the covenant” (2 Kings 23:1-3).

            Isn’t this a great picture of what reading is all about? What is the chief end of reading? It is to walk after the Lord and to keep his commandments with all your heart and all your soul. O, may we all be such readers of God’s word!

Stephen Unthank (MDiv, Capital Bible Seminary) serves at Greenbelt Baptist Church in Greenbelt, MD, just outside of Washington, DC.  He lives in Maryland with his wife, Maricel and their two children, Ambrose and Lilou.

[1] Craig A. Carter, Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition: Recovering the Genius of Pre-Modern Exegesis, (Baker Academic, 2018), 131.

[2] James M. Houston, “Toward A Biblical Spirituality” in The Act Of Bible Reading: A Multi-disciplinary Approach to Biblical Interpretation, edited by Elmer Dyck (InterVarsity Press, 1996), 156.

[3] Hans Boersma, Scripture As Real Presence: Sacramental Exegesis in the Early Church (Baker Academic, 2017), 19-20.


Stephen Unthank