Reading the Bible: Ordinary Reading (Part 1)

Sitting down to read the Bible isn’t enough. We need to learn how to read it well; and, reading it well is actually more difficult than one might think. Many of us want to grow in our relationship with God, in our knowledge of what he has taught, and in our spiritual lives, and we know that reading the Bible is central to that goal, but we often find our bible reading frustratingly fruitless. What am I supposed to be getting from this text? How does it teach me about Jesus? How does it help me to grow?

Don’t be discouraged. Reading, like anything else, is a skill that needs to be learned, practiced, and trained. You might think “I know how to read,” and once you know how to read it’s simply a matter of increasing your vocabulary. Reading is easy and intuitive, and therefore shouldn’t require any extra training once the skill is acquired. It’s like riding a bike.

But that’s not true. It’s not true for “ordinary” books, and it’s not true for the Bible. In fact, there’s a justly famous book called How to Read a Book (which, I must admit, I have not read) that addresses the complexities of reading, and this is just one of many such books. Reading requires developing certain skills and, like anything else, practicing those skills over and over and over again! That’s true for ordinary books, and it’s also true for the Bible.

The Bible, of course, is not ordinary, so it requires two sets of skills. On the one hand, the Bible requires us to have ordinary reading skills, and we will begin our quest in this post by looking at those. The Bible also requires what we might call Spiritual skills (Matt. 11:15; Rom. 1:21; 1 Cor. 1:6-16), and we will address those later on. For now, though, be encouraged because many of the skills involved in reading ordinary books will pay big dividends when it comes to reading the Bible.

Ordinary reading begins by sitting down and reading the book in question. This may sound obvious, but it isn’t. The first step to reading a biblical book well is to actually read it, and to read it in the “ordinary” way that a book is to be read. To put the matter bluntly, you are probably not doing that right now. In fact, I can almost guarantee it.

Think about the last narrative you pulled off the shelf. Maybe it was something sophisticated like The Brothers Karamazov, or maybe it was something historical like Chernow’s biography Hamilton. My most recent was Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Or maybe narratives don’t appeal to you and you are currently knee-deep in some theological tome or poetic pursuit. Regardless, ask yourself how you read it. What did you do? What kind of questions did you ask? Describe the reading process. How many times did you pull out a commentary? How about a dictionary? Did you pause and meditate after each sentence, or did you read straight through? How long did it take you? If something was confusing did you just move on, or did you make sure you fully understood paragraph ‘A’ before moving on to paragraph ‘B’? Maybe you’re a pretty varied reader and thus would answer those questions differently depending on the book in question—you slowly savor poetry, but devour fiction, for instance. When do you switch over to a different process and why?

The Bible and a “Natural” Reading

The point of all this is to describe what “natural reading” looks like (and what it looks like given different circumstances or types of writing). How do you ordinarily read? Whether you are sitting down with a newspaper, or blog post, or beach reading, or even a textbook, your reading “process” is very natural. You instinctively approach those diverse types of material differently, and you don’t overthink it. It’s natural and intuitive, and for the most part I bet you feel like you got something out of what you read, even though some things were confusing or unexpected.

So back to the Bible. Describe your reading process when you approach a biblical book. What do your devotions look like? Do you proceed sentence by sentence, chapter by chapter, or book by book? What kinds of questions do you ask as you read? How long does it take you to read a page of the Bible vs. a page of, say, Harry Potter? How long do you spend on questions like “what does this word mean” or “what’s going on in this paragraph?”

My guess is that you read the Bible totally differently than you read anything else. This is an indication that you are likely approaching Scripture unnaturally. You are not reading it as “ordinary” communication.

But the Bible isn’t ordinary!

But wait! That’s because the Bible isn’t ordinary! The Bible isn’t just another book!

Verily and amen! In the first place, it’s God’s word. The Westminster Confession of Faith describes Scripture as “given by the inspiration of God to be the rule of faith and life;” God is its author, and therefore it is to be believed and obeyed “because it is the Word of God” (WCF 1.2, 1.4). So it’s not ordinary. Unlike any other book, the Bible is “inspired” (2 Tim. 3:16), and as such has a multitude of divine characteristics (like its authority, perspicuity, necessity, and sufficiency, to name the classic ones). The Bible is therefore infallible and inerrant, and also relevant to all human beings in all ages, and given for us and for our salvation. That makes it unique and glorious.

The Bible is also ancient and culturally removed from us, and as such is not like the most recent New York Times bestseller. It is an ancient book, and reading an ancient book “naturally” is harder that reading something from one’s contemporary cultural context. Reading Shakespeare, for example, requires a level of care, engagement, study, and rigor that is not required for Tom Clancy. What is more, the Bible represents the work of multiple human authors--men, women, Jews, Greeks, slaves, kings, fishermen, and carpenters, and its final form spans several millennia and three languages. It is God who speaks in these pages, and the God who thus speaks did so first “long ago, at many times and in many the prophets” and subsequently “in these last days…by his Son” (Heb. 1:1-2). The Bible isn’t ordinary! You’ve never encountered a book like this!

The Bible is Supernatural Revelation in Natural Language

So the Bible isn’t ordinary, but rather given through divine inspiration. We will need to talk in a later post about how the Divine character of Scripture requires more from us as we read (like faith, prayer, and submission), but for now we need to note that this “more than” is on top of ordinary reading, not a substitute for it. Why? Because inspiration doesn’t mean that God “breaks the rules” of ordinary human communication. OK, sometimes he does, like when he reveals himself through a dream (to Daniel for example), or when one of his prophets speaks in tongues, but these exceptions actually serve to emphasize the point we are making. These instances are not ordinary, which is precisely why Paul calls the Corinthians to make sure interpreters are present when people are speaking in tongues (1 Cor. 14:6-12). Without an interpreter to translate the non-ordinary into ordinary language, the prophecy is unintelligible, and therefore less ideal than straightforward communication. These exceptions serve to highlight the norm: God ordinarily speaks to us through ordinary language.

This has been the case from the beginning. God speaks to his people in words they can naturally understand and in a manner consistent with their social conventions. He does not use a special “Holy Ghost” language but rather the lingua franca of the times (Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek). He does not invent new modes of speech or genres but utilizes the ordinary conventions of the day, which is why Biblical histories like Acts seem very much like the kinds of historical narratives with which we are familiar.

In other words, while the Bible is extra-ordinary, it is such through the use of the ordinary ways that human beings speak to one another. It is supernatural revelation that God has given in natural language. The Bible is special and unique, but it is not special and unique in this way, that is, in the manner by which it communicates truth to human beings. That’s why the Westminster Standards go on to describe the meaning of the Bible as accessible “through a due use of ordinary means” (WCF 1.7). The hermeneutical payoff of all this is simple: we need to read the Bible naturally. We need to read it as God speaking to us through ordinary language.

This should be encouraging, despite the fact that you are probably not currently doing this. Though you may have approach the Bible the wrong way in the past, the good news is that you have all the tools at your disposal to retrain the way your read. In the next post we will explore those skills.

Tommy is the Associate Pastor of Family Ministries at Christ the King PCA in Conshohocken, PA. Tommy is married to Sarah and have two beautiful girls, Emma and Kate. Tommy received his MDiv and PhD from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. In addition to his service at Christ the King, Tommy teaches New Testament part-time at Westminster and Reformed Theological Seminary in Washington DC. He enjoys music, playing guitar, writing, and technology.

Tommy Keene