Yes, it’s true. I have four reasons that you shouldn’t read your Bible. I don’t think anyone should read the Bible—at least, not the way we read other books. I think people should study the Bible instead.
I do, by the way, mean “people” in general, and not just followers of Yeshua. I think practitioners of other religions and even agnostics and atheists in America, Western Europe, Russia—everywhere Christianity has had a dominant influence—owe it to themselves to understand this collection of texts, because it has had more influence than any other on the formation of their culture.
But in order to understand the Scriptures, we must study, and not just read. While it is true that the books of the Bible are mostly couched in an inviting narrative, we have no hope of understanding them if we approach them as we would a modern novel or even a history textbook.
Yet this is exactly how we tend to approach the Bible in our devotional reading. Why? I think it’s because those of us who grew up in the church learned to read the Bible as children, which is good; but we learned to read the Bible as children’s literature, which is bad. We came to expect that the text would be straightforward and easy to understand in our English translations, which it often isn’t; and we came to expect that the first inclination we have as to the meaning of a text is generally correct, which is a dangerous and counterproductive assumption.
All of us who grew up with this oversimplified approach to the Bible are missing something important—a set of tools to help us cross the barriers that separate us from the text. Four barriers in particular tend to trip us up more often than not: time, culture, language, and geography.
But before we can get to these barriers in detail, we have to answer an important question.
When we ask, “What does this text mean?”... what are we really asking?
This is an important question to ask, but I think most of us never consciously ask it. The answer might seem obvious to you. But you might be surprised at some of the answers others have given to this question.
Here’s an answer I have actually heard, an answer many people give:
“It means whatever God is trying to tell me through it, at the time I’m reading it.”
This answer sounds very spiritual. But it’s totally subjective. No one can argue with it. Therein lies the danger I wrote about in my last post. Someone might think God is telling them through a Bible verse to steal, rape, or kill—or, perhaps closer to home, to get married; to have children; to change jobs; to buy a house.
What can you say to someone who uses the Bible as a giant Ouija board—someone who believes God has transmitted a personal message to them through the Scripture? How can you tell someone else that you know what God was or was not telling him or her personally?
At this point, I’m just ranting. But if this is what we think the Bible is for, we don’t need the Bible to begin with; and if the Bible means whatever we need it to mean in the moment, then we have no right to use the Bible itself as a justification for our actions.
Here’s another potential answer: “It means whatever the Holy Spirit intended when he inspired the author to write it.”
This answer at least appears to be objective. It doesn’t reflect a belief that one is having a personal conversation with God when one reads the Bible. Rather, it implies a claim that throughout history, God inspired people to write certain things, and that these texts mean whatever God intended them to mean. This is good; or, at least, it’s better.
Yet, I still have a problem with this answer. It raises the question: How can we be certain that we know what God intended? The Prophet Isaiah claimed that God’s thoughts are higher than our thoughts (Isaiah 55:8-9). I take this to mean that we can’t know the mind of God; in that respect, we have an intrinsic hardware limitation.
So even if this answer is correct, it’s not always helpful, unless of course we already know what God is thinking. But we don’t. We don’t understand God. That’s why we need the Bible to begin with; all we know about God is what he has chosen to reveal to us.
There are a lot of other potential answers that I would disagree with. But for the sake of time, let’s skip to the answer that I think makes sense.
What does a text mean?
It means whatever the author intended to communicate to his intended audience.
For some readers, this answer is the only obvious answer. For others, perhaps it is anything but obvious. Yet this is the only answer that reflects the fundamental reality of how language works, and it is the only answer that gives us any hope of approaching a contextually accurate interpretation—an interpretation that does justice to the text in its own time, language, culture, and place.
You may disagree with my answer, but I hope that even if that is the case, you will better understand where I am coming from in subsequent posts.
Speaking of subsequent posts: in the next one, we will finally tackle the first of these four barriers. The biggest, the baddest, the toughest barrier we face when we seek to understand the Bible is time.