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How Not to Read the Bible
How (or why) we read the Bible matters
You could argue that there are few things more important in the life of the Christian than reading the Bible. Faith comes by hearing God’s Word (Rom. 10:17), and it is within the pages of the Bible that we can be introduced to God the Father, the Son He sent, and the Spirit who inspired the whole thing.
As valuable as it is, not all Bible reading is equal. I don’t claim to have all of the answers or to read the Bible perfectly myself, but there are a few (and in my experience, common) mistakes that can be easy to make when Christians read their Bibles. So, here are a few ways not to read the Bible.
As a Textbook or Encyclopedia
While I would adamantly affirm that the whole of the Bible is inspired and inerrant, the Bible will never be a textbook or encyclopedia. Sure, there are examples of the Bible’s scientific foreknowledge, scientific accuracy, and whenever it speaks to academic fields it is accurate—but such does not mean that the Bible is itself a textbook or encyclopedia.
The Bible was not written to tell us everything about everything. You will not find a recipe for a good stew (despite Jacob’s best efforts) or the molecular mass of C8H10N4O2 in the good book. And that’s okay. God can give us all things needed for life and godliness through His Word (2 Pet. 1:3) without creating the Encyclopedia Britannica in the process.
Though we might never explicitly think of the Bible as a textbook or encyclopedia, sometimes we treat it as such. When we view the Bible as a disjointed series of verses that may or may not be relevant for what we are researching at any given moment, we have conceded that the Bible is more encyclopedia than revelation. Or, if our Bible study is relegated to only finding answers to problems or seeking information about topic x, we treat the Bible as something it was never meant to be.
The Bible—though filled with authoritative commands, patterns, and examples—is more than a dry, architectural blueprint. If we never allow ourselves to be impressed with the literary features in the narrative that God has lovingly unfolded throughout the centuries, we are not receiving everything that the Bible has in store for the eager reader.
To Affirm What I Already Believe
I think we all struggle with confirmation bias. In a world where we have the internet at our fingertips, we are always a few quick searches away from finding a source that agrees with us. Even when we don’t find a source that agrees with us, we can interpret the data in a way that affirms what we already believe instead of allowing it to challenge our preconceived beliefs or ideas.
It can be tempting to do the same thing with God’s Word. Instead of going to the Bible to be challenged and to re-examine our beliefs, it is much easier to assume that a certain verse teaches what we always believed it to, and to bend the scriptures and ignore contexts so we can use the Bible as a prop to support what we already believe.
The Bible should be more than a place we go to affirm what we already believe without challenge or question. God’s inspired Word is “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16). It is impossible for God’s Word to reprove and correct us if it never disagrees with or challenges us. When we read the Bible we should consider if there are sections of Scripture that we have taken for granted. This isn’t to suggest that the truth of Scripture changes over time, but rather that we shouldn’t assume that we are accurately interpreting every verse and never need to go back to the interpretive drawing board.
There should be beliefs that are affirmed when we read the Scriptures, but not at the expense of never being challenged to look at things a different way. When we pick up God’s word it shouldn’t be only to justify what we already think is true. We should seek ways in which we can grow, change, or repent.
To Prove Others Wrong
There is nothing wrong with trying to convince others of something from the Scriptures (Luke 24:25-27; Acts 17:2-3; Titus 1:9-11). But, when we never read the Scriptures for ourselves—for our own upbuilding and devotion— we will be missing something from our time with God’s Word. If we are constantly reading the Bible just to find some verses for the next doctrinal debate on social media, we may miss out on what God’s Word has to say to us. If our approach to reading the Bible is always to prove somebody else wrong, we can more easily be guilty of trying to correct the speck in our neighbor’s eye while ignoring the log in ours.
Doctrine is important, and what we believe about what the Bible says matters. But we have to read the Scriptures for ourselves first. In the classic airplane safety spiel, flight attendants instruct you to secure your own oxygen mask before helping those around you. You can’t help somebody with their oxygen mask if you’re unconscious. In a similar way, we should make sure we are walking in step with God’s Word before seeking to correct everyone around us.
If our Bible reading only consists of collecting verses to prove our theological opponents wrong, we will miss out on some of the growth that Scripture reading is intended to produce in us. Sometimes we need to repent, but when we are only concerned with the repentance of others, we will miss our imperfections glaring back at us in the mirror of the Word (Jas. 1:22-25).
As an End Unto Itself
Ultimately, all these mistakes have the same root cause: viewing Bible reading/study as an end unto itself. What I mean by this is that it is a mistake to read the Bible simply to know more about the Bible. It is a mistake to memorize Scripture simply to know more Scripture. It is a mistake to study the Bible simply to be able to do so. There are unregenerate atheists who can read, study, and memorize the Scripture and be no closer to its Author.
Christians should see the Bible as a tool, not as the goal. The Bible helps us have a relationship with our Creator, but it is not the relationship/Creator itself. The Bible helps us have an eternal home in heaven, but there will not be a Bible-bowl-like entrance exam before we can tread the streets of gold.
Reading and studying the Bible is needed—but not for its own sake. Reading and studying the Bible is needed because, in carefully doing so, we should become more like God, have a deeper relationship with God, and continue to be more conformed into the image of His Son (Rom. 8:29).
Bible study/reading is vital, but it is only one aspect of a healthy spiritual life. When studying the Scriptures turns into a competition, a purely academic endeavor, or only a reassuring exercise, we’ve gone off course. Be thankful for God’s Word, but embrace it as a means to an end. That end is to take hold of eternal life—to know the only true God and Jesus Christ whom He has sent (John 17:3).