I love the Bible.
Although I hold two degrees in English literature and have spent a lifetime reading books of nearly every genre, I’ve spent more time with the Bible than all other books combined.
Especially I’m partial to the New Testament.
I preach from some part of the Bible every Sunday.
On Wednesdays, I lead an intense New Testament study for adults, where we parse a given gospel or epistle line by line, and sometimes word by Greek word. It can take us months, even a year or two, to make our way through a Romans or a Hebrews.
You might call me a Bible thumper, then — and I wouldn’t argue with you or be offended. I’m happy to thump that beautiful, profound, spiritual, vexing writ.
Not that anyone asked, but it seems to me there are two main mistakes people make (not to mention countless smaller mistakes) when approaching the Bible.
The first big mistake is to not take it seriously enough.
I hear directly or indirectly from a great many skeptics who place no stock at all in the Scripture. They dismiss it as a half-baked collection of constricting commandments and fables chocked full of violence and sky men. It’s all claptrap start to finish, they say.
To me — I don’t mean to sound snarky — that argument just reeks of ignorance.
Anyone who can dismiss the Bible that easily clearly has spent little time with it.
Millions of people great and obscure, across the millennia, including many of the West’s great writers, clerics and revolutionaries, have been moved, motivated and frequently mystified by this book.
And it’s not culture-wars propaganda to say the Bible underpins much of our literature, history and government.
If you don’t know the Bible, how can you ever hope to understand Shakespeare or John Donne or Flannery O’Connor — or Abraham Lincoln?
It’s awfully presumptuous to dismiss the Bible with a sniff and a wave of the hand.
The second big mistake lies at the opposite end of the ideological pole. It’s to take the Bible too seriously.
I came up in a tradition in which we claimed to believe every “jot and tittle” of the Word.
“God said it, I believe it and that settles it,” was a common bromide.
In essence, we meant that every word of our English-language translation was infallible and should, whenever possible, be taken literally.
Well, that’s all fine and good. As far as it goes.
I, too, believe the Bible was inspired by God. But that doesn’t necessarily mean every word of what we have today is factually correct or spiritually inerrant.
Scripture may have been breathed by the Holy Spirit, but it was written, edited, compiled, translated, retranslated and re-retranslated by mere men. (Sorry, but nearly all of them were men. Women didn’t get much say.)
When the ancient church’s bishops sat down eventually to put together the New Testament canon, for instance, they only with great difficulty agreed even on which books to include. It was a tense process, fraught with disagreements that continue until today. The canon wasn’t delivered whole cloth by an angelic host.
Also, the original New Testament manuscripts, supposedly handwritten by the apostles or their close associates, may or may not have been inerrant down to the last letter, but in any case none of those originals still exists, and if they did exist we wouldn’t have any means of recognizing them as the originals.
All that said, the New Testament, and the Old Testament, too, still pack a wallop that can shatter your stony heart and change the course of your life.
That’s what I mean when I say the Bible’s holy and inspired.
How, then, should we study it?
There’s no one way. But based 40-plus years of experience, I can offer a few general suggestions:
▪ Start with the New Testament. I recommend the gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, which are the biographies of Jesus. Mainly, the New Testament is shorter, easier to follow (except for Revelation) and closer to the core of Christian thought than the Old Testament.
▪ Actually study it, as if this were any other subject you wanted to understand. There are countless commentaries, study guides and other resources to help clarify troubling passages and provide historical context. Some are accessible online, for free. Just keep in mind that their authors usually have their own theological axes to grind.
▪ Join a Bible-study group. I’m not much of a joiner, but even I’ve found it’s helpful to study the Scriptures with others, to hear their takes on a passage or parable, which often are different from mine.
▪ Pray as you go. Ask the spirit to enlighten you.
▪ Be sincere and open-minded. You’ll learn far more if you don’t study just to prove a point or to have your presuppositions confirmed.
▪ Be intellectually honest. Acknowledge the Bible’s weaknesses and seeming contradictions. But also acknowledge its powerful truths—and your own limitations and self-contradictions in trying to discern those truths.
▪ Be humble. Whether you’re studying in a group or alone, listen more than you talk. Expect revelations about not only the Lord, but about yourself.
Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.