The Bible is at once the most familiar and the strangest of books. No other book could have so penetrated the imagination of our culture, while remaining so deeply foreign to us. It is a book that we can never truly have read: we remain students of it for the entirety of our lives. We may have been reading for decades, yet, when it comes to reading our Bibles, we are all very much beginners.
Let's reflect on how we might best read this strange and familiar book.
#1 Practice Attention
When Marco Polo journeyed to the East, he was expecting to see strange and wonderful beasts. Sure enough, in the course of his travels he encountered the unicorn. While the beast he saw was indeed marvellous, Marco Polo was somewhat befuddled by it and describes his surprise:
it was black rather than white, had hooves like those of an elephant, a pelt like that of a buffalo, and its head more closely resembled that of a wild boar. Of course, he had seen the rhinoceros! However, he was only able to speak of the unknown in terms of what he had expected to find.
Many readers of the Scriptures face the same problem. They come to their Bibles with modern questions and concerns and expect the teaching of Scripture to fit tidily into their pre-existing frameworks of understanding. Unsurprisingly, they often leave thinking that they have arrived at true understanding, when they have nothing of the kind.
It can be dangerous to bring highly developed systems and structures to the Scripture. Like Marco Polo, if we approached the text with the idea gripping our categories too tightly, we can become closed off to being surprised by it. Even if an interpretation may fit a particular passage as awkwardly as the category of the unicorn fits the rhinoceros, our confidence in our pre-existing categories can lead us to force the text into them. While we should recognize patterns, we should beware of foisting our own patterns upon the texts.
As we seek to be faithful to Scripture, we must learn truly to hear its voice, rather than just hearing what we expect, want, or are primed to hear. This requires us to develop the discipline of attention to the text. We may need to suspend our questions (and our answers) and learn how to listen. A practice that I have found helpful on this front involves reading through a passage several times without asking any questions. When reading through the passage, my aim is not to ask it my questions, but to listen closely to what it is saying.
Attentiveness is a skill, the sharpening of our senses as readers or hearers of Scripture, which will become more developed in us the more deliberately and consistently we practice it. Like the experienced tracker, who is able to discern the movements of animals from the marks that they have left behind, the experienced hearer of Scripture will have an ear trained to the most salient features of the text. There is no shortcut to such a skill: it demands practice.
#2 Listen for the Music of Scripture
Scripture rewards our careful attention as we catch glimpses of its musical character. The inexperienced reader of Scripture approaches it as though it were only a peculiar collection of loosely attached stories. Yet, the more that we read it, the more its rhythms and developing themes become apparent to us.
When we read the story of Pentecost, for instance, we recognize themes from the story of the creation of humanity, of Babel in Genesis 11, of Israel at Sinai in the book of Exodus, of the establishment of the seventy elders with Moses’ spirit in Numbers 11, of Elijah’s ascension and Elisha’s receiving of his spirit, of Joel’s prophecy of the last days, of the Spirit’s anointing descent upon Christ in his own baptism in the Jordan. We hear familiar larger patterns playing themselves out—patterns of creation, of Exodus, of prophetic initiation, etc. Within such an account, we can recognize the larger story arcs of God’s forming a new international people, establishing a new temple and royal priesthood, and his gift of the Spirit to write the law upon the heart.
However, the attentive hearer also notices various other striking details.
Why are three thousand people ‘cut to the heart’ (2:37-41)? Could this be a reversal of the three thousand killed for Israel’s rebellion at Sinai in Exodus 32:25-29?
Is there a connection between Christ’s being presented in the temple forty days after his birth in Luke and his entering the heavenly temple forty days after his resurrection in Acts (1:3)?
Is Luke subtly connecting his accounts with the story of the dawn of the kingdom in 1 Samuel? 1 Samuel begins with the barren Hannah praying in the temple, where Eli the high priests mistakes her prayer for drunkenness. At the beginning of Luke’s gospel, we encounter the figure of Anna, an 84-year-old widow, who prays constantly in the temple and then witnesses to Christ to all in Jerusalem (Luke 2:36-38). The book of Acts begins with the company of the disciples constantly praying in the temple (Luke 24:52-53), having their declaration of the glory of God in tongues mistaken for drunken speech (Acts 2:13), and witnessing to Christ to all in Jerusalem.
The more we discover the musical character of Scripture, the more its deeper unity will become apparent to us. Scripture, while it contains several different movements, is ultimately one great symphony of redemption.
#3 Hear the Scriptures in their Living Performance in the Church
What is a Shakespearean play? Is it a book that one can pull off a shelf and study in a high school English class? Or is it a script to be performed by a dramatic troupe upon a stage? Similar questions should be asked about Scripture.
Accustomed as we are to the private silent reading of Scripture in our personal Bibles, we seldom consider that Scripture was primarily given to be read aloud within and heard by gatherings of the Church. Nor do we consider just how much our forms of engagement with the text depend upon technologies that did not exist for at least the first fifteen hundred years of the Church’s life – from chapters and verses to digital Bibles.
It is a benefit to be able to study Shakespearean texts, yet it is necessary to maintain the primacy of encountering and enacting them in performances upon the stage. Much the same is true of Scripture: while we should all make the most of our personal Bibles, the primary home of the text is in our gathered performance of it as we recount its history, sing its psalms, pray its prayers, and enact its rituals.
When they perform them, Shakespearean actors encounter Shakespeare’s plays in a distinct way from high school English students studying a book. These actors inhabit and embody the text. Likewise, the beating heart of our scriptural engagement must be found in the living ‘performance’ of Scripture in the regular worship of the people of God. Approached rightly, such a practice can train us to hear the Scriptures from within, as those who inhabit their world.
#4 The Fear of the Lord is the Beginning of Wise Scriptural Reading
The truth of Scripture does not usually force itself upon us. There are many ways to avoid, deny, or escape its truth if that is what we want. Likewise, if we approach Scripture with distrust, suspicion, and doubt, we may swiftly find things within it that will supposedly confirm those attitudes. We need to have the patience to trust in God’s character in our wrestling with Scripture’s challenges—as Jacob wrestled with the Angel in the darkness—until we are blessed by it with the approach of dawning insight. The meaning and the trustworthiness of Scripture can only really be discovered as we trust—and entrust ourselves to—its author.
Reading Scripture well requires, among other things, a proper posture of the heart towards it. If we are not prepared to hear and obey God’s voice—whether through wilful and impenitent resistance or settled unbelief—it is likely that our ears will be shut against it. This is a tragic state of affairs, of which the Scripture often warns us: ‘Today, if you will hear his voice, do not harden your hearts!’ If we do not turn to God’s voice, the time may come when it entirely passes beyond our hearing.
However, if our reading of Scripture is undertaken in a growing knowledge and fear of the Lord—a confidence in his truthfulness and trustworthiness, his goodness and love, his righteousness and justice, and a willingness to submit to his rule—our ears can be opened to it and we can be transformed by it. As readers and hearers of Scripture, we must begin by addressing our own hearts, seeking God’s help in our unbelief, doubt, fear, and sin.
#5 Read in Fellowship with the Church in All Ages
Reading the Scriptures well is more of an art than a science. The skills involved are generally best learnt and honed as we apprentice ourselves to and surround ourselves with gifted readers, who both exemplify the skills of wise readers, and can expose our own failings. We should seek out people whose ears are well attuned to Scripture, and whose hearts are open to its author, and read in their company. There is safety in a multitude of faithful counsellors.
Interpreting alongside other interpreters can alert us to our own weaknesses and failures of insight, to the unhelpful preconceptions and prejudices with which we approach Scripture, and to our own hardness of heart. In conversation with interpreters of Scripture from many contexts and ages, and in fellowship with other Christians with whom we live out of Scripture in community, our grasp of Scripture’s truth will be considerably strengthened. The consistency of so much Christian witness to the truth across the ages can also be a source of considerable confidence in our faith, assuring us both in our trust in God’s word and our understanding of it.
If we merely read the Scriptures alone, there is a very real danger of exalting ourselves as authoritative interpreters over it. Reading in fellowship with others, and in conversation with faithful and skilled interpreters, is one of the ways in which the challenging voice of Scripture can be maintained in its proper authority.
#6 Scripture is Our Story
One of the most startling passages in the writings of the Apostle Paul is found in 1 Corinthians 10, when he retells the story of the Exodus and relates it to the life of the Corinthian church. He introduces his retelling with the statement, “Moreover, brethren, I do not want you to be unaware that all our fathers were under the cloud, all passed through the sea…” and concludes by declaring, “Now all these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition, on whom the ends of the ages have come.”
The striking thing about these statements is the way that Paul stresses the fact that, when we are reading the story of the Exodus—and other stories in the Scripture—we are reading our story, a story that is both for and about us. Whether we are Jewish or Gentile Christians today, we need to see the children of Israel who escaped from Egypt as ‘our fathers’! Likewise, in the story of the Exodus we see the same patterns playing out in Christ’s forming of the Church today. The music continues, and we are being caught up into it!
When we read our Bibles, we can easily become accustomed to reading it as a series of accounts of things that happened to them back then. But God has given us the Scripture so that we might hear its music continuing in what is happening to us right now.
One of the contexts where this is to become clearer is in our encounter with Scripture in the gathering of the Church. In this context, we should recount the history of Scripture as our history.
Through the Psalms, we join our voices with the Greater David, who leads us in song (Hebrews 2:11-12).
In practicing baptism, we are being plunged into a long history of washings and water crossings and deliverances—the Flood (1 Peter 3:20-21), the Red Sea Crossing (1 Corinthians 10:1-2), the baptisms of priestly initiation (Hebrews 10:19-22), and the three great baptisms of Christ: his baptism in the Jordan, the baptism of his death, and his baptism of the Church at Pentecost.
In celebrating the Lord’s Supper, we are entering into the story of the Passover, we are being provided with a new manna, , we are eating at Lady Wisdom’s table (Proverbs 9:5), we are celebrating a new memorial offering, eating the peace offering, and being served a victory meal by our Great High Priest according to the order of Melchizedek (Genesis 14:18-20).
As we are sent back out into the world after every service of gathered worship, we should leave as those who are rooted and grounded in a greater Story, whose lives are lived out of the one great symphony of God’s work in history.
#7 The Glory of Christ is at the Heart of Scripture
In 2 Corinthians 3-4, the Apostle Paul presents a Christian account of Scripture that is truly remarkable. Within this passage, he contrasts the ministry of the old covenant and the ministry of new. The old covenant is one of tablets of stone, one focused upon the letter, and of temporarily veiled glory. The new covenant, by contrast, is written on tablets of human hearts, a ministry of the Spirit, and is characterized by surpassing and enduring unveiled glory.
Paul recounts the story of Moses, who saw God’s glory on Mount Sinai, where he received the Law. However, the children of Israel were unable to look at the face of Moses, which shone after he had seen the glory of God. Moses, for their sake, had to cover his radiant face with a veil. Nevertheless, when Moses returned to speaking to the Lord, he removed the veil.
With great literary artistry, Paul tells this story as one that reveals the truth of both old and new covenants, and of the contrast between them. The veil over ‘Moses’ is not just a veil over Moses the man, but also over the books of Moses – the first five books in our Bibles. Just as the glory of Moses the man was veiled from Israel, so the glory of his books was veiled to a hard-hearted people. Yet, when the Christian, like Moses, ‘turns to the Lord’ (3:16) the veil is removed and the full glory of Moses can be seen.
As the face of Scripture is unveiled, the dazzling light of Christ’s glory can shine from it. After the resurrection, Jesus opened the minds of his disciples to comprehend the Scripture and declared its witness to himself with a power that caused their hearts to burn. The veil over the text is removed in Christ. In Christ, the true meaning of the Scripture becomes apparent. Israel was groping around in a great darkened room of a mansion, straining their ears to hear the approaching footsteps. Christ arrives, throwing open the door, allowing light to stream into the once unlit room, revealing all its once only dimly-perceived features and his identity as the awaited One.
When we read Scripture, we should read it ‘transfigurally’, perceiving within it, as in a mirror, the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. Christ’s glory is the heart of Scripture, veiled in times past and to the unbelieving, yet disclosed to all who turn to the Lord. This is a glorious and a living word, one in which we see the reflected glory and hear the quickening voice of the eternal Word, the Second Person of the Trinity.
As the glory that Moses once saw made his face shine, this glory transforms all who truly see it. Paul declares, “But we all, with unveiled faces, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord.”
The glory of Scripture, once seen, changes us, transforming us into the image of God’s Son. This is not seen in literal shining faces, but it should be manifested in shining lives that cannot but betray the fact that we have seen Jesus. Whereas God once delivered his Law upon tablets of stone to an unfaithful people, now, upon the tablets of softened human hearts, he is writing his Law by his Spirit, producing lives that display Christ’s glory.
The writing of Scripture doesn’t find its true purpose in marks in ink on a page, but in the marks of Christ on human lives. We must hear Scripture as those who expect to encounter the glory of Christ within it, who lay bare our lives for God’s writing of his Law upon us, and as those who, with shining lives, will shed forth a glorious reflected light testifying to the eternal Light of the Son. As the light of our lives illumines the darkened corners of a fallen world, burning bright against the night until the dawning of the Everlasting Day, the true end of the Scripture will be known.
Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) works for the Theopolis, Davenant, and Greystone Institutes. He participates in the Mere Fidelity and Theopolis podcasts, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, posts regular videos on theology on his YouTube account , and tweets at @zugzwanged .