How is the bible supposed to be read?
How many people have even thought about this question?
It may seem like a simple question at first. Not so fast.
This questions comes up most clearly in discussions involving science and the bible? Where are the dinosaurs? We ask. How does the flood fit in? The six days? Neanderthals? Fossils? The big bang? We scour the biblical text looking for any reference to these things to peg what we know of the world through science into our biblical revelation. Then, with each new scientific finding or insight, the entire process must start again.
But what’s wrong with this? Why shouldn’t we attempt to attempt compatibility between the bible and all of life?
Nothing in and of itself. But I think what we have is a confusion of categories. Both scientists and bible readers (not that they are mutually exclusive) need to make sure we keep our categories straight.
What do I mean by this?
Science is one category. Science is by definition the study of nature through observable, repeatable experimentation. Something is proved scientifically when it is repeated.
History is a second category. History is the study of past events. Events that cannot be repeated. Nothing in history can be proved strictly speaking. Certainly, there is a preponderance of evidence making many events highly likely. But still, nothing in history can be scientifically proven. Furthermore, concerning those events which are highly likely, there are always multiple perspectives and biases concerning their significance, effects, and motives.
But the bible is not exactly either of these things. It is not designed to be. It’s all 100% true. But it’s not science in that it’s events are not repeatable. And it’s not exactly history either as we define history today. It is God’s revelation to his people. It is a selective retelling of events by inspired authors with the explicit agenda of leading readers to repentance and faith.
Failing to read the bible in this light is failing to read it period. In other words, opening the bible for any other purpose other than to understand God’s character and your position in relation to him is missing the point.
Both the bible’s supporters and deriders would do well to remember these distinctions.
For example, naturalistic evolution may be a valid theory of life’s origins, but it is neither repeatable nor observable. Science can see and discuss the physical mechanisms of the world and of the past, but to posit how and why these mechanisms came to be is beyond its reach. Therefore, those who proclaim naturalistic evolution alone as the sole progenitor of life on earth are preachers of faith categorically no different than the guy on the soapbox by the street corner.
Likewise, events in the bible are not scientifically provable either because they are not repeatable.
Therefore Christians need to be wary of specious evidence which can easily by overturned, countered, or made irrelevant by other discoveries. Saying we can prove biblical events without a shadow of doubt often undermines our legitimacy. We need to rely on faith.
But so do the atheists.
The problem is we understand both scripture and the physical world dimly.
As for science, it is always evolving. Its premises and working models always shifting focus and direction. And that’s ok. Science is a tool to understand the physical world. It is neither equipped nor capable of understanding the untestable, unobservable past. Let’s enjoy it for what it is. Let’s marvel at the complex choreography of God’s intimate designs in nature as we observe them. Science is not an enemy but an ally for Christians as long as it is kept in its proper place. To keep it there, we need to remind scientists of their biases, agendas in presenting new findings, and
Where the bible is concerned, it was written by over 40 authors, over 1500 years, in many different cultures, to many different local situations, all of which are long gone and little understood. Paul himself says as much in 1 Corinthians 13:12. Therefore, we need to very careful in imposing our modern frameworks into biblical terminology. Don’t misunderstand me. We can understand the bible’s message just fine. It is plain as day. Reading through the bible, one cannot help but be overwhelmed by its redemptive vision for humanity and sacrificial life-giving, and ongoing ministry of Christ. These things are clear to us because they come up over and over again in every book and in every situation. The bible tells us all we need to know. Unfortunately, it doesn’t tell us all we want to know. And that’s where we get in trouble. That’s where we use random verses out of context because they fit some theory or agenda. This is completely unacceptable and people who do so must be held to account by the church. Unfortunately many who do this tell our itching ears what they want to hear so we let them get away with it.
The best safeguard against such fallacious, invasive readings is to define words and concepts in the bible using other parts of the bible itself, not our own understanding, 21st paradigms, or even what we think we know of ancient culture. We have to allow the bible to speak on its own terms. If you have a question about the meaning of a biblical word, see where that word is used elsewhere in that book especially but also throughout the bible. Later bible writers knew what earlier ones had said and often took up the older concepts and interpreted them again. Thus what we see in scripture are rich layers of meaning for those willing to dig for it.
Here is a simple example:
Genesis 1:2 states, “the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.” What does this mean? What is God doing here? Based only on Gen. 1:2 we have no idea. Is this a good thing, bad thing? Are the waters nefarious and menacing? Is the Spirit keeping chaos at bay? Or IS the Spirit simply cruising around, checking out the waters and getting ready to create some stuff? The Hebrew word for “hovering” gives us a clue however. It Is used only one other time. Deuteronomy 32:11. Here it describes an eagle protecting its young and nurturing them among the chaos of the desert as a metaphor for God and his people. Does that shed some light on our Gen. 1:2 hovering? I think so. Was the author aware of the unique word usage? You bet. That’s what I mean by defining words biblically. Use the imagery, the connotation, and the limits the bible uses.
It also doesn’t ensure an accurate interpretation. Many things we may just not ever know for sure. And our personal experiences and biases are difficult to recognize much less overcome.
Letting scripture interpret scripture will get you much closer than anything we can come up with on our own, and in the process you will fall in love with the depth and richness of God’s word.
Using this method is hard work. But anything worthwhile is.