Reading the Bible Wisely
While I hesitate to recommend yet another book ABOUT Scripture, I think we would all do well to read Richard S. Briggs' Reading the Bible Wisely: An Introduction to Taking Scripture Seriously, Revised Edition (Eugene: Cascade, 2011). While the whole book should be read from cover to cover, chapter 10 introduces us to a very profound understanding of how word and action come together in the Scriptures as the "speech acts of God," and therefore as the Word of God. This chapter also rightly emphasizes how we may be formed (i.e., shaped) and/or transformed (i.e., profoundly changed) by our reading, if we properly engage the Scriptures as the Word of God. Chapter 11 is then further focused on how Scripture forms and/or transforms the reader.
The Bible as the Word of God
The fact that the Bible is the Word of God has been eloquently expressed by Jewish scholar James Kugel in his book How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture Then and Now: "Scripture is, in one sense, the opposite of prayer (words from God rather than to God), but it makes this same connection." What Kugel is saying is that in the same way that engaging prayer is engaging God, engaging the Word of God is engaging God! This is a critical perspective and outcome of our worldview and way of being/living!
Three Major Problems and Solutions
That said, I wish to identify three major problems related to the reading and studying of the Word of God (especially in the U.S.), and three proposed solutions. I am hoping that a potential fourth problem (i.e., NOT reading and studying the Word of God) is NOT to be found among us. May it never be!
Overcoming Views of the Bible Other Than the Living and Active Word of God
Problem #1 is the lack of understanding Scripture, the Bible, as the living and active Word of God. It is associated with the old idea that we have to read and study the ancient Bible and then APPLY it somehow to our lives, as if it were not already applicable as the living and active Word of God. To borrow from Sha'ul/Paul, "And I will show you a still more excellent way" (1 Cor 12:31).
The solution to problem #1 is to allow ourselves to be transformed by the renewing of our worldview about Scripture, so that we truly view it, read it, and study it as the living and active Word of God. Here, we are following the sagacious instructions of Richard Briggs, who acknowledges the immense gap that separates the ancient world of the Biblical books from our 21st century world, but who also knows what makes the best bridge between those worlds. Rather than attempting to transport mere principles from the Word of God, or make 'applications' of what we have read to our own lives, in our own time, Briggs has found the more excellent way – as adapted and expanded below.
Approaching the Bible, or Scripture, as the living and active word of God is the key to engaging the living God in His living and active Word! Because the Bible is the living and active Word of God, Markus Bockmuehl rightly insists that we have to face the nonnegotiable formative (life shaping), transformative (life changing), and self-involving (life investing) demands that the Biblical books place on the serious reader. Because all of the writings of the Word of God involve word and action, word in action, and word as action, readers of any Biblical book are to INVEST themselves in that book – in a discipline of personal and communal involvement as members of the People of God. When one invests in this way, one expects to engage God in the book, to be formed and/or transformed by what one reads or studies, and to receive insight into how one might maximize their BEING/DOING/LIVING in relation to the way of the LORD in Messiah. With Briggs, I agree that the closest thing to this approach to the Word of God is the liturgy. In this comparison, we find that Scripture as the Word of God is not just saying something to us, but is DOING SOMETHING to us. In response, we then become doers of the Word. The normative, formative, and transformative principle that is in operation here is found in Psalm 1, in which the persistent encounter with God's self-revelation in the Torah – forms and transforms the one who invests themselves in the text as a matter of habit. The result is that their life is like a tree planted by streams of water that produces fruit in its season and has leaves that do not wither!
The example that Briggs uses to make his point is the reading of Matthew 6:14-15 in the context of the Sermon on the Mount: "If you forgive others their offenses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your offenses." Concisely considered, in order to forgive, one must reconstrue the world and their relationship with the offender and with God. By learning this ability, I am remade in my involvement in the act of forgiveness, remade to be the kind of person who forgives others and is forgiven by God. If I am not willing to invest in the text, it will not form or transform me, and then I'm back to wondering if or how I will 'apply' these words of Yeshua.
Overcoming the Bits and Parts Approach to Reading the Bible
Problem #2 is the problem of a bits and parts approach, of only ever reading little portions of the Word of God. This prevents us from ever understanding the overall Biblical story and how its component parts, from Genesis to Revelation, all fit together in an inseparable whole.
The solution to problem #2, in part, is to establish the discipline of reading the Word of God straight through every year. For very good reasons, I haven't done it in a while, but my wife does it every year – and the fruit of her discipline is obvious. This is separate from Bible study. The value of becoming familiar with the one continuous story of Genesis to Revelation is inestimable. Software like Olive Tree Bible Study software, with annual reading plans to choose from, is highly recommended. I just started an annual reading plan in Olive Tree after the rerolling of the Torah scroll in October. Please accept MSI's challenge to everyone to start reading the Word of God through, from Genesis to Revelation, every year (whether you start today, tomorrow, or at the beginning of the new calendar year). If you don't use software, annual reading plans may be downloaded for free at a host of sites. To all those already reading the Bible straight through annually, thank you for modeling this most healthy discipline!
Overcoming the Inadequate Study of the Word of God
Problem #3 is the lack of or inadequate study of the Word of God in its component parts – its component parts being books as wholes. From at least one perspective, this is actually another way of identifying the above problem of the bits and parts approach.
The solution to problem #3, in part, is to practice the soundest method of study of the Word of God. That is to become familiar with a book of the Bible FIRST as a whole, before reading smaller portions of that book and attempting to understand them. As David Bauer notes, it's like going to the observation deck on top of the Empire State Building FIRST, in order to get an overview of New York City. Then one can proceed down to the ground level to explore NYC in detail – its parts and the relationships between those parts. Reading a Bible book as a whole, several times, is like remaining on the observation deck on top of the Empire State Building for a very long time, making sure one truly gets the big picture FIRST before exploring the details.
Please accept MSI's challenge to everyone to select one book of the Bible this year (while one is otherwise reading the whole Bible straight through during the year), to study in detail from start to finish. Here, we are recommending a solid study resource or two to assist you to understand and respond to that book on its own terms. A careful reading of Richard Briggs' Reading the Bible Wisely, mentioned earlier, will provide one with a very clear understanding of what is meant by understanding the Bible "on its own terms." Feel free to contact us for study resource recommendations for any book of the Bible. See the 'contact' menu on the MSI website at www.mjsi.org (which will be a mobile responsive site sometime in 2016).
Let's Engage God in the Bible!
As members of the People of God, let us invest ourselves in the Word of God – expecting to engage the Living God in His Living Word, and to be formed and transformed by our reading and studying!
Henri Louis Goulet