By Andy Peck
Maybe some of you have noticed that reading the Bible can be a dangerous business?
I don’t just mean this because if it is read correctly it can truly impact and challenge the way we live. It is also hazardous because we can easily fall into the trap of making incorrect assumptions about God and His ways in the world.
By not fully understanding the way that Scripture is written, Christians have justified slavery, discrimination, domestic abuse, apartheid and dictatorships (to name a few!). Poor reading and interpretation has left many Christians failing to know and enjoy the true grace of God, because they assume some of the accusing texts must apply to them. As a result, it is important that we notice the features of the Bible’s literary styles so we can truly hear what God is saying to us, without drawing harmful conclusions.
The Christian Church has never had so many excellent Bible-study aids, yet surveys suggest that levels of Bible reading and understanding have never been so low. So how can we make sure we don’t fall into error when we read the Scriptures? Here are the 4 Cs of Bible reading to bear in mind as you read.
Our Bibles have two testaments for a purpose – they reflect the old and new covenants God made with His people. Much of the Bible (39 books no less) was written when there was a different covenant (agreement) between man and God. This is not to say that God was different, but the way he related to humanity was. It was a provisional arrangement, which God knew had a shelf life until Jesus came. The Old Covenant was based on the law and demonstrated our inability to do what God wanted and why we needed a rescuer of the calibre of God himself to enter our world and bring in the new arrangement through His death and resurrection. Failure to ‘spot the difference’, can lead to odd interpretations. We are wise to read the Old Testament the way the apostles did: in the light of the coming of Jesus.
You would rightly feel annoyed if someone twisted a sentence that you had written by taking it out of the context in which you had written it. But Christians do this all the time when they wrench a verse out of the paragraph in which it occurs. Many have quoted Jer. 29:10 to encourage friends who are uncertain about the future: ‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the LORD, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’ But look at the context and you see this is said to 6th century BC Jews in Exile in Babylon. It has nothing to do with you or me. Far better to encourage someone that God is with them in whatever the future brings. Eg. For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by Him we cry, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children (Romans 8:15-16). So we read the Bible in context, of the book in which we are reading and also in the context of the overall story of the Bible.
If u get a msg that lks like this u know its a text! You wouldn’t necessarily complain that the writer didn’t spell it correctly. The canon of the Bible uses all manner of types of literature and we are wise to read it in the way it was written. We don’t believe we worship a saviour made of oak because we know that Jesus is using a metaphor when he says ‘I am the door’. We read proverbial sayings differently from commands and read commands under the law differently from the commands of Jesus under the New Covenant. When the prophets speak of the moon turning into blood, we know it’s not a strange warning from the met office but the way they spoke of events that had great significance. The Bible is a library of books and just as we wouldn’t usually decide on randomly reading a library book without spotting which section it came from, so we shouldn’t read the Bible without checking what kind of literature we are reading.
If you think you have seen something in the Bible no one else has seen, you are probably wrong! The Bible is written at a different time and culture to our own, and we need to read it in community lest we unwittingly miss-interpret it. We have the benefit of church history’s reflection on scripture and scholarly work from the finest minds that give us insights into the cultural and literary background. You may not have access to such books yourself, but checking your interpretation with more experienced and better read Christians will help keep you on the straight and narrow when you read the Bible on your own.
Covenant, context, canon and community: 4 C’s helping you to be a ‘careful’ and ‘safe’ Bible reader!
Want to learn more?
Bible Genres is a Cover to Cover study guide for individuals and small groups, which aims to help readers interpret Scripture by looking at the 7 main styles of literature included it the Bible. Namely: law, narrative, psalms, prophecy, Gospel, Epistles and apocalyptic. It explains that we can get ourselves into a massive mess if we fail to spot the ways the author intends to express meaning, as well as how to overcome this. To find out more, click here.
About Andy Peck
Andy is a writer and Bible teacher who has served as a tutor with CWR since 2006. He is the author of Coached by Christ, A Life to Die For and co-author of Unlocking the Bible. He worked as an editor with Christianity magazine and hosts the Leadership File on Premier Christian Radio.