Three necessary ways to read the Bible
Posted on: 21st August 2016
We need three types of Bible reading in our lives to keep growing and stay healthy, argues Wei-Han Kuan, State Director of CMS VIC.*
Christians ought to be people of the Bible. We believe that the scriptures are useful for teaching and rebuking, for encouragement and edification, for equipping us for life and ministry. We are people of the scriptures, the Bible.
One of the things that have helped me as I have sought to be a person of the Bible is a framework for reading that I came across when I was a theological student. It is Richard Longenecker’s Three Ways of Reading Scripture. His three ways are: (i) Devotional reading; (ii) Homiletical reading, and; (iii) Academic reading.
Devotional reading is a bit like the fruit and flowers of a tree. We read a passage of scripture and ask, “What is God saying to me today?” It’s deeply personal, easy to digest, often pleasant. It’s vital for life and a sense of intimacy with the living God. It doesn’t require much effort to get something out of this reading, but ultimately the satisfaction or value is not that long lasting. You’ve got to keep coming back for more quite often, otherwise, the effect of devotional reading will quickly dissipate.
Homiletical or practical reading for a sermon or Bible study is like the branches and trunk of the tree. You have to make something of it – cut it and haul it. If you handle it carefully you’ll get a lovely piece of furniture out of it. It’s harder work but the effect is longer-lasting and more substantial. You can build big and useful things.
Academic reading is like the roots. It means reading for no other purpose than to learn more about what’s there. It’s hidden and underground – often ugly to the eyes; sometimes messy, muddy and gritty. But it is vital for the health of the whole tree. If you don’t have a healthy root system, you can’t have a living tree. The deeper and more substantial the roots, the bigger the whole tree. The strong roots, nurtured by wise academic reading, provide protection from many kinds of drought and storm.
Keeping all three!
I believe, along with Longenecker, that we need all three types of Bible reading in our lives to keep growing and stay healthy. If we just stick with fruit and flowers, we’ll develop a sweet tooth – a penchant for instant gratification – and miss out on the benefits of more solid stuff. If we spend all our time on timber and construction, we may lack the joy that the fruit and flowers of devotional reading can bring.
Christian leaders especially, as they seek to guide others, must also attend to the hidden roots. That means wrestling with Hebrew and Greek; contesting new errors of interpretation; interacting with insights from other disciplines. This work is essential for the long-term health of the whole tree as it grows from generation to generation. Not all of us will be world-class biblical scholars, but we all need them. We should support and pray for those who work down at the roots, just as we do for those who work with timber and fruit.
A particular temptation for those working in ministry is to only read the Bible homiletically, and be too busy for the other two. To fight against this I try to ensure that I do solid academic work on one book of the Bible each year. This means original language study, half a dozen or more commentaries, and other books. I do this before (ideally a lengthy time before) trying to work out how to turn it into a preaching or teaching series.
Finally, failing to read devotionally on a daily basis leads to spiritual dryness. Fruit and flowers are good gifts from God and a sure means of grace to us. We are foolish to ignore them. It’s often in devotional reading and praying that my own sins are made most apparent to me. It’s there that I am brought to repentance; there that I and taste and see the goodness of the Lord Jesus in my life.
Be encouraged, whichever your natural reading preference. If you’re anything like me, there can be deep spiritual joy in any form of interaction with God’s living word, for God’s Spirit loves to show us the truth about God’s son in God’s word. Just be sure to read all three ways in due season.
*This article was first published on the Gospel Coalition Australia website.