Approaches to Reading Scripture

While it would be too much to give a comprehensive account of the ways the Bible has been read, it is certainly worth noting some of the main approaches that others have followed.

The Plain Meaning – We can start by reading a passage at its face value. We could call this the literal meaning. For example. The Story of David and Goliath is about how an inexperienced David fought with the fearsome Goliath, with only a sling and stones. Jesus feeding the 5000 is about Jesus taking a boys lunch and multiplying it to feed a crowd with left overs. We are not looking for symbolism or hidden meanings, but what the text says if read plainly.

Symbolism – When a phrase is symbolic, we try to understand the symbol. We consider the context, the author, the first audience and the situation. For example, we do not take the following verses literally, as if God rode a cloud like a skateboard: Psalm 104:3-4 ESV

he makes the clouds his chariot;
he rides on the wings of the wind;
[4] he makes his messengers winds,
his ministers a flaming fire.

This image is in a poetic book, the Psalms. This psalm is a reflection on the world from the standpoint of the Days of Creation of Genesis 1. So we understand the image to mean that God is the master of the atmosphere, and that even thunderstorms answer to his commands.

The "Analogy of Faith" is a phrase in Romans 12:6 . It has been taken to mean that the Bible in its parts should be read in the light of the whole. That is, when you encounter an obscure passage, it is best to read it in comparison (analogy) to other passages. It is also helpful to read unclear and symbolic passages by clear and explanatory passages. Verses saying that God "repented" ought to be read next to verses saying that "God is not a person that he would change his mind" (see Gen 6:6 and Numbers 23:9 – with study you will discover that two words are used for repentance – one for people and the other for God.). The 6th Commandment "Thou Shall not Kill" is read against the balance of scripture to see that it means something like "Thou shall not murder." Otherwise we could take the command to include a prohibition against eating meat. This approach gives scripture a self balancing quality. It is based on the theological point that God does not lie.

Rules of Grammar and Composition Apply. Basically, we read the Bible as we would read any other literature. It is not intended to be read for secret messages or hidden meanings. It follows the grammar of it's original languages. It follows the conventions of literature. For example, while we generally sign our letters at the end, the New Testament letters begin by identifying the writer and the audience, as was customary in that period. Some people pull single phrases out of the paragraph or story from which it came and invest it with another meaning. Just as you understand Shakespeare by reading the whole sonnet, or Bono by listening to the whole song, we read the Bible by noting its shape and form.

Higher Meaning. We do not recommend this approach, but many have sought a deeper or more spiritual meaning to a text. This often came out of a philosophy that the real and apparent is not as excellent as the symbolic and abstract. So, in I Samuel 17, David and Goliath might be taken to be about Truth verses Error, or Freedom verses Injustice. Sometimes numbers are analyzed for deeper meaning. In Mark 5:13, almost 2,000 pigs are driven into the sea of Galilee; by a very imaginative interpretation, one author suggested that the world would come to an end in almost 2,000 years from that point in time. At FRESH READ, we will take a more literary approach to the Scriptures.

Meditation. In the Biblical use of the term, meditation means a deep reflection upon a text of scripture. Unlike forms of meditation which seek to empty the mind, the biblical use of meditation is to fill the mind. This is viewed as a mental and a spiritual process. It takes time. It recognized that the scriptures are a personal communication from the Creator, and seeks his insight into what he has said to us in the Bible. (See Psalm 1)


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