When we read the Bible, we intuitively get its meaning. If we read a story about Abraham, we know that characters move through a story until its conclusion. If we read Proverbs, we know that we read wise sayings.
Yet our intuition mostly comes by way of basic education: we learned how to read and understand stories. So we apply what we’ve learned in school and in life to the Bible. And we attend a church where we hear the Bible preached. For that reason, we also have learned how to apply the Bible to our lives.
What we call intuition in large part derives from experience and education. And so it is worth considering how we get meaning from the Bible since we all bring something to the text. The question should be: are we bringing beneficial assumptions when we read it?
Here are four main ways that I see us reading Scripture to grasp its meaning. By looking at each, we can grow in our awareness of how we read the Bible and hopefully become more skilled at reading Scripture through this knowledge.
First, we read Scripture to understand its story (or argument)
As noted, we might read the story of Abraham and trace his call from Ur to go the Promised Land. We see how the story narrates its storyline. Or we might read a letter of Paul and trace his argument.
This is the most common way that academics and Reformed Christians aim to read the Bible—with varying levels of success
The main obstacle in this approach is moving from what the text said to what it now says. Put another way, the challenge becomes applying the Bible to our lives. Does the Bible talk about economics? Does it talk about how to overcome gender dysphoria? If it does, how?
And why should ancient stories or letters apply to specific cities universally to all ages and generations? One common answer is that while Scripture does not directly apply to every contemporary situation, it gives us principles that we can use to work through contemporary problems.
So, second, we read Scripture to understand spiritual principles
Joseph fled from Potiphar’s wife. So when we fall into temptation, we too should flee from whatever tempts us to lust. That’s a spiritual principle. It has the advantage of being directly tied to a biblical passage. It has the disadvantage of not directly being the narrative’s communicative intent.
The Joseph cycle narrates how God kept his promise to Israel to bless them through Joseph’s brothers selling him into Egyptian slavery. What his brothers meant for evil, God meant for good. God will continue to bless his people and fulfill his promises despite famine and human evil.
So, should we be like Joseph?
Should we be like David?
With David, it becomes even trickier. David sexually assaulted a woman and had her husband murdered. Be like David? Erm, not those parts. What about Onan. Should we be like Onan? Or should we not be like Onan and only have sex to procreate—if that’s even an appropriate sense?
How exactly do we get a universal principle out of the text? These sorts of challenges make reading the Bible according to its story or argument and applying it to contemporary challenges difficult.
Third, we read Scripture to understand history (or science)
We can read the Bible to construct a history behind the text. So some have read Genesis 1 and proposed various theories about a water-firmament that fell during the world-wide flood. One goal, apparently, was to construct a theory of scientific origins and of the flood to account for the geological data that we encounter and in contrast to another scientific theory (evolution).
Others attempt to trace genealogies in Scripture to define the exact historical progression of the world. Still others attempt to reconstruct the Israelite kingdom’s history through comparing Kings to Chronicles and other historical documents. The result is a plausible historical reconstruction.
The main challenges here include: (1) biblical authors did not write to create scientific theories nor (2) precise chronological accounts (in most cases). So these reconstructions provide insight historical and scientific truths but not necessarily the intent of the biblical authors.
And while these reconstructions may answer contemporary scientific and historical questions, they create even further distance between what the text meant and what it says to contemporary people today. This type of study places the Bible into the hands of experts but not always the average person.
Fourth, we read Scripture to understand metaphysics (or ontology)
The least appreciated way of reading the Bible in our day has to do with metaphysics. Metaphysics studies the essence of things. According to Scripture, God is essentially good, love, and holy. And through reflection on the biblical text, we can say true things about God. And those true things are always true about God; so the text lives and breathes truth into our contemporary lives.
For example, we read a number of passages where God doesn’t change. So we say God is unchangeable. We also learn that he is good. So we can say: God is unchangingly good. And today, God is the same. So when I suffer, I can look to God who always is good.
To read the Bible in this way, we read the Bible to understand its story and argument. Then we reflect on what the whole Bible conveys before making true statements and applications from the Bible while aided by natural revelation.
This way of reading the Bible includes way 1 and allows for ways 2 and 3. But its focus is on theology. Way 1, commonly called biblical theology, only goes so far. We need a theological or metaphysical account of God and his creation for a fulsome and practical understanding of the Bible.
The main challenge here is that a metaphysical study of Scripture is philosophical. Well, all study of the Bible imposes philosophical understanding upon it. If you read for history, you’ve applied historical assumptions. For spiritual principles, you’ve assumed foundationalism is true. For the story and argument, you’ve assumed a modern narrative-historical study is best.
None of these ways exhaust the possible ways we study Scripture. But the metaphysically orientated approach has significant advantages. It begins with a literal study of the whole Bible. And then it engages the whole Bible’s meaning to define truth, metaphysically or ontologically. At that point, we can make applications to the present.
If the doctrine of eternal generation means that God always shares of his goodness, we can rely on that being true no matter the trial we enter.
So what now? Keep engaging the Bible by the Spirit to know God. Be aware of how you approach Scripture. And seek to know the truth through Holy Scripture and so be transformed by that truth.