How to come to understand the Bible

hebrew textThe way we normally read the Bible is the way we read any book–or at least any book that is translated into our language and comes to us from another time and place. It isn’t that special an activity. I’ve heard a story about a pastor reading an English translation of a “New Testament’ passage of Scripture. A member of the congregation asked what that passage “meant in the Greek.” So the pastor re-read the English translation. It often is that simple.

But from time to time questions arise and Evangelical readers want to “figure out” what the text means. Sometimes these questions aren’t helped by a commentary–maybe that is even often the case. When I say they are “not helped” I am not referring to mistakes and errors in commentaries. Even when the commentary contains truthful information, it doesn’t really help the reader fully understand anything. To do that, he needs be reading many other parts of the Bible and think it all through. The commentary functions as a shorthand hint at the answer but it can’t really enable the reader to grasp the answer.

My advice for you is that you consider your quest for Scriptural understanding somewhat like a jigsaw puzzle.

  1. Don’t let anyone else assemble your puzzle for you. If the only object was to  see the picture at the end of the process, this might be fine. But the actual challenge is that the Bible contains many such puzzles and, taking shortcuts can often lead to more shortcuts. You can get help from people, but they need to work in such a way that they solve the puzzle with you rather than for you. That way you will become better at solving them for yourself and truly understanding Scripture.
  2. Keep the puzzle around. A jigsaw puzzle typically has a place of its own and people work on it bit by bit. If you are going to only allow the puzzle out of its box for a few hours, then you aren’t going to solve anything.
  3. Work what you can and when you can but take breaks. Once you have committed to keeping your questions “on the table” for a long period of time, you can afford to alternate between bouts of concentrated effort and relaxed non-attention. You never know when you might get a flash of insight that pulls it all together. Newton supposedly “discovered” gravity when he was sitting under an apple tree and an apple hit his head. I suspect, however, that he had been thinking about the issue before. Many other heads have been hit by apples without the victim revolutionizing physics.
  4. Never leave pieces in the box. Don’t settle for “the picture” when you know there is data you haven’t accounted for yet. One of the real problems with continuous passage by passage, week by week, preaching through a book of the Bible is that people can assume they now “know” the book when, in fact, they actually have no idea how the book works as a whole. By separating out passages for focused attention, it is easy to miss mistakes.
  5. Never force pieces together. Don’t be satisfied by shoving a piece into a hole you know it doesn’t fit.

Coming to understand the Bible is really a lot like any kind of productive thinking. In fact I got that Newton analogy from chapter 4 of  Henry Hazlitt’s Thinking As A Science.

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