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How To Read The Bible | Peter Kreeft | An Excerpt
Can Understand The Bible: A Practical and Illuminating Guide to Each Book
in The Bible
There are thousands of books about The Book. Why another one?
Book itself says, "Of making of many books there is no end, and much study
is a weariness of the flesh" (Eccles 12:12). (This is the favorite Bible
verse of lazy students.) How is this book different?
First, it is for beginners. It is needed because biblical literacy is declining
in Western civilization, as is literacy in general.
Second, it is especially (but not exclusively) for Catholics. Ironically,
biblical literacy has declined among Catholics too since Vatican II, even
though that Council strongly called for a renewal of it. A book like this
on Bible basics would have been superfluous fifty years ago.
Third, it is short and simple. Each chapter can be read over a cup of coffee
and a doughnut. It is not full of the latest theories in professional biblical
scholarship. I am not a professional Bible scholar, but a teacher and an
amateur. (Amateur means "lover".)
It is also designed to be practical. It is not a short-cut to reading the
Bible itself. It is like a lab manual rather than a textbook. (So is the
Bible itself its Author intends reading and thinking to be preliminary to
doing: see Mt 7:24-29.)
Reading the Bible should be a form of prayer. The Bible should be read in
God's presence and as the unfolding of His mind. It is not just a book,
but God's love letter to you. It is God's revelation, God's mind, operating
through your mind and your reading, so your reading is your response to
His mind and will. Reading it is aligning your mind and will with God's;
therefore it is a fulfillment of the prayer "Thy will be done", which is
the most basic and essential key to achieving our whole purpose on earth:
holiness and happiness. I challenge each reader to give a good excuse (to
God, not to me, or even just to yourself) for not putting aside fifteen
minutes a day to use this fundamental aid to fulfilling the meaning of your
Both prayer and Bible reading are ways of listening to God. They should
blend: our prayer should be biblical and our Bible reading prayerful.
In Catholic theology, the Bible is sacramental: it is a sign that is an
occasion for grace. The Bible fits the two classic definitions of a sacrament:
(I) a visible sign instituted by Christ to give grace and (2) a sign that
effects what it signifies. However, unlike the seven sacraments, it does
not work ex opere operato; it does not give grace by itself, but
is dependent on our use of it.
How do you get grace? The same way you get wet. You don't make the rain,
and you don't make God's grace. But to get grace you have to go outside
yourself, you have to go where God is, just as you have to go outside to
get rained on. If you stand in the street, you'll get hit by a car. If you
stand in the Bible, you'll get hit by God's kiss. The Bible is a big sprig
of His mistletoe.
Though it is not a sacrament, it has power. Its power comes from two wills,
God's and ours. It is the Spirit's sword (Eph 6:17) that cuts our very being
apart (Heb 4:12), though we must give it an opening by exposing our minds
and hearts and wills to its cutting edge. When we do that, God's Kingdom
comes to earth. For it first comes to that tiny but crucially important
bit of earth that is your mind and will. Then it transforms your life, which
your mind and will control. Then, through your life, your world.
What strange kind of a book is this, anyway?
The word Bible means "book" (singular). But the Bible is in fact
seventy-two different books (sixty-six in the Protestant canon) from many
different authors and times and in many different literary styles and forms:
history, poetry, prophecy, drama, philosophy, letters, visions, practical
advice, songs, laws, and much more. This is not a book, this is a world.
Yet there is a unity in this diversity. Most essentially the Bible is a
story. Unlike the holy books of other religions, the Bible's basic line
is a story line. It narrates real events that really happened to real people
in real history. G. K. Chesterton said, "There are only two things that
never get boring: stories and persons." The persons involved here include
the three most important Persons of all: the Father, the Son, and the Holy
Spirit. The Bible is "stories of God". But it is also stories about us,
about our relationships with God and each other. (The word religion,
from the Latin religare, means essentially "binding relationship".)
The horizontal (man-to-man) and vertical (man-to-God) relationships meet
here and form a cross.
But there are many kinds of stories: war stories, love stories, detective
stories, and many more. What kind of story is this? It tells us what kind
of story we are in; that is how it tells us the meaning of our lives.
It is a love story, because it is history, and history is "His story", and
He is love. Love is God's plan and purpose in all that He does.
The story unfolds in three acts, which theologians call creation, fall,
and redemption. Every story ever told fits this pattern, because this is
the basic pattern of all human history.
We could call the three stages setup, upset, and reset. First a situation
is set up; then it is somehow upset by a problem or conflict
or challenge; and then it is reset, when the challenge is confronted,
either successfully or unsuccessfully. Paradise, Paradise Lost, and Paradise
Regained are the three acts of the cosmic human drama, and we are now in
the third act, which began as early as the third chapter of Genesis, when
God began to "redeem", or buy back, fallen mankind.
This third act, in turn, has three scenes. First, God reveals Himself as
Father, in the Old Testament; then'. as Jesus the Son in the Gospels; finally,
He sends the Holy Spirit to be the soul of His Church for the rest of time.
Read Part Two of
"How To Read The Bible"
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