Part Two of "How To Read The Bible" | Read Part One
The books of both Old and New Testaments are divided into three main categories: history, wisdom, and prophecy. Thus the Bible encompasses past, present, and future. But its history books are more than records of the past; they tell us truths that are just as true and operative for the present. And its wisdom books tell timeless truths that are not just for the present time but for all times. Finally, its prophets do not merely foretell the future, but "forth-tell" God's truth for all times. The whole Bible is God's permanent prophet continually telling forth the truths we need to know to guide our road on earth to a happy eternity.
There are two fundamentally different ways of reading the Bible: as God's Word to man or as man's word about God; as divine revelation or as human speculation; as God's certain "way down" to us or as our groping and uncertain "way up" to Him. It claims to be the first of those two things: divine revelation, "the Word of God". But it is the Word of God in the words of men. For God is a good teacher and therefore gives us not only everything that we need but also only what we can take. He reveals Himself more and more, progressively, as we progress through our story. Stories are not static. At first, it is simple, even simplistic and crude"baby talk", if you will. But it is true, even perfect, baby talk. We should expect the Old Testament to be more primitive than the New, but no less true. For instance, good and evil are revealed first primarily as justice and injustice, right and wrong; then, gradually, the primacy of charity is revealed. For a charity that has not first learned Justice is only sentiment.
The Bible claims to give us four things that we need and want most, four things God has to give us: truth, power, life, and joy.
First, the Bible claims to give us truthtruth about God that we could not have discovered by ourselves (and also truth about ourselves that we could not have discovered by ourselves).
But what kind of truth? Not just abstract correctness but something more solid, the kind of truth that we say is "tried and true" (see Ps 12:6), the kind that is "made true" or performed (see Ezek 12:25), the kind that "comes true" as the fulfillment of promises (see Mt 5:17-18). This is the kind of truth we find in a person, not just in an ideain a person who is totally faithful to his word. God is that Person, and the Hebrew word for that kind of truth is emeth. If you let this Book speak to you, you will find that it shows you the true character of God and of yourself. It is a mirror.
Second, the Bible claims to have power. It uses images like a hammer and fire (Jer 23:29) for itself It calls itself "the sword of the Spirit" (Eph 6: 17).
But what kind of power is this? It is not physical power but spiritual power, which is infinitely greater, for it is the power to change spirit, not just matter, power over free hearts and minds, which the Chinese call te. It is the power of goodness, and of love, and even of physical weakness and suffering and sacrifice.
Third, the Bible claims to give life. Jesus calls it a seed (Lk 8): a living, growing thing. Hebrews 4: 12 says that "the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit ... discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart." Physical swords only give death; this gives life. Physical swords only cut bodies; this cuts open souls and heals them. For a sword, though in itself a dead thing, can come alive in the hands of a swordsman; and this is "the sword of the Spirit". What happened in Ezekiel 37, when the dry bones came to life, can also happen to you as you read this Book, if you let itthat is, if you read it prayerfully, in the presence of God, talking to Him as you read it. For this is no trick or gimmick of human imagination; He is really there! And "He is not the God of the dead but of the living" (Mt 22:32).
But what kind of life is this? It is spiritual life, eternal life, supernatural life, a sharing, by grace, in the very life of God (see I Pet 1:4). The Greek word for this in the New Testament is zoe. When you read the Bible, beware: it will do things to you. For when you read it, it is reading you. Its Author is reading you, from within. It is like looking into a mirror and seeing another face there looking at you. Or like sitting on a rock that suddenly moves and turns out to be a large and alarming animal. "Look out! It's alive!" Bibles should come with warning labels.
The Ignatius Study Bible series provide Commentary, Notes, and Study Questions by Dr. Scott Hahn and Curtis Mitch. Also included are an Introductory Essay, Topical Essays, Word Studies and Charts. The Introductory Essay covers questions of authorship, date, destination, structure and themes. The Topical Essays explore the major themes of the book, often relating them to the doctrines of the Church. The Word Studies explain the background to important Bible terms, while the Charts summarize crucial biblical information "at a glance". Published so far:
Gospel of Matthew
Gospel of Mark
Gospel of Luke
Gospel of John
Acts of the Apostles
1 and 2 Corinthians
Galatians and Ephesians
Philippians, Colossians and Philemon
Thessalonians, Timothy, and Titus
Fourth, the Bible claims to give joy. The Psalms are chockfull of expressions of joy in God's Word (e.g., 1:2, 19:8, 1 19: 97, 119:103). Jeremiah says to God, "Thy words became to me a joy" (15:16).
But what kind of Joy is this? It is the joy that does not depend on anything earthly, anything in this world; the joy that is apparently without a cause, because its cause is bigger than the universe: it is God's love. This Book is a love letter from God with your name on it. God doesn't send junk mail or spam. He says, "I have called you by name, you are Mine" (Is 43: 1). The words I love you are magic words: they change us, they bring wonder and inner surprise, they bring us the greatest joy our lives can contain on earth. How much more when we hear them from our Creator!
The Bible calls itself "the Word of God". But it points beyond itself to the "Word of God", Jesus Christ. Every word in this book is part of His portrait. The words man can utter are not alive, but the Word God utters eternally is not only alive but divine. He calls Himself "the Son of God". Meeting Him is the point of the whole Bible (see Jn 5:3 9) and the whole point of our lives.
Here are ten tips for reading the Bible profitably.
1. At first, forget commentaries and books that try to tell you what the Bible means. Read the Bible itself Get it "straight from the horse's mouth". Data first. The Bible is the most interesting book ever written, but some of the books about it are among the dullest.
2. Read repeatedly. You can never exhaust the riches in this deep mine. The greatest saints, sages, theologians, and philosophers have not exhausted its gold; you won't either.
3. First read through a book quickly, to get an overall idea; then go back and reread more slowly and carefully. Don't rush. Forget time. Relish. Ponder. Meditate. Think. Question. Sink slowly into the spiritual sea and swim in it. Soul-surf its waves.
4. Try to read without prejudice. Let the author speak to you. Don't impose your ideas on the book. Listen first before you talk back.
5. Once you have listened, do talk back. Dialogue with the Author as if He were standing right in front of youbecause He is! Ask Him questions and go to His Book to see how He answers. God is a good teacher, and a good teacher wants his students to ask questions.
6. Don't confuse understanding with evaluating. That is, don't confuse interpretation with critique. First understand, then evaluate. This sounds simple, but it is harder to do than you probably think. For instance, many readers interpret the Bible's miracle stories as myths because they don't believe in miracles. But that is simply bad interpretation. Whether or not miracles really happened, the first question is what was the author trying to say. Was he telling a parable, fable, or myth? Or was he telling a story that he claimed really happened? Whether you agree with him or not is the second question, not the first. Keep first things first. Don't say "I don't believe Jesus literally rose from the dead, therefore I interpret the Resurrection as a myth." The Gospel writers did not mean to write myth but fact. If the Resurrection didn't happen, it is not a myth. It is a lie. And if it did happen, it is not a myth. It is a fact.
7. Keep in mind these four questions, then, and ask them in this order: First, what does the passage say? That is the data. Second, what does it mean? What did the author mean? That is the interpretation. Third, is it true? That is the question of belief. Fourth, so what? What difference does it make to me, to my life now? That is the question of application.
8. Look for "the big picture", the main point. Don't lose the forest for the trees. Don't get hung up on a few specific points or passages. Interpret each passage in its context, including the context of the whole Bible.
9. After you have read a passage, go back and analyze it. Outline it. Define it. Get it clear. Don't be satisfied with a nice, vague feeling. Find the thought, and the structures of thought.
10. Be honestin reading any book, but especially this one, because of its total claims on you. There is only one honest reason for believing the Bible: because it is true, not because it is helpful, or beautiful, or comforting, or challenging, or useful, or even good. If it's not true, no honest person should believe it, even if it were all those other things. And if it is, every honest person should, even if it weren't. Seek the truth and you will find it. That's a promise (see Mt 7:7).
Peter Kreeft, Ph.D., is a professor of philosophy at Boston College. He is an alumnus of Calvin College (AB 1959) and Fordham University (MA 1961, Ph.D., 1965). He taught at Villanova University from 1962-1965, and has been at Boston College since 1965.
He is the author of numerous books (over forty and counting) including: C.S. Lewis for the Third Millennium, Fundamentals of the Faith, Catholic Christianity, Back to Virtue, and Three Approaches to Abortion. In addition to You Can Understand the Bible, his most recent Ignatius Press books include Socrates Meets Sartre and The God Who Loves You.
Dr. Kreeft's personal web site | Dr. Kreeft's author page at IgnatiusInsight.com, with full listing of books in print
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