How To Read The Bible | Peter Kreeft | IgnatiusInsight.com
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?
This 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.
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
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"
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
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
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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