Bible Reading Is an Art
There is some science to good Bible reading.
It’s important to know the fundamentals of language and communication, of subjects and verbs and objects, and most importantly conjunctions. Much can be gained from boning up on some basics of English or reading in Mortimer Adler’s How to Read a Book or Tony Reinke’s Lit! A Christian Guide to Reading Books. It’s helpful to have good Bible study aids, like overviews, introductions, and reliable commentaries (especially for the Old Testament prophets), and to have some sense of how the Scriptures are put together as a whole.
And just like we learn to ride a bike with training wheels, it can help to have someone spell out some simple method of “inductive Bible study” with the dance steps of observation, interpretation, and application. Rudimentary, memorable approaches like this abound in Christian circles serious about the Bible. They are a gift to help us get going, and come to an otherwise dauntingly large Book with some idea of what to do next.
But the point of learning the little bits of science behind it all is to be ready to dance when the music begins to play. And the best of dancing isn’t just taught in classrooms, but caught in practice.
Good Bible reading is no mere science; it is an art. The Bible itself is a special compilation of great artistries. And the best way to learn the art of reading the Bible for yourself is this: Read it for yourself.
Ask an Old Saint
Ask an old, weathered saint who’s been reading the Scriptures for himself for decades. See if he has a nice, clean formulation for how he goes about his daily reading. Does he have three or four simple, memorable steps he walks through consciously each day? The answer likely will be no; he’s learned over time there’s more art to it than that.
“The best way to learn the art of reading the Bible for yourself is this: Read it for yourself.”
Or more generally, just ask, How do you go about reading the Bible? You might see it on his face that it’s a tough question to answer. Not because there aren’t some basic, little “scientific” things, like the basics of reading and comprehension, or the various patterns and methods he’s developed for feeding his own soul over the years, but because he’s learned that so much of good Bible reading is an art. It’s a skill learned in engaging the task, not mainly sitting under formal instruction. And those who have read their Bibles most are the ones who have learned the craft best.
Learn the Art Through Practice
No biblical author gives us any nice, clean acrostic for how to go about daily devotions. That may feel daunting for the beginner who wants help, but in the long run it proves wonderfully freeing. It can be a great help to have training wheels for a season, but once you learn to ride the bike, those extra things sticking out the back are terribly constrictive and limiting.
At the end of the day, there is simply no replacement for finding a regular time and place, blocking out distractions, putting your nose in the text and letting your mind and heart be led and captured and thrilled by God himself communicating to us in his objective written words.
So, here at the outset of a new year, if you feel uncomfortable in the Scriptures, and inadequate in the art of Bible reading, the single most important thing you can do is make a regular practice of reading the Bible for yourself. There is no substitute for a few focused minutes each day in the text. You may be surprised how much the little bits add up in the long haul.
As much as we want a quick-fix, some fast lesson that makes us near-experts in eight short minutes, the best of Bible reading isn’t learned overnight, or even after a semester of lectures, but day after day, week after week, month after month, and year after year, imbibing the Bible, having God’s words inform our minds, inspire our hearts, instruct our lives. It is then that we slowly see the lights going on everywhere as we walk through life, and keep walking through the texts.
Discover the Art of Meditation
One piece of counsel for any Bible reading plan, however ambitious, is this: Don’t let the push to check boxes keep you from lingering over a text, whether to seek to understand it (what we might call “study”) or to emotionally glory in what you understand (“meditation”).
Think of your Bible reading as a daily surveying of the biblical landscape to find a spot to settle down for a few moments to meditate, which is the highpoint and richest moment of Bible intake. Go for breadth (in reading) and depth (in study), where you stop at something you don’t understand, pose questions and provide answers, consult resources, and perhaps capture a brief reflection in words or a diagram. There is a place for “raking” in Bible reading and gathering up the leaves at a swift pace, but when we “dig” in Bible study, we unearth the diamonds. In meditation, we marvel at the jewels.
Bible reading is like watching the film in real-time. Study is like going through a clip frame by frame. Meditation, then, along with Scripture memory, is for lingering over particular frames and pressing the significance to our hearts, and into our lives.
Grow in Finding Jesus
One final thing to say about Bible reading as art, not just science, is that Jesus taught his apostles to read the Scriptures in what we might describe as an artistic way. The science part of Bible reading is essential, but it doesn’t necessitate reading so rigidly, narrowly, and modernistically that only the most explicit and specific of prophecies apply to Christ, or that the text is always “for the original readers” and never for us.
Jesus himself read the Scriptures with much more flair — not in any way making things up, but seeing with the eyes of faith what’s really there to be seen below the surface, often out of sight to the natural mind. Such deep reading is a kind of acquired taste, through regular practice, not an easily transferred skill; it’s developing the apostolic palette for finding Jesus throughout the Scriptures, in his many textures and hues, without falling into either unbelief or make-believe. It is learning with the apostle John that “the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy” (Revelation 19:10).
“Learn to find Jesus throughout the Scriptures, in his many textures and hues, without falling into either unbelief or make-believe.”
And so “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets,” Jesus himself “interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27). He claimed, “Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad” (John 8:56). He said Moses “wrote of me” (John 5:46), and that “everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled” (Luke 24:44). And so he opened their minds — beyond their narrow, fallen rationality — to truly understand the Scriptures (Luke 24:45).
As we learn to read the Bible not only with our left brain, but with our whole mind and heart, we see more and more how the apostles heard the whispers of the Scriptures — and how they saw pointers to Jesus everywhere.
A revised and expanded version of this article now appears in Habits of Grace: Enjoying Jesus Through the Spiritual Disciplines. The book is available in hardback, for Kindle, as an audio book, and free of charge as a full PDF.
David Mathis also has written a study-guide workbook to facilitate individual and group study of the book.
Also available is an email course of five short videos, provided by Crossway Books.