How NOT to Read the Bible

by Steve Kindle

Most of the differences in biblical interpretation result from our view of the Bible. How can we have different views of the Bible, you say? (We could add that our views of the Bible come from our views of God, but that will have to wait for another post!) Well, it all comes down to what we think we are reading. Is it direct communication from God meant immediately for me? Or, a fully human document with many voices directed to ancient peoples other than myself? Or, something in between? Much has been written about each of these approaches to Scripture. My concern in this post is not so much what kind of document the Bible is, but our relationship to it. Are we reading something intended for the reader today, or are we looking over the shoulder of the original recipients and reading their mail? I opt for the latter but fully recognize that we are the indirectly intended readers. We can derive important meaning for us, as they originally derived important meaning, but we must never assume that they are the same thing. Let me illustrate with the following examples.

1 Corinthians 1:5-7

…for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind— just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you— so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.

The casual Bible reader and especially the devotional reader will easily slip into the habit of assuming that the word “you” in this verse (and most verses) refers to the one reading. This obscures several things. First, the “you” here is one situated in the Corinthian congregation almost 2000 years ago. It is this “you” that has been enriched and strengthened and not lacking in any spiritual gift. But most importantly, it is that ancient one who is waiting for the revealing of Jesus. By assuming that the “you” in mind is the reader we miss entirely that situation that permeates the New Testament: the early church was expecting the imminent return of Jesus in their generation. We overlook entirely that this expectation was unrealized and push its expectation (wrongly) into our own time. 

1 Corinthians 2:6-8

 Yet among the mature we do speak wisdom, though it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to perish. 7But we speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. 8None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.

In this example, if we assume this is a communication to the reader, we will assume that “the rulers of this age” are the rulers of our present age, overlooking once again that the rulers in question are the ones that crucified Jesus. This distinction is important to maintain because it is they “who are doomed to perish” with the return of the Lord, not the rulers of our age or any other. Paul is writing this because he is convinced that Jesus would soon bring in the kingdom with his return. Missing this very important first century belief is essential to understanding the New Testament, one we routinely miss in casual reading. 


Revelation 1:1

The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place; he made it known by sending his angel to his servant John,

Once again, the casual Bible reader has over and over again understood this passage, even the entire book, as a foretelling of the history of John’s time to the end of the world as we know it, because the Bible is seen as a communication intended directly for the reader. So ingrained is this way of reading the Bible that it involves ignoring the declaration that whatever is revealed “must soon take place.”

In reading ancient texts, especially in the case of the Bible, knowing the oral contexts of listening to a text is revealing. In particular, picking up on the verbal cues helps an audience interpret what is being told to them. In the case of Revelation, the device known as an inclusio has an important role. It is formed by a beginning verbal clue that repeats its self with other material in between bound by the repeated clue. Its function is to alert a listener to understand that what is between the two verbal cues of the inclusio is to be understood as forming one meaning. It is to be held together as one idea.

“…what must soon take place” is the first clue of the inclusio from Revelation 1:1. The end of the inclusio is Revelation 22:21 making the whole of the book of Revelation one idea.  The one who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!  Thus, the entire book testifies to the strongly held belief in Jesus’ return in their lifetime. 

Reading the Bible as a communication directly to the reader causes a host of interpretive problems. Learning to read as one indirectly involved is a spiritual discipline that takes time but offers a myriad of rewards. Principally, it allows the world of the Bible to represent itself and not be confused with the world of the reader. A worthy goal.

Interested in a Progressive Bible study? Meet with us on Zoom

Our first session will look at more of these ASTONISHING texts as we search for answers to what the Bible is and how it makes sense in the 21st century

WHEN: We meet once a month for an hour on the first Monday of each month at 4:00 pm PDT beginning in April 2021

WHERE: In a Zoom meeting (We’ll send you a link)

WHAT: Our focus is on how Progressive, post-modern insights combined with critical scholarship inform the meaning of the Bible

FOR WHOM: It’s for those who are uneasy with conventional Christianity and are looking for something more. We pull no punches.

HOW: If you sign up on the form below, you will receive a link and a preparation guide for each session.

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We want this to be a safe place for inquiry and discussion. All are welcome and encouraged to participate. You will receive a reminder email a day or two before the class with the link and suggestions to prepare. I look forrward to being with you.

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