Can We Read the Bible Devotionally? Should We Even Try?

I received an email from a church member last night. In it he asks a question that I’ve received in different forms many times in my career as a professor and pastor, so I thought it would be worth posting his question and my response here.

van Gogh - BibleHis question was prompted by comments I had made that every single statement in the Bible is “culture-bound,” that even the most seemingly straightforward assertions or commands in Scripture are part of a complex weave of ancient cultural and literary realities. This means, then, that if we really want to understand what these biblical statements are all about we need to read them, as best as we can, in light of their ancient setting.

Here’s his question:

If absolutely none of the Bible’s commands can be taken at face value, but must be interpreted after major study, the same must apply to promises in the Bible. How can one then read the Bible “devotionally,” claiming and being encouraged by promises, without a major study to make sure of the promises’ meanings, since it is unlikely they mean what they appear on the surface to mean – just like the commands we read in the Bible?

And here’s how I responded, edited slightly for the blog (the smiley-face is original):

Let me try to give an analogy here. The earth spins on its axis and revolves around the sun. Those are basic scientific facts. However, they’re easy to ignore or deny: from our personal perspective it sure doesn’t feel like we’re spinning or moving, and it sure looks like the sun turns around the earth. And in our everyday lives the true facts seem to make very little difference: we go through the seasons, we watch the sun rise, enjoy the sun during the day (or hope it comes out!), and watch the sun set. We even speak in our everyday language about “sunrise” and “sunset,” as if the sun actually goes around the earth.

However, there are moments in our everyday lives, and more significant moments in our collective life as human societies, where we need to make sure we pay attention to those facts. When we want to know the weather forecast, we sure hope the meteorologist has worked with accurate models that include those basic facts of earth’s rotation and revolution. When we want to know what’s going on with climate change, we sure hope the climatologists have considered the implications of the basic realities of the earth’s rotation on its axis and revolution around the sun. And these basic facts have many other implications, from launching the satellites that we now all rely on for our GPS and cell phones, to charting the flight paths of the airplanes we fly on, and more.

Appreciating the basic fact of the antiquity of Scripture is kind of like that. It is a basic fact, there’s no way of getting around it. When we pick up our English Bible and read it and it seems to make sense, it can be easy to ignore or deny the fact of Scripture’s “ancientness.” But that’s ironic: we only have the luxury of sitting down with our English Bibles because a team of scholars has spent years to produce that translation from an ancient text in ancient languages, with that text being reconstructed by other teams of scholars who have spent years comparing ancient manuscripts to come up with the most likely original reading of the text. It’s a fact: the biblical writings are ancient human writings. And that must be taken into account in how we read them.

I have no problem with devotional readings of Scripture, however – I encourage it, in fact. That’s much like everyday people enjoying the sunshine, speaking of “sunrise” and “sunset” without giving much thought to whether their words are really accurate. God can speak through our own private – even inaccurate! – readings of Scripture. Hey, if God can speak through Balaam and his donkey, God can speak through anything – even if that’s not God’s ideal way to speak. So I’m all for people reading their Bibles, hearing God encouraging them or challenging them to greater faith and hope and love, even if they are badly misreading that promise that was actually a covenant promise for ancient Israel in exile (e.g. Jer 29:11), or whatever.

However, there are times when it is very important that we make sure we take into account the basic fact of Scripture’s “ancientness,” because we want to be as sure as possible that we are getting the right interpretation of a particular passage. It’s one thing for someone to be personally challenged to faith, hope, or love by their private reading of their English translation of the Bible. It’s quite another thing for them to take that private reading and impose it on others, or to make it the basis for the faith and practice of their congregation or conference, especially if that reading of Scripture is going to in some way constrain the faith and practice of others. At that point, we need to say, “Hold on – this is important. Let’s go back to the text together and read it in context.”

At least, that’s how I see it. 🙂

For more on these ideas, check out my post on “What is the Bible, and How Should We Read It?” Cross-posted from © Michael W. Pahl.