Thursday, May 06, 2021

Getting Reading Right

So I got talking with a guy the other day.

Those of you who know me know I’ve made my career among secular people. Philosophy being my thing, I’ve had a lot of conversations with a lot of different sorts of people — many very far from Christian. But in this case, I was talking to a youngish Christian who had been pulled sideways by reading too much of the Unitarians and various Gnostic sects before getting his grounding in scripture. He’s got shaken about the general reliability of scripture, the Trinity, the deity of Christ, and a variety of other issues, and he’s working his way through them.

I asked him what he thought was the touchstone of truth. He’d already expressed doubts about large sections of scripture, so I wanted to know what he was relying on to show him what was reliable and what wasn’t.

His answer: his own reasoning, plus his spiritual feelings (which he understood to be the promptings of the Spirit). The Bible, he said, he did not totally trust: the gospels were in, but so were the various Gnostic “gospels” he’d read. He used some parts of the Old Testament as proof texts, but found most of it impossible to comprehend. Among the apostles, John was in, as was Peter; but Paul was out, so far as he was concerned.

The Faulty Textbook

Then he trotted out that famous phrase so popular today, “The Bible contains the words of God, but it IS not the word of God.” He went on to explain that he believed that the Bible contains truth, but also contains a lot of errors: to find the real truth, he said, you have to be really careful, and to pick among the statements which are true and those that are false — not to believe everything you're reading.

I asked him, “If the Bible is errant, in your view, then how do you know which parts are reliable and which parts are not? Is it not then like a textbook that your professor gives to you and says, ‘Read this. Some of it’s true, and some of it’s dead wrong. On Friday there is a test, and only the right answers count.’ So on Friday, you take the test and fail; whose fault is it?”

“Well,” he said, “you do the same thing. You have a particular view of theology that you prefer — you believe in inerrancy, you believe in the Trinity, you believe the apostle Paul was reliable, so you read the text that way. But really, you’re just doing what I’m doing: having an idea of what you believe already, and then using the Bible to back your beliefs. We’re both picking and choosing among statements we like and those we don’t. But whereas I know that’s what I’m doing, you don’t realize it’s what you’re doing too.”

Now, it might be all too easy for me to say, “That’s crazy talk.” And maybe it is. But since I knew him to be a thoughtful young man, I felt I owed it to him to think his perspective through carefully. And it became a bit of a soul-searching exercise, at the end of the day.

If I was approaching scripture any differently than he was, there ought to be some specific differences between what I was doing and what he was. But what were those things that made me any different from him in this regard?

Further Questions

How do I know when I am reading the word of God with a sincere heart and a clear mind?

We’re all fallen creatures. Our minds are tainted with self-centeredness. Spiritually, we are hard of hearing. We have to fight to keep ourselves free of our own agendas, and sometimes we fail. So is there really any difference between how I, as an older Christian, read the Bible and how someone else — a skeptical scholar, a self-justifying moralist, a cultist, or an immature and confused believer — might read it? Am I as guilty of tipping the tables to favor my own agenda as they would be?

It depends. I’m human. I can be just as bad and dishonest a reader as anyone else. But there are some signs I’m doing that when I am doing that. And there are some specific qualities that signal to me when I’m doing better than that. Given the natural untrustworthiness of the human heart, my ability to judge myself at all times is not infallible.

But I think it’s pretty clear that there’s a huge difference between when I’m reading at my best, and when I’m not.

It’s the difference between reading from scripture, and reading into it.

Reading From Versus Reading Into

  • When I’m reading from the Word, I have no personal agenda. I’ve shelved all that. I’m coming to listen, to learn, and where necessary, to change my mind. I have not preconceived what I want to find. I’m submitting to the wisdom of God, not imposing my own. I believe God knows more than I do.
  • Conversely, when I’m reading into the Word, I am looking to prove myself right. I have an idea of what I want to find, and as soon as I find it, I’ll quit reading. This is why I’ll love single verses divorced from context, and dislike having to pay any attention to context: context will ruin my theory of what I want the Word to say. I’ll read only what satisfies me, and then I’ll be done.
  • Now, for that reason, reading from is to read in full context. I read not just individual verses, but chapters, books and the whole counsel of God, in order to decide what is being said in any given passage. I consider the whole, not just fragments.
  • But reading into requires me to focus on individual verses. Context will ruin my theories. Verses, passages and even whole books that do not fit my theories must be overlooked, or I must find a way to dismiss them. (I may decide that I do like the gospels, but don’t like Paul; so Paul’s not inspired, but maybe the gospels are. Or I like the synoptics, but don’t like John. Or I like the New Testament, but have no time for the Old.) The key is that I am being selective, and am not interested in the general themes and connections in scripture.
  • Next, reading from is transformative. The Word will make me into a different person than I already am. It will hurt me. It will discipline me. It will force me to change. And I will be better for it when I am done. I will become more like Christ as a result.
  • In contrast, reading into is unregenerative. It lets me stay as I am. It does not transform me. It does not hurt. It does not correct me or instruct me in righteousness. It reassures me that I am already pretty much as good as I need to be. So I don’t change.
  • Then, reading from scripture is humbling. The more I read, the more I realize I’m not a good person. It shows me I have more need of the Savior than I ever knew. It tells me that grace to me has been greater than I have realized. And it drives me down to my knees in gratitude that the Lord works with people like me. This also makes me gracious to others who are as fallible as I am.
  • On the other hand, reading into scripture inflates the self-image. I find I was right all along. I am just as good as I need to be, and the Bible tells me so. Those other people, they are bigger fools than they know, and I’m now in a position to put them in their place; because I feel I’ve found mine.
  • Additionally, reading from the Word is obedient reading. I am coming to do something different, something better than I have ever done before. When the Lord speaks to me, I will act. I will not remain in an empty reverie. As soon as I know, I will do.
  • But reading into the Word is academic, in the worst sense of that word. It makes me feel smarter, but does not require me to do anything but feel smarter. It gives me information without action.
  • Moreover, reading from is non-speculative. When I read, I’m looking at what the whole text actually says, looking for the thought-flow of the mind of God. I want to enter into his mindset, not to explore my own. So I don’t reach beyond what they text says or will allow. I keep my observations modest and careful. I stick to what is written.
  • But reading into is speculative. I like to imagine beyond what God says. I’m in love with my own ideas, or the fantastic ideas of the people who have taught me. I use the scripture as a springboard to dive into additional thoughts, and I’m more and more delighted as each new one comes to me. I feel smart … wise … informed … clever … special.
  • In terms of focus, reading from is not now-centered. Not every passage in scripture has to be for me or about me right now. I can see value in reading stuff written to ancient Israel, or in prophecies I have not seen yet fulfilled (as in Ezekiel, perhaps). It’s not all about me: it’s about the general wisdom of God throughout history, which is written to many people in many times. And I will patiently listen, even when I don’t understand.
  • Reading into is now-centered, and me-centered. I have no patience, and no space in my thinking for other people. I only find my reading worthwhile if it speaks to me, right now. Every verse must have an application (often shallow and devotional) to me, right now, for things I care about now. The rest simply looks like dead territory to me.
  • As a matter of practice, reading from is a life pattern. By reading humbly and obediently every day, I am aiming at obeying God and becoming transformed into the likeness of Christ. Therefore, I will be relentless: I will not quit. Every day, I will give the first portion of my day to hearing and submitting to the word of God. I will not live by bread alone, but by the word of God.
  • However, reading into is intermittent. I only read from time to time, to get what I want or feel a need to get. Maybe I don’t really read at all: I just memorize a few scattered verses to serve my agenda. But either way, I don’t really need the Word in order to live. I can get by without a morning Bible reading time. I don’t need prayer regularly. My life continues on its own steam. I frequently forget to read; or I never even really started. I only need the Bible when I feel the need of the Bible — which certainly isn’t every day.

Being Read

There are probably other differences between the two reading styles too. But this is the basic thought:

When I really read, I don’t just read scripture; scripture reads me.

It exposes to me where I’ve gone wrong. It shows me what I didn’t see, that which is really right. It drives me to a point of decision, in which I have to obey and be transformed by my obedience, or ignore and continue to disobey, and thus remain as I am. It reveals to me the wisdom of God, and so I come to see the wisdom of man just cannot keep pace. And it makes a claim on my regular life, such that I come to see that without this word, I will truly not be spiritually living.

All this makes reading from the Word vastly different from reading into it.

Closing the Book

Now, can I prove that to the satisfaction of my young friend? Probably not. But I’m really talking about judging myself, not him. I want to know that when I’m reading, I have “ears to hear”. That I am listening with “an honest and a good heart” so that the word can “bear fruit” in me.

It’s really a secondary matter whether or not he understands that; because, in the words of that famous theologian, Jon Bon Jovi, “It’s my life.” I’ve got to answer for it.

The Lord himself told us to take care how we hear. There are ways of reading scripture that are proud, dishonest, instrumental and ultimately, unproductive. But we are judged for ALL that we read, and for the way we responded to what we heard, even if we were to say, “Well, what I decided it meant was …”

How do you read? If I’m honest, then I have to tell you that at various points in my life I’ve been guilty of slipping into the “reading into” style. I’ve tried to make the Bible useful for some agenda I already had.

But here’s the thing about that book: it doesn’t really let you do that. If you stick with it, it WILL read you. And when you find it reading you, you have a choice: either you stay with the Word, or you have to start to fragment it, ignore bits of it, and eventually to abandon it for outside sources and authorities. Because the word of God just doesn’t dwell well with users.

After all, it’s God’s word. And nobody else has the last one.


  1. I very much appreciated the explanation of the modes of reading scripture, from or into. Self tends towards "into", that is my agenda, wherever that may come from, is primary. From is subservient. It assumes my agenda or current mindset needs correction or reformation. Every day, all the time.

    But I do not really think you answered the young man's objection to your question of "How do you know which parts are gold and which are dross?" He stepped back one level and said in effect: "How do you know your assumptions about the text i.e. inerrancy etc. are the correct ones?" His question points to the selection of a framework of axioms one uses to start in the process of engaging our being with the scripture as currently written. Further it seems to me one can always step one level back and ask how one knows the level stepped back from is the correct one, ad infinitum.

    But back to the point, I think the young man's question still stands. I am not sure if the from/into explanation, which I agree is an important one and essential, really addresses his objection. Perhaps I have not understood.

    1. That's a good point, Russell.

      By way of background, I should tell you that the conversation with the young man in question has been lengthy, and is still ongoing. The particular question to which you allude actually occurred in the middle of a very long discussion, and interestingly, it was not a point he seemed keen to pursue: rather, the tenor of his comment was, "Well, if I'm reading with a bias, then so are you" -- a sort of "tit-for-tat" point-stopper, rather than a request for further information.

      I think I'm safe to say that he wasn't entertaining inerrantism personally (so far as I could tell) and wasn't really looking for me to explain why I thought inerrantism was the right hermeneutic. He just wanted me to back off the questions about his own exegetical method, because he was keen to keep it as a live option for himself. I say this because he moved on rather quickly, and the direction he chose to take our subsequent discussion didn't focus on that point. I think he felt he had "other fish to fry."

      Not that it's not a good question: it is. And maybe it still needs a more direct answer. But I think it was not on his mind to sit still for it at that time, if he was really interested in it at all.

      Still, it's a really important question, one that we ought to take seriously.

      You'll know, I'm sure, that the issue you raise is dealt with in book-length treatises (on both sides); so I find myself despairing of the possibility of doing justice to a response in this particular space. But if I could say something as briefly as these spaces allow, I think the fundamental "axioms" of which you speak don't actually go back "ad infinitum," but rather terminate surprisingly early, in what philosophers call "epistemological" and "worldview" assumptions. The "axioms" in question are of this nature, I believe.

      That's a big subject. I will try to think of what I can do with it in the present spaces.

      Thanks for that thought.

  2. Thanks very much for your response. I have not formally studied Philosophy, so I come at the idea of say epistemology from a "worms eye" and "grass roots" perspective. I will say this however, that very few of us can or do, start with axioms of belief, say re. the nature of the Scriptures, based on first principles of any kind. We learn them by nurture, because the Scriptures, just due to their nature cannot be approached or understood from scratch. The same could be said re. the understanding of mathematics.

    I do however think a critical approach to the system under which we were schooled is a good thing, especially as one grows older and has gained some faculties from general education. E.g. the tools to ask why and how and to probe assertions etc. I understand that the many of the "critical" tools and perspectives generated in Germany at the end of the 19th century re. the Scriptures turned out to be not a good thing, as human reason was King vs. divine revelation.

    1. My suggestion, Russ, would be that our assumptions about Scripture are grounded in our assumptive view of God.

      As the Scriptures say, "...he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him." (Hb. 11:6) Two things are suggested here as prior assumptions: 1. We must believe that He IS (i.e. that He exists), and 2. that he "exists" in a particular form, namely, as "the Rewarder of those who seek Him," or to put it another way, as the God who wants to be known, and who makes it worth the while of those who put in the effort to know him.

      A God that does not exist obviously has no Scriptures; but also, a God that is not of a nature that He delights to be known might represent Himself craftily and deceptively. So we must take two "a priori" assumptions there (i.e. assumptions one cannot conclusively prove, but has to take as givens in order to make any knowledge claims at all"). It's only after (i.e. "a posteriori") we have taken these assumptions and tested them as taken-for-granted that we have any confirmation.

      We might say this: that faith in Scripture is a vote of confidence in the character of God, as He has revealed it in Scripture and through His Son -- namely, that we take Him for a word-keeping, self-revealing, good-intending God. And if He rewards those who seek Him, then with what does He reward them but with the finding of the very thing for which they trusted Him?

      So that's another way of looking at it.