I read a lot. I read both fiction and nonfiction. I mainly read the latter, but I’ll sink into some Tolkien or King occasionally. Typically, I read religious based books. RIght now, I am reading Romans: The Divine Marriage by Tom Holland (not Spiderman and not the one you’re thinking of, my CoC friends), Faith After Doubt by Brian McLaren, Jesus’s Third Way by Walter Wink, Changing Our Mind by David P. Gushee, and Gay Girl, Good God by Jackie Hill-Perry. Later on today, I plan to start Systematic Theology, Vol. 1: Ethics by James William McClendon. The point is, I read from a wide range of authors across a spectrum of backgrounds and beliefs.
But isn’t the Bible good enough?
Some criticize my library, and they blame much of my so-called heresies on my books. Of course, they wouldn’t be wrong that many of my beliefs come from extensive research in different areas. The problem with their critique is that it assumes the books are a bad thing. It assumes that all one needs is the Bible.
In a perfect world, that would be true.
But nobody, and I mean NOBODY, only reads the Bible.
Yes, you may technically only read from the Bible.
But have you listened to a sermon? Have you attended a Bible class? Have your parents or guardians taught you anything?
When you read the Bible, you aren’t just reading the Bible; you are coming to the text with worlds of assumptions, conclusions, and pre-determined categories.
Is the Bible without error? How many books are in the Bible? Is the Bible inspired by God? How does one read the Bible? How does one ascertain Bible authority? What’s the best way to determine the meaning of a passage?
Do you see the problem?
The authority figures in your life answered these questions for you, and their authority figures supplied the answers to them.
When you “just read the Bible,” you are filtering everything through years of training and upbringing.
Do you want to know why there are so many denominations?
Because every denomination, yours included, has rules about how to read the Bible that produce basically the same conclusions. Churches who use similar principles of interpretation reach similar conclusions. Churches who don’t will differ from each other.
How do you challenge your system of interpretation?
It’s extremely hard to do it on your own because they taught you to read the Bible in a certain way.
One way to overcome these blinders is through reading. You can also listen to others and examine what they say.
To illustrate this problem, some have used a tricycle while others have used a barstool.
I like Richard Rohr’s tricycle illustration.
We all ride a theological tricycle. The front wheel, the one that guides the rest, is tradition. The back two wheels are Scripture and experience.
Most people, if not everyone, are first guided by their tradition. They were born into a tradition that had everything figured out, and the authority figures in that tradition passed the answers down to the next generation. Without an extreme experience of loss, love, or exposure, most will remain in that tradition.
The back two wheels are Scripture and experience. Individuals within certain traditions have different opinions. These differences come from Scripture and their experiences. The reason these two wheels are on the back is that their tradition is ultimately the guide. Their tradition only allows them to fluctuate so much. If they cross the pre-determined boundaries or lines, the powers that be silence them.
That’s what we call “fellowship” or “salvation” issues.
Differ too much by rearranging the wheels and you will get ejected from the tradition.
Now, here’s the problem.
Many churches think they ride on a unicycle with only Scripture as their guide, but that simply is not true.
While admitting we have presuppositions and are tied to experience and tradition doesn’t completely remove the roadblocks towards spiritual development, it is a start. At least we can be honest with ourselves and handle them as they come up.
What we shouldn’t do is ignore our presuppositions altogether and go in blind.
We are fallible humans trying to understand an infinite God.
If there is ever a time when you or your tradition say they have it all figured out, then, as Paul said, you haven’t even begun to understand (1 Corinthians 8:1-3).
Wanting to read the Bible is a good thing. Wanting to study more in a good thing. But saying “all I need is the Bible” is unrealistic. Nobody reads the Bible in a vacuum.
“Open heart, open mind” Bible study requires admitting that there are things you assume about the Bible and allowing yourself to test those assumptions.
In addition to the above, you probably aren’t an expert on biblical languages, figures of speech in the Bible, ancient near eastern traditions, and countless other extra-biblical things that influenced the original readers of the Bible. And I’m not either! Resources, such as lexicons, commentaries, and topical studies, help to unveil some of this information to help us understand what “just reading the Bible” meant to the original audience.
To assist you with finding resources, asking the right questions, and looking into the cultural context, I have written a short e-book that just takes an hour to read. It is free, and you can download it from the page below:
How to Study the Bible
This is a free eBook, but you can also pay what you think it is worth.