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If we try to read the Bible in the same way that we read any other book, we will quickly become overwhelmed. After all, the Bible does not run from beginning to end. It starts, restarts, and goes sideways. Sometimes it even seems to contradict itself! Despite our confusion, many of us know that we should be reading the Bible more. Others of us are drawn to the Bible out of a genuine curiosity. This being the case, how can we read the Bible without being overwhelmed by it?
Perhaps we could try reading the Bible in the same way that the church has read it for most of church history; a way of reading the Bible that developed long before bible colleges or seminaries were ever built:
1) Pray: The Bible is the living word of God. Through the Bible, God speaks to us. If we think we can pick up the Bible, read it, and completely understand it without praying, we are being prideful. By praying, we show God that we need him to explain his word to us—and if there’s one thing the modern abundance in heresy has revealed, it’s that we are completely incapable of reading scripture without him.
2) Ask “What Does this Reveal About the Character of God?”: Do we think that the Bible primarily directs us to the actions we should take? Do we think its purpose is to warn us of the consequences of those actions? If so, we will be confused when we read the Bible.
3) Ask “What is the Context?”: While this question may intimidate any Christian who has never gone to seminary, it is actually quite simple. This question asks:
Who is speaking?
Whom are they speaking to?
Where are they speaking?
What happened before this scripture? What happened after?
Are there any other scriptures related to this scripture?
Even if we haven’t finished reading through the entire Bible—or if we don’t know our Hittites from our Hivites—we can still answer this question. The scripture passage, itself, will answer the first three questions. As we continue to read the Bible, we can build up a repertoire of scripture by which we can answer the last two questions.
4) Ask “How Does the Nicene Creed Shed Light On This Passage?”: Unfortunately, the word “creed” has been known to cause tension in the Christian community. Some of us fear that creeds and liturgies may take the life out of worship or cripple spiritual growth.
“God didn’t give people the creed; he gave them the scripture,” we may argue. “The creed was created by human beings!”
But by saying this, we overlook that every word in the creed was carefully chosen by the council of Nicaea. And the council of Nicaea were not merely respected by their own community. Almost every member of this council had been persecuted for their faith long before Christianity had been promoted by Constantine. These Christians were so invested in their faith that they had sacrificed their well-being to protect it. Therefore, every phrase—every word—in the Nicene Creed carefully correlates to dozens of scriptural sources. This is why the Nicene Creed is the profession of faith that has been believed by Christians in every country at every point in time.
If we wished to be crude, we might say that the Nicene Creed is like the SparkNotes version of the Bible.
Everything you need to know about the Bible—all the main themes, the important characters, the key facts—are included in the Nicene Creed. The creed, then, acts as a summary of the Bible. Through this summary, we are able to view the Bible as a whole—not only as a collection of small parts. This is what makes the Nicene Creed essential to reading scripture: the creed compares the narrow focus of the particular scripture passage we are reading to the overall Bible, allowing us to forgo our own biases and assumptions in favor of the Biblical truth.
In other words, the Nicene Creed allows us to see both the forest and the trees.
5) Ask “What Action Does God Take In This Passage Toward Others?”: Although this question appears to be the most self-evident, it is often actually the most difficult to answer. This is because this question doesn’t ask what we think God should have done, what we think he did, or what we assumed he did—it asks what God actually did.
We must read each passage carefully, paying special attention to the verbs. Whenever I read through the Bible, I highlight what God says and does. By doing this, I avoid accidentally conjuring up actions that God never took.
6) Ask “What Action Does God Call Me to Take Toward Others?”: It is very important to note the order of five and six. Sometimes, we think that our action is the most important action; that we act first and then God responds to our action. But the Bible teaches the reverse: God acts and we are called to respond. In fact, the Bible often argues that sin is actually a result of our acting first, rather than responding to God.
“But,” we might argue, “I’ve never seen God act. How could I possibly respond to him?”
Of course we haven’t seen God act. Sin acts as a spiritual cataract, blinding us from the obvious truths of the world. When God acts, sin blinds us from seeing his actions. Because sin keeps us from truly seeing the world, we must trust the Bible to guide us.
7) Ask “What Actions Will I Take?”: When the Bible tells us that we are expected to respond to God’s actions, it is not making a theoretical claim. We are called to mirror God’s image into the world and that means that we must take action.
After reading about what God does for us, we must then respond in our own lives. Knowing what God has done for us, what will we do unto others?