How to Read the Bible Like a Scholar
(Even when you are not!)
By Dr. Jonathan T. Pennington, Guest Contributor
What is the “right way” to read the Bible?
We all want to interpret Scripture correctly, but it can be difficult to know where to start. It seems everyone has their own opinion of what matters most. While some emphasize the historical context, others rely on church traditions or focus on modern-day applications.
As a professor of the New Testament, I have the privilege of teaching new students and future pastors how to navigate Scripture. But you don’t have to be a pastor, theologian, or even a Teaching Leader to read the Bible like a scholar.
I have found it is helpful to think about three distinct ways of reading the Bible. These can be described as informational, theological, and transformational. By using all of them together, we can not only understand confusing passages but also begin to see and know God personally through His Word. Let’s briefly look at each of these approaches.
What helps us correctly interpret Scripture as we study and learn?
When we read the Bible informationally, we recognize God is speaking to us but that it is very possible to misunderstand Him. The Bible comes to us from different times and cultures and languages, over thousands of years. The Bible doesn’t change, but our interpretation of it can get overlaid with our own assumptions and misunderstandings. Informational reading helps us bridge those gaps and reveal those blind spots.
Informational reading focuses on understanding the various contexts in which the Bible was written—literary, cultural, and historical.
Take Psalm 1, for example.
Read Psalm 1
Blessed is the one
who does not walk in step with the wicked
or stand in the way that sinners take
or sit in the company of mockers,
but whose delight is in the law of the Lord,
and who meditates on his law day and night.
That person is like a tree planted by streams of water,
which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither—
whatever they do prospers.
Not so the wicked!
They are like chaff
that the wind blows away.
Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous.
For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked leads to destruction.
Informational reading directs us to ask questions about how this psalm is structured as a piece of literature. Psalm 1 is a poem, in particular a wisdom poem that uses a common theme in the ancient world called the “two ways.”
One way represents those who increasingly come under the influence of the ungodly, walking and then standing and then stopping and sitting (1:1). The result of this way of life is that a person does not know God and becomes like dust in the wind (1:4-5). The other way is a life in which we meditate on God’s instructions. The result of this life path is a verdant, fruitful tree fed by streams of water (1:4).
Understanding the “two ways” helps us read and apply the psalm effectively, while also shaping our reading of the rest of the psalms as we recognize this repeated theme. To get started with informational reading, a study Bible can help. In-depth Bible studies, like Bible Study Fellowship, also increase our informational knowledge.
The Bible comes to us from different times and cultures and languages, over thousands of years.
How do we know we are on the right track in our interpretations?
We need guidelines to help us stay on a faithful path. We need to read the Bible theologically.
To help us understand these things, God has given teachers to the church (Ephesians 4:11), both now and in the past. Our Bible reading is enhanced when we read in conjunction with confessions of faith like the Apostles’ Creed and the works of theologians who help us put the whole Bible together.
Think about your church: Do you read the Apostles’ Creed together? Did you sign a confession of faith to join as a member? Do you memorize catechism or use a prayer book each week?
These are all examples of summaries of belief created by theologians and church leaders throughout history that provide a foundation of the basic truths of the Christian faith.
These theological categories don’t replace the Bible, but they guide us into its proper reading.
For example, one of the most famous theological reflections on Jesus is found in Philippians 2. The Apostle Paul was probably quoting an early Christian hymn when he wrote about Jesus:
“Who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” (Philippians 2:6-7 ESV)
This raises some important questions. What does it mean that Jesus did not consider equality with a God “a thing to be grasped”? And what does it mean that he “emptied himself”? People have interpreted these words differently over the centuries, some of them in ways that end up denying the full deity of Jesus while He was on the earth.
A theological reading of the Bible recognizes that we are not lone ranger Christians.
We can turn to theological categories and creeds to help guide our interpretations. We know this passage cannot mean that Jesus is not God because we affirm Jesus as fully God and fully Man in our confessions of faith.
A theological reading of the Bible recognizes that we are not lone ranger Christians reading the Bible outside of the helps God has provided through teachers and the creeds, confessions, and books they have written.
Yet none of these interpretations matter if they do not shape our lives.
When we read the Bible transformationally, we recognize that our work is not done unless God’s Word sinks deeply into our heads, our hearts, and our hands. This third mode of reading focuses on the Spirit-driven application of Holy Scripture to our lives. We can learn a lot about God informationally and theologically, but without focusing on transformation, it is possible to only know about God without actually knowing Him.
We often quote 2 Timothy 3:16—“all Scripture is God-breathed”—to emphasize the inspiration and authority of the Bible. That’s good, but we need to keep reading beyond the first part. The Apostle Paul makes it clear that the purpose of God’s breathing into the Bible is so we can be taught, corrected, and trained “in righteousness.” This is a work of the Holy Spirit, enabling us to understand the Bible and empowering us to apply it to our lives.
If we return to Psalm 1, we can read it transformationally by asking these questions: What is God calling me to do in response to these two ways to live? What kind of person is God inviting me to become through the habit of meditating on Scripture? How might this psalm shape my goals and values? What areas of my life does this psalm challenge me to reconsider and redirect toward God?
The real aim in reading scripture is to see and know God Himself.
Throughout the Bible we are invited on a journey, a road trip. We are regularly welcomed to come and see, to taste and delight in God. The goal of reading the Scriptures is not merely to gain knowledge about God or to learn certain beliefs and behaviors. The real aim in reading Scripture is to see and know God Himself. This won’t fully occur until the new creation. But along the way, we get glimpses of what is to come. These glimpses of God happen especially through reading and studying the Bible. As we await the new creation, Scripture is crucial for discovering the meaningful and flourishing life that will last for eternity.
This is adapted from Dr. Pennington’s latest book, Come and See: The Journey of Knowing God through Scripture.
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Dr. Jonathan Pennington
Dr. Jonathan Pennington (PhD, University of St. Andrews, Scotland) is a Professor of New Testament Interpretation at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, and also one of the teaching pastors at Sojourn East Church. He is the author of many books and teaches in churches and schools all over the world. He and his wife have been married for 30 years and have six adult children.
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