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Three Approaches to Reading

From the beginning of the printed story to its end, God is a speaking God (Gen 1.3ff.; Rev 22.10.ff). Early in my bachelor’s education, I heard a professor say, as he held up his Bible, “God has spoken, but what has he said?” Therein lays our dilemma. For most readers of our sacred text, what God is saying in many places in the sacred text is not all that clear. So, to understand what God is saying, we must establish what he has said.

As an illustration: In the Gospel of Mark (Mark 10.17-29), Jesus tells a story about rich folks and the kingdom of God. In that story he uses the phrase: “the eye of a needle.” Most likely somewhere in your sermon hearing, you have heard a pastor or teacher expound on this story. 1 Those interpreting this text usually reveal the difficulty of how a camel can go through a small gate in Jerusalem named the Needle’s Eye. The hearer is often assured that just like the camel’s difficulty of getting through the gate; it is also difficult for us to enter into salvation. The whole of this kind of interpretation is built on the belief that there was a gate called the “Needle’s Eye” in Jerusalem during the time of Jesus. It may come as a surprise, but there never was such a gate there by that name or any similar name. 2 The earliest known comment about this gate in the history of the church is in the eleventh century by Theophylact. He must have had a similar difficulty in interpreting this passage as we do when we read it, namely that it is impossible for a camel to go through the eye of a needle. But that is precisely the point of the story that Jesus was telling: it is impossible for one who trusts in his riches to enter the kingdom of God. When riches rule, God does not! We can see from this simple illustration that we must establish what the text says before we have a chance in interpreting what the text means. To establish the text, we should first establish what approach we use when we read the Bible.

There are several ways that we have been taught to read the text of Scripture. What lingers in many quarters of the church is reading Scripture in small fragments/verses, which is reinforced by the form most daily personal devotions follow. This kind of reading is like taking a little “Bible pill” to boost our spiritual energy for the day thinking a “verse a day will keep the devil away.” Recently, I heard that a church educational system was asking folks to memorize verses and then quote them back on a final exam. I looked for a Q Tips to clean out my ears thinking that I had surely heard that wrong. But, alas, it was true. Personally, I can’t think of anything more damaging to a person who is trying to follow Jesus than to memorize small fragments of the sacred text. If memorizing is to be helpful, it might be better to get folks to memorize the stories in the Bible. However, if we are going to be serious about reading the Bible, we must give attention to the whole story presented in the Bible. Here are several ways we have approached reading the Bible.

  1. A Historical Approach
  2. An Individual Devotional Approach
  3. The Best of Both Interpretative Approaches

EndNotes:

  1. When I searched for the phrase “eye of the needle” on Google, it turned up 8,990,000 returns (January 23, 2013).
  2. Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth. 3rd Edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003), 21.

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