3 Common Ways to Read Scripture
I'm always a little skeptical when I hear people talk about reading Scripture "devotionally" rather than, say, "academically" (or vice versa). Who says we have to choose? I wonder.
But while my false dichotomy radar isn't always bad, I have to remember people are wired differently. Humanity is not a sea of sameness. We aren't clones. In fact, as Christians we are "stewards," Peter says, of God's "varied grace" (1 Pet. 4:10).
It shouldn't surprise me, then, when Christians gravitate to Scripture with slightly different aims. For some, it's easy to approach the Bible with a more "devotional" posture. For others of a more academic bent, though, a studious approach may come more naturally.
Almost two decades ago, Richard Longenecker wrote an article for Themelios (the entire archives can be accessed for free at TGC) titled "On Reading a New Testament Letter—Devotionally, Homiletically, Academically." In it he outlines three common ways of reading Scripture, pinpointing strengths and dangers particular to each. (Longenecker limits his focus to New Testament letters, but I think his basic rubric applies to the whole of Scripture.)
Longenecker isn't opposed to any one of the three readings—just to there being only one. "My thesis," he explains, "is that each of these ways of reading [is] legitimate in its own right, but that all three must be ultimately brought together for a proper understanding."
The chief focus of devotional reading, Longenecker suggests, is "spiritual direction and edification." And for most of us, this is where it all began.
What enables devotional reading is the clarity and power of God's Word. Consider the myriad groups who disseminate Bibles with the simple conviction that the combination of the Word and the Spirit will bring persons into saving union with Christ. "And the results of their wide distribution," Longenecker observes, "have repeatedly vindicated their confidence."
Among other things, devotional readings remind us that the Holy Spirit isn't shackled to human scholarship. Illumination and regeneration are miracles he accomplishes—often through study aides, yes, but not always. Woe to us if we ever denigrate a devotional approach to God's clear and mighty Word.
Devotional readings aren't immune to pitfalls, however. It's possible, Longenecker observes, to "impose one's own concerns, issues, and ideas onto the text" and so read it as only reflecting some personal situation or confirming some previously held position. Moreover, even when we understand we often hesitate to put into practice what we've read, for "such a response would require a reorientation of life such as we are not prepared to make." We manage to grasp, in other words, but we fail to do (cf. Matt. 7:24-27; John 13:17; James 1:22).
But these dangers by no means invalidate devotional readings, since the Scriptures "feed the Christian soul" and are "the means God uses to give spiritual nourishment to his people." So if you're wired more academically, strive also to grow in reading your Bible devotionally. Sit down, slow down, and implore the Holy Spirit to tenderize your heart to his encouraging (Rom. 15:4), nourishing (Matt. 4:4), reviving (Ps. 19:7), gladdening (Ps. 19:8), convicting (Heb. 4:12), sanctifying (John 17:17), and precious (Ps. 119:127) Word.
The health of your soul depends on it.
If the focus of a devotional reading is edification, the focus of a homiletical reading is proclamation. Careful attention is given to translating, packaging, and applying the passage to a particular audience. Homiletical readers, then, naturally ask questions like, How would I communicate this passage to others? How could I best teach this?
Regardless of how you're wired, to read with a view to proclamation is to read with a view to obedience. The risen Lord Jesus commissioned each of us, after all, to be about the work of teaching (Matt. 28:20; cf. 2 Tim. 2:2; Titus 2:3-4).
What perils, though, tend to threaten homiletical readings? Imposing our own organizational structures on a passage instead of letting it speak for itself is a common one. We've all heard preachers, for example, who bury the text beneath their alliteration-happy, rhetorical flourish. Additionally, it can be tempting to search too quickly for contemporary relevance or allow "relevance itself to be the only criterion of truth, so turning Scripture into only a modern commentary on our times." This is but another form of silencing God's Word with our agenda (cf. Prov. 18:13). Finally, reading Scripture "only in terms of what can be proclaimed to others, without feeding devotionally on [the] material for one's own spiritual nourishment" is a typical trap. Homiletical perusals divorced from a devotional posture will, over time, prove spiritually lethal.
Potential snares notwithstanding, however, homiletical readings are vital. "Without proclamation," Longenecker warns, "the Christian and the church becomes stagnant, always taking in but never giving out."
There's also a third kind of reading—an academic one—that informs the foregoing approaches and can bring believers into "deeper understandings of Scripture and heightened appreciations of their faith." A scuba diver will make discoveries the water skier will never see.
Of course, many dangers threaten to spoil academic readings as well. Longenecker admits "pride of accomplishment, laziness after having to some degree attained, and resting on past laurels without always pushing ahead in the quest for understanding" are perennial dangers for the scholar. It's also easy to become so engrossed in one realm of study that you fail to appreciate insights gained from other areas. This is the risk of specialization. Finally, it's tempting to become so preoccupied with academic readings that you either neglect to read devotionally (thus severing ourselves from spiritual nourishment) or neglect to read homiletically (thus retreating from gospel proclamation).
Longenecker's trifold rubric isn't exhaustive, but it does provide useful categories for self-examination. Rather than pit various readings against one another, we should acknowledge our particular leanings, build on our strengths, and grow in our weaknesses. Indeed, whatever our interests or expertise, we as God's people should strive to synthesize these approaches with a view to cultivating a more balanced approach to his precious Word.
Amid our beautiful diversity, may the Lord grant each of us the grace to read and enjoy our Bibles as careful students, faithful teachers, and vibrant followers of King Jesus.