In the past week I spent a few days in England. It is always a pleasure to drive through the rolling South-England countryside, to visit the ancient city of St. Albans (where I have lived a number of years) and to walk through its famous cathedral. To pop into the enormous Norrington Room of Blackwell’s bookstore in Oxford is the cherry on the cake. However, my real purpose for my visit to the UK was to present the “Diversity Lecture’ at Newbold College. My topic was: Difficult Conversations within Adventism.
As is normally the case, the audience had the opportunity to ask questions after the lecture. In answering these I made a remark about the necessity of reading rather than of studying the Bible. In the following days this remark started a life of its own on Facebook. What I meant to say was also touched upon in my recent book FACING DOUBT (pp. 175, 176). Of course the study of the Bible—by professionals as well as by ‘ordinary’ believers–remains very important. But reading the text comes first. I emphasized this in the following excerpt from my book:
Reading the Bible
Adventists like to talk (or even boast) about studying the Bible. New members usually go through a process of Bible ‘studies’ to become acquainted with the ‘truth.’ We have our weekly Bible studies in the so-called Sabbath School. Early Adventism borrowed the Sunday School model from other denominations and adapted it, as time went by, to its specific needs. The institution of the Sabbath School has certainly helped in strengthening biblical literacy among the church members. But more and more Adventists are beginning to realize that this type of Bible ‘study’ often leaves much to be desired. Most of the quarterly ‘study guides’ are of a topical nature. A particular theme is selected, and then broken down into thirteen sub-themes. The author of the study guide selects a number of Bible texts that he feels say something about these themes, together with some quotations (usually from Ellen G. White) and some further explanatory comments. Very often the Bible texts are drawn together without much regard for context. The weekly Sabbath School study shows that the traditional proof-text method is still very much alive. And even when during a quarter a particular book of the Bible is studied, relatively little attention tends to be paid to its background, context and particular theology.
I have come to the conclusion that we should perhaps stop studying the Bible, and start reading the Bible—as a story that we want to follow from the beginning to the end. When we read a novel and enjoy the plot, we will not just select a paragraph here and there and combine these bits and pieces in a random kind of order. If we read a good book, we will want to follow the entire plot and are eager to know how it ends. In a way this also applies to the Bible. It is God’s story about his interaction with us and with the world. We do well to read it from beginning to end. We may perhaps skip a few pages (for instance the long genealogies) here and there (as we sometimes also do with ordinary books), but we will want to follow the story line. And the same is true for the separate sections of the Bible we usually refer to as the Bible ‘books.’ We will only get the full benefit from our reading if we read these sections in their entirety. And some are so short that we can easily read them in one sitting.
When we use this method, we may find that certain well-known texts do not actually say what we always thought they said. When read in isolation from their context we may come to a conclusion that is not warranted when we also read what precedes and follows the text. Even if we do not understand many of the things we come across, we still benefit from our reading by catching the over-all message of the Bible or a part thereof. Consulting books about the Bible, such as a good commentary, is certainly useful but it cannot take the place of the reading of the Bible itself. Unfortunately many Christians read more about the Bible than in the Bible.