Come to The River—Part Three: practicing natural Bible reading

One of the delights  in our county is a pedestrian and bike path called the Swamp Rabbit Trail, which winds 17.5 miles through a variety of city and woodland areas. Recently my wife and I bicycled through several of those miles. We did not see any rabbits, but we did see some swamp.  We crossed many creeks, common in the rich watershed of Upstate South Carolina. We saw old farmhouses and other remnants of rural communities that still skirt the perimeter of our county. We enjoyed spending time together.

Riding that trail is a little like reading the Bible well, a journey of discovering things that we have seen but never really looked at before, and of enjoying spending time with Jesus. Reading the Bible poorly is like riding a bicycle with one tire partly inflated. You might get to your destination, but it’s a real drag.

How do you read the Bible? As God’s love letter to you? If not, what would change if you did read it that way? Consistently discovering previously unnoticed truths is one of the joys of the natural approach to the Bible. It’s delight, not the devil that is in the details.

Reading Scripture well is not a matter of the right mechanics, nor can we do it without the Holy Spirit’s guidance. The “reader’s approach” taught at The River is not a different system. It simply applies our natural reading process to the Bible. Ordinarily we go through the steps of the process seamlessly and subconsciously. Applying it to the Bible might seem artificial at first, until we unlearn habits that have gotten in the way.

If we read the Bible as we read everything else, it would go something like this . . .

First, identify what you are reading.

Different genres speak differently, so expect to respond differently. With narrative, see yourself as part of the action; watch the development of characters. With instruction, follow the flow of thought and track the line of logic. With poetry, appreciate word pictures; feel the emotion.

Next, search for the main facts.

This is the most important step but the most neglected. We expect too little from the text. We cannot properly apply a passage until we have paid careful attention to everything it says. Interact with God’s Word by writing your observations.

How Scripture travels through our minds makes a lot of difference in how it comes out in our lives. Read the passage as if it were for the first time. Resist the temptation to import knowledge or theological assumptions that you would not have as a first-time reader. If you were in the story, what would you feel and think?

There are no throwaway verses in the Bible. Drill down into statements that puzzle or surprise you. Find out why they are there. Look for connections between statements.

Then, put the facts together to find the basic meaning.

Ask, “What would this have meant to the original readers? Why might the author have said this instead of something else?” Look for repeated words that indicate emphasis.

Finally, respond to the central truth.

Ask: “What have I learned about God and how He relates to us, and how should that change me?”  Brian Onken’s reminder is helpful: “The application of a passage to our lives must be consistent with the way the original hearers would have applied the passage.”

Readers in the Greenville, SC area can get a fuller understanding of this approach by experiencing it through the unique style of a gifted Bible teacher. If you’re ready for a joyful journey of discovery, then sign up and meet me at The River!

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2 Responses to Come to The River—Part Three: practicing natural Bible reading

  1. Erica says:

    You make me wish I lived in South Carolina – would love to come. (although, it is a bit pretentious to label oneself a ‘gifted Bible teacher’ even it if it is true 😉 )

    I just found your blog by reading some comments you made about God’s violence depicted in the Bible on Peter Enns’ blog. You were mentioning Revelation and how even Jesus is in the thick of it there. I found his dismissal of your argument to be unsatisfying – yes, Revelation is apocalyptic literature, but this doesn’t change the fact that Jesus is upheld as a violent figure in that literature. I enjoyed your perspective and addition to the discussion.


    • Erica,

      Thank you for your encouraging comments. Please understood that I was not calling myself a gifted Bible teacher. In previous posts I explained that a pastor friend, Brian Onken, the director of The River, is the person to whom I referred. Though I have enjoyed his classes, I’m definitely not in his class!

      On the subject of the violence of Scripture, I am planning a review of Eric Seibert’s new book by that title, to be posted on my blog and perhaps on another site and (hopefully), print published. From what I have read of his previous book, it’s clear to me that the natural approach to Scripture taught at The River would be the right antedote to Seibert’s pervasive misreading of the Bible.


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