You can’t just read the bible

A-group-for-you-bible-study

D.A. Carson:

A layperson can read the Scriptures and understand the Scriptures. It is important to keep saying that. There is no esoteric guild of specialist priests who impose a certain kind of interpretation on the conscience of believers. And even in practical experience you sometimes see that, don’t you? Occasionally you’ll find an old woman or man who is semi-literate, and yet such people may have read their Bibles through again and again. Although they can’t self-consciously make all the correlations a sophisticated systematics can make, nevertheless, they have a kind of nose for error and heresy. Somebody comes along with some screwball idea, and they can immediately say about forty verses that make them question something or other.

You want to say even at a practical level, I want people to read and reread their Bibles. God himself says, “This is the one to whom I will look: he who is of a contrite spirit and who trembles at my word.” So, it really is important to say that before you start putting in footnotes about the importance of presuppositions and structures and all the rest.

We All Have Presuppositions – Good or Bad

But the converse danger of thinking you can do it all yourself from scratch is no less pernicious, and maybe more so. Take an analogy from science: no scientist has to start proving the existence of molecules every time he or she begins an experiment in chemistry. There are all kinds of givens based on what has already been thought through, discovered, or demonstrated before; but every once in a while, one of the scientific theories gets overturned because of new evidence. Nevertheless, any scientist brings an awful lot of presupposition to the next round of experimentation or the like.

Similarly, no one, absolutely no one, can read the Bible without some pre-understanding, for example, of God; even if the person is an atheist, the god whose existence he or she is denying is still some kind of god. So, you cannot approach the text without bringing baggage with you, in terms of what words mean, in terms of values–whether you think this is serious or not, whether it’s right or wrong–it affects all of it. Then on top of that, it’s sometimes the person who claims to be independent of systems who is, in fact, most shanghaied by a system. So that someone in the West, for example, who is steeped in individualism, will come to a text such as Galatians 3 and interpret the function of the law as a paidagogas, “a schoolmaster,” a tutor to lead us to Christ entirely in individualistic terms because we live in the individualistic world of the West.

Whereas the context shows that Paul is thinking primarily of salvation historically; that is, of the function of the law from the giving of the law [with Moses] all the way to Christ. He’s thinking of its function across history, and no doubt that has a bearing on how we think of the law’s function today. But it’s not primarily talking about the application of the law to the individual; it’s primarily talking about how we should think about the law in its role in redemptive history. We might miss that simply because we’re individualists steeped in Western heritage.

Culture is always highly diverse; people come from different backgrounds to any seminary. There is a sense in which, again, I want to be sympathetic. It is possible for your system–or, for that matter, for your epistemology–to be so well in place that it is incorrigible. It cannot be corrected by Scripture; it no longer really listens, and everything gets filtered through it. Even the best interpreters, the most experienced pastors, all of us, do this sometimes unwittingly. Three years later I could be studying the same passage again and think, “Uh-oh, I really blew that one,” and I realize I brought my baggage with me. So, there is a danger along those lines.

We Need Better Theological Categories

Not only does Scripture warrant you to construct some sort of system or cohesion, the system–whether you like it or not–is going to help you or hinder you in your interpretation of Scripture. In other words, the Christian who believes that Scripture teaches the deity of Christ does not have to prove that point every time he or she comes back to the text–that’s part of the given; whereas a naturalist interpreter of Scripture denies that point and therefore will inevitably not see what other people see in Scripture.

So, your systematic theology needs to be good because–again, whether you like it or not–it is filtering your reading of Scripture. There is a sense in which Scripture shapes your systematic theology, and that is the direction in which things should ultimately go; nevertheless, your theology–how rigorously and carefully it is constructed, the baggage you bring–is your systematic. Whether it’s a nicely thought through systematic or not, you bring baggage. And this helps you or hinders you in your interpretation of Scripture: the questions you put to a text, the kinds of answers you give, your knowledge of how the text has been interpreted in the past by other Christians and so on–all of these filter into how good an exegete you are.

I would want to argue that ideally, provided we still let Scripture speak and the ultimate authority base is in Scripture, responsible knowledge of historical theology and responsible knowledge of systematics will enrich our exegesis of Scripture rather than limit it.

We Need to Make Time for Deep Reading

It is important to recognize, too, that there are stages of life where you really don’t have time to do much, and you shouldn’t feel guilty about it. Children will sap you. If you have three children under the age of six, forget serious reading unless you have the money for a nanny. When our youngest finally went off to kindergarten, we celebrated that day–I took my wife out for lunch. Only then could she get back into reading again. It’s the way life is. You have to be realistic.

Having said that, I think for a lot of laypeople it’s important to read more than a verse a day–a verse a day to keep the devil away. It’s important to read large chunks of Scripture, to read the Bible through. And at the risk of wanting to become a peddler, that’s really why I wrote the two-volume set For the Love of God: A Daily Companion for Discovering the Riches of God’s Word (Crossway, 2006). It’s based on the Bible reading system by Robert Murray McCheyne (1813-43), so that a person is reading through the whole Bible but at the same time reading some edifying material that is building a whole biblical theology.

McCheyne’s reading is four chapters a day, which is probably too much for some people. On January 1, you would read Genesis 1, Ezra 1, Matthew 1, and Acts 1. After one year of this, you would have gone through the New Testament and the Psalms twice, and the rest of the Old Testament once. But if, on the other hand, you were simply to read two of the four columns a day, then you would cover that same amount of material over two years, which is doable. So in volume 1, I wrote a one-page meditation on one of the chapters in the first two columns, and volume 2 is on one of the chapters in the second two columns. This way you are actually reading through all of Scripture but getting some meditation, reflection that aims to be edifying but also aims to give you a way of looking at the whole Bible–a whole interpretative grid rather than simply a kind of disparate verse to give you an instant edifying kick but isn’t teaching you how to think. So, there are tools like that around; mine is certainly not the only one.

If a person is beginning to look for commentaries, I think this is one area where good pastors can help. There are resources for pastors, too–books that survey New Testament commentaries, for example, at all kinds of levels. If you become interested in a study in Romans or in Habakkuk, a good pastor can tell you–or if they don’t know, they can find out in fifteen minutes on a computer–what books to start with if you’ve never read anything at all in the area. It really is important to talk to people about that. Even a junior pastor or someone with seminary training who feels constrained to start preaching from the Psalms might well ask a more experienced pastor: “What are the best three commentaries I must read to get going on this? Where do I start?” Ask questions. Nobody knows everything, but there’s always somebody around who either knows the answers or knows somebody who does know the answers.

The same needs to be said in the arena of systematic theology. If you’ve never read anything, then a one-volume work on systematic theology designed for laypeople by someone like J. I. Packer is one way to go. There are lots of know-what-you-believe sorts of books to start you off thinking and then you can move up to the more serious ones.


Adapted from “Why Can’t We Just Read the Bible?: An Interview with D. A. Carson,” Modern Reformation, Sept/Oct 2010

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I am currently serving churches and colleges as a bible teacher, overseas and in the UK.