Why Christians read the Bible poorly

These are my notes from a conference talk given by Gordon Fee. He is the co-author of How to Read the Bible For All Its Worth and How to Read the Bible Book by Book.

Reasons for poor Bible reading

1)       The culture as a whole is abandoning reading for other sensory stimulants. We’re overstimulated by audio-visual products.

2)      Christians, particularly those from liturgical backgrounds, have not been taught to read the Bible for themselves.

3)      A reader who starts in Genesis doesn’t get far before becoming puzzled. The Bible isn’t easy reading compared to everyday stuff, and consequently most readers need help. For example, what do you do with the genealogies in Genesis 4 & 5 and the plotless second half of Exodus?

4)     The non-liturgical evangelicals who emphasise Bible reading read it in a way foreign to the way it was put together.

a)      We seldom read scripture on its own terms—from the perspective of the divine author

b)     Based on the conviction that the Bible is God’s  word for all time, we tend to:

i)       Read in a non-contextual individualisation of verses way, epitomised by a ‘promise box’ collection of verses. Since we’re looking for a verse for the day, we have fragmented and atomised God’s big story.

ii)     Read in a flattened way. We read narrative, prophecy, epistle, poetry the same way, even though God didn’t give us His word in only one genre.

Results of reading poorly

1)       A tendency to have a fragmented understanding of what the Bible is about. We know our favourite portions; we know there are two testaments that are somehow connected. But we find ourselves in difficulty in explaining how a single book fits into the whole.

2)      We miss a great deal of the NT because we’re unfamiliar with the OT. In order to be better readers of the NT we must become better readers of the OT.

a)      Most of the NT was written to Gentile converts who were mostly illiterate.   The only Bible they had was the OT, ‘the scriptures’. They knew Scripture infinitely better because they were read to aloud, and had to retain it in memory (they couldn’t look it up). They therefore got the OT citations and allusions more readily.

Remedies for reading poorly

Following are two examples of how knowing the OT helps open up NT passages:

1)       John 10. Themes: Jesus as the Good Shepherd; the sheep know the shepherd’s voice; the shepherd lays down his life for the sheep; other sheep in another fold. This isn’t just a pastoral illustration, but a fulfilment of Ezekiel 34. So we need to understand more about the prophet and his book.

a)      The prophet. Ezekiel, a priest, was taken to Babylon in 598 BC (588–siege, 586–fall of Jerusalem). In 593 BC, Ezekiel’s 30th year, God appears to him. His oracles, full of imagery, are dated and mostly in chronological order.

b)     Structure of the book of Ezekiel. Chapters 1-24: coming destruction of Jerusalem; chapters 25-32: judgement on the nations; chapter 33: personal matters; chapters 34-48: restoration of Davidic kingship, land, Yahweh’s presence. Chapter 34 falls in this last section.

c)      The Pharisees knew the context of Jesus’ allusion and they couldn’t have missed the point He was making: He was claiming to be the shepherd spoken of in the prophecy.

2)      Luke’s birth narrative has a number of similarities to 1 Samuel. A pious, barren Elizabeth echoes Hannah. Samuel anoints David; John baptises Jesus. Luke 1:80, 2:40 echo 1 Samuel 2:26. 2 Samuel 7:16 is echoed in Luke 1:32-33. Mary and Zechariah’s songs echo the Psalms.

In the next post: Helps to avoid flattening and fragmenting the Bible.

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