How To Read the Bible? Part 2
We are diving into St. Paul’s Letter to the Colossians this summer. As we are getting started, this is part 2 in a series on How to Read the Bible to guide our summer Scripture reading. There are many different methods to reading the Bible, but the primary posture each time we come to the Scriptures is a posture of expecting God to meet us and speak to us through His Word. In my previous post, I suggested two major ways that we can approach the Holy Scriptures: Sacred Reading and Bible Study. This post will address Bible Study. My previous post is on a Sacred Reading of Scripture.
An important way to approach the Scriptures is through Bible Study. Bible study seeks to understand what is going on in the text, what it means, and how it applies to our lives. In this kind of reading, we are trying to get a sense of the big picture of what is happening in the text. This is a very important way of reading the Bible because it helps us get at a more thorough understanding of the passage and how it fits into the larger narrative of the Gospel. It also helps us understand where our worldview, our cultural values, and so on, are different than the text at hand. In studying the Bible, we start to move towards a kind of coherence in our understanding of the Scriptures. Finally, as with all methods of studying Scripture, we are opening ourselves up the what the Holy Spirit might want to say to us through study of the text.
One simple formula for studying the bible is through a three step process: Observation, Interpretation, Application. If you are reading along with us, try out this process starting with Colossians 1:1-14 and take notes in your Colossians Scripture Journal.
Step 1: Observation
In this step, we observe what the passage is saying and describing. We ask questions in the categories of Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How.
WHO is speaking? Who is this about? Who are the main characters?
WHAT is the subject or event covered in the chapter? What do you learn about the people, event, or teaching?
WHEN did the events occur or when did something happen to someone?
WHERE did this happen? Where was it said?
WHY is something being said or mentioned? Why would this happen? Why at that time and/or to this person/people?
HOW will it happen? How is it to be done? How is it illustrated?
Step 2: Interpretation
Observation flows naturally into interpretation. This step is based on your observations and seeks to understand what those observations mean. Here you are seeking to understand what the passage at hand means. The guiding question here is, “What is the primary meaning of this passage?”
Step 3: Application
In this final step, we move from what the passage means in its context to what it means for me in my life at the moment. We are asking the Holy Spirit to show us how this passages applies to us. In addition, we reflect on what actions we need to take to apply God’s directives to our lives.
Guiding Exegetical Questions
A fancy word for expositing, explaining, and interpreting Scripture is exegesis. For those who want to go a little deeper with the text, here is a top ten list of exegetical questions from my New Testament Seminary Professor Tommy Givens. These are more robust questions that can assist in guiding your study of the Bible.
1. How is the text related to what has preceded it and what follows it in the letter, especially what has immediately preceded it and immediately follows it? How is the argument of the letter unfolding in the text under study? Do any significant changes in topic, audience, tone, pace or vocabulary emerge in or near the passage? How should these changes affect the readying of the text in question?
2. What key words and motifs of the wider context of the letter appear in the text? What work are they doing where they appear?
3. Does the text belong to a certain extent to a particular literary form or device (e.g. hymn, allegory, slogan, argument of lesser to greater, irony)? How does reading the text as fitting such a literary form or device clarify what it means and how the argument of the letter is developing?
4. What passages from the Old Testament (OT) are cited or alluded to in the text? What OT passages seem especially ‘near’ to the epistolary text in question? How does reading the text in relation to such OT passages affect what it means, that is, what it is saying?
5. How does the text under consideration compare with similar/parallel texts in other epistles? How does that comparison illuminate the text under consideration?
6. Does the text exhibit an internal structure, argument, or other form of development? Is the stage somehow ‘set’ or the question of the passage ‘raised’ by something near the beginning of the text? Where is the argument of the passage the most intense and why? Is there a surprising development at some point in the passage and what makes it surprising? Are there keywords or motifs internal to the text under consideration (rather than the whole letter) that signal the force of the passage, i.e., what it saying? Do you perceive that the text reaches a denouement, what does that denouement or lack there of communicate?
7. By consulting various translations, can you identify significant variant reading and articulate why they’re significant (i.e., how the meaning of the verse or passage changes with particular variant readings)?
8. Does anything about the ancient sociohistorical setting (e.g., political currents, purity concerns, concepts of family, other social boundaries) of the epistle encourage or discourage certain reading or clarify what the text is about? Do such considerations suggest ways in which the text constitutes a criticism of tendencies among the readers or the ways of its reader, whether of the past or present?
9. Besides parallel passages in other epistles, are there texts in the rest of the New Testament that shed light on the text under consideration? What light do they shed? How does reading the text by the light of the classical Christian creeds or the commentary of the church mothers and fathers clarify what the text is saying and not saying?
10. What does the whole of the text seem to be about? What does the whole text claim?
As we move through Colossians, I want to invite you and encourage to practice both of these kinds of readings. By creating space for the Holy Spirit to speak to you directly through specific words and ideas in Scripture. And by asking questions about the text and what it says about the whole narrative of who God is and how God is acting in the world.