We need to read our bibles. God wants us to read our bibles—it is the story of Him revealing hidden things to us we would otherwise never know! Fair enough. But I first want to ask an important question—what is the best way to think of the Scriptures?
Different Christians answer in different ways; most often as the result of the different emphases of their theological traditions mediated from seminaries to pastors. How you answer the question above will determine what you think happens when you read your bibles. Only one of these answers is the best answer—which one is it?
We will first take a look at a passage from Psalm 119, then look at two possible frameworks for reading Scripture (a puzzle or a telescope?), then wrap up with what I feel is the best approach.
Words Which Give Light
Psalm 119 is a beautiful love song to God’s revelation. Today, on this side of the Cross, we often assume the psalmist is simply talking about the Bible (e.g. “I have hidden your word in my heart,” Psalm 119:11). But he was probably talking about revelation in a general sense.
“Revelation” is when God personally unveils Himself to His people to communicate things we would otherwise never know. God revealed Himself in many ways—through visions, prophecies, individual guidance, dreams, divine appearances, angels, direct speech, most definitively in Jesus Christ (God’s “Word” (Jn 1:1, et al), His revelation, message, and literal speech embodied in the incarnation) … but also in written records. Strictly speaking, the bible is more an inspired and truthful record of God’s revelations than “the” revelation all by itself. My point is that, while my comments here will focus on the Scriptures, all references in Psalm 119 to “the word” are probably about more than “the bible.”
Think about what the psalmist says in Psalm 119:129-136. He says God’s statutes are wonderful, and this loveliness drives him to loving obedience (Ps 119:129). This is not the rote obedience of a legalist, but the joyful response of a good child. He declares “the unfolding of your words gives light; it gives understanding to the simple,” (Ps 119:130). As God communicates to us (however He does it—“words” here means “speech”), His light shines into us, bringing understanding even to the most ordinary among us. God’s speech, His message, unspools and casts light into our hearts, minds, and souls—into our very being.
So, the psalmist wants more and more—“longing for your commands,” (Ps 119:131). He wants more light, more understanding, more relationship. He wants to be a better child. He knows relationship with God is not about rote doctrine. “[R]evelation is primarily a spiritual transaction rather than mere illumination of the intellect … [i]t is easy to see how far removed this is from the bare communication of truth to the mind.” It is “those who love your name” (Ps 119:132) who receive mercy, not “those who follow the checklist.”
So, when the psalmist asks God to “direct my footsteps according to your word” (Ps 119:133), he is asking for more than “help me not do that bad thing again.” There is that, but the reason why he asks “let no sin rule over me” is because he loves God and wants to be an obedient child (cp. Deut 6:4; Mk 12:28-32; Mt 9:13 (cf. Hos 6:6)). He even asks to be rescued from those who hinder him from obeying God’s precepts (Ps 119:134).
When he asks “make your face shine on your servant” (Ps 119:135), he is playing on God’s personal revelation as a luminescent cloud. Just as Moses came down from the mountain with his face all aglow from actual contact with Yahweh, so the psalmist figuratively asks for God to turn to him with blessing, with favor, with divine help—“teach me your decrees.” His love for God flows so deep that “streams of tears flow from my eyes, for your law is not obeyed,” (Ps 119:136). This is not the fuming rage of a legalist (cf. Jn 9:19-34), but the sorrow of a child brokenhearted about externalism in the congregation.
As we consider the psalmist’s attitude about God’s revelation, His “word” (in any format), let us return to the question I asked at the beginning—what is the best way to think about the Scriptures?
- a puzzle piece we look at to categorize knowledge, or
- a telescope we look through to see, know, experience, and love God?
Which model does our passage best suggest? To answer this question, we will consider each model in turn.
Bible as a Puzzle
When you believe the bible is one big puzzle to be sorted into categories, with various passages filed under this heading or that (“the proper task of theology is to exposit and elucidate the content of Scripture in an orderly way”), then you may tend to read in a cold, analytical, and sterile fashion. It does not mean you will have this attitude—it just means you may lean in that direction, to greater or lesser extent.
- Faith can unwittingly become about intellectual knowledge. Do you believe Jesus is the Son of God? Do you believe in the virgin birth? Do you believe Jesus died on the Cross? Do you believe in the resurrection? And so it goes—intellect can unconsciously supplant trust, love, and commitment.
- And so, bible study can unconsciously degenerate into an autopsy—cold, dispassionate, clinical.
- We end up reading the bible for doctrine, for knowledge—not for love (notwithstanding the honest caveats).
This is often more an attitude or ethos than a conscious decision. Let me share one example from one very influential evangelical theologian from yesteryear. He is discussing the definition of “revelation.”
I have learned a lot from Carl Henry. I like Carl Henry. But, where is the love? Henry saw the Scriptures as a puzzle to be sorted, filed, indexed. A theologian was like a lawyer preparing a brief—“logical consistency is a negative test of truth and coherence a subordinate test.” He looked at Scripture to find truth. This mindset may produce something like the following, which is largely a precis of some of Henry’s system:
- God reveals Himself through the bible—all knowledge (even revelation about Christ) flows from the Scriptures. It is the “basic epistemological axiom.”
- God does not reveal Himself as personal presence. That would open the door to a subjective mysticism. Instead, He reveals Himself via propositions—“a rational declaration capable of being either believed, doubted, or denied.” Revelation must be cognitive, which means it must be propositional, which means the Scriptures are the ballgame, and the implication is the bible is a storehouse of data.
- Therefore, the Spirit’s job in this context is to help us interpret this data that is the bible. He has no meaningful role apart from this. Henry saw danger when the Spirit was “severed from the Word,” and by “Word” Henry meant the Scriptures, not Jesus. Representing this perspective downstream from Henry, John MacArthur did not misspeak when he wrote that the bible “is the only book that can totally transform someone from the inside out.” It is telling that MacArthur did not credit Jesus with granting life, but rather the bible (energized with “Spirit-generated power”).
- So, the most important thing we can do is study the bible. “Only the Bible can effect that kind of change in people’s lives, because only the Bible is empowered by the Spirit of God.” The inevitable corollary is a strong defense of Scripture’s integrity, which explains the emphasis from these quarters on Scripture’s inerrancy.
- And so, our focus may subtly shift from relationship with the Messiah to whom the bible points, to “the bible” itself—to doctrine, knowledge, cold logic. Henry did not think rationalism was an error, so long as it was based on valid premises.
- The bible becomes, de facto, the only channel for relationship with God. This is why many Christians who trend towards “knowledge” as their relationship paradigm for God are very uncomfortable with the “Jesus reveals Himself to Muslims via dreams” issue—because the bible is not in the driver’s seat. In a similar way, these Christians often speak about the Spirit to say what He does not do—it is frequently negative. I suspect these Christians are wary of something non-rational, something supernatural, something they cannot understand with the intellect.
Here is an example. Sometime in years past, I was with a group of pastors, and we were discussing the “problem of evil.” One pastor brought up an example of someone who “walked away from the faith” after suffering sexual abuse as a teen. The woman told her pastor that, if her abuser ever became a Christian, “I could never share heaven with him!”
A man in the group stabbed the air with a forefinger. “Her attitude is that ‘I’m more righteous than God, and so I’m more qualified to make a decision about that person’s fate!’”
There was a moment of silence. I suggested, “Maybe she’s just really hurting? Maybe that’s all that was behind that comment.”
You see, to him, there is not a person here with feelings—there is only icy logic, a remorseless conclusion based on theology. He did not see people who hurt—he saw problems to be categorized into doctrinal cubbyholes, to be sorted, filed, tagged. In practical terms, he unwittingly acted as if the Bible were a cadaver, and the question at hand was an excuse to grab a scalpel, slice it open, and pick at it. This man read the bible for knowledge. It was cold. Clinical. There was no love.
Of course, not everyone is like that pastor. But, some pastors (and some ordinary Christians) are not too far downstream from this. There is a better way!
Bible as a Telescope
At the back of all this is this question—what is a relationship with God about? There is a continuum, with “love” and “knowledge” at opposite poles. A ditch lies at either end—God is either Jello or an iceman. Both poles are important (it is kind of important to know about God, after all!), but you will likely tend towards one over the other—Carl Henry certainly did.
So, let me declare this—love must be the foundation for your relationship with God. Moses said it. Jesus affirmed it. I think that is pretty definitive! On this continuum, trend towards love.
If you think faith is about love and trust in Jesus, you will look through the bible to connect to God. But, if you think faith is about information about Jesus, then you may look at the bible as an end in and of itself. This last approach misses the point.
Let me give you a few examples:
- You love espresso. You have an expensive espresso machine. Which is more important—the machine or the espresso it produces? The espresso, of course! Suppose someone objects, “Well, without the machine, we wouldn’t have espresso!” This is missing the point—the goal is to drink espresso! The machine is only valuable insofar as it makes the coffee.
- You have a telescope. It is a great telescope—the best! You set it up in your backyard, ready to go. Someone keeps gushing about the telescope; its the features and its general awesomeness. “Isn’t it great?” he asks. It might be a wonderful telescope, but the goal is to look through the scope to see the heavens! The telescope is not the point—it is simply a means to a greater end. It is a tool. To obsess over the telescope is to miss the point.
What I am suggesting is that the bible is a telescope. It lets us see, know, and experience God. It channels God, by the power of the Spirit. It does not exist for its own sake—its only job is to provide a scope to look through to see God and experience Him. We do not look at a telescope—we look through it to see the heavens. In the same way, you look through the Scriptures to see God—you do not look at it!
We saw from our text that as God’s revelation unfolds to us, it brings “light” to our eyes, giving understanding to the simple (Ps 119:130). The Scriptures (God’s truthful record of His revelation) are a telescope which bring God into focus, make Him present, confront us with Him for teaching, rebuking, correction, for training in righteousness (2 Tim 3:16)—“direct my footsteps according to your word” (Ps 119:133).
In another place, the psalmist says, “Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path,” (Ps 119:105). God’s revelation lights our path so we can find our way to Him, so Jesus—the true light (Jn 1:9)—can shine upon we who are in darkness and guide our feet into the way of peace (Lk 1:79). Elsewhere, Solomon says our spirit is “the lamp of the Lord, that sheds light on one’s inmost being,” (Prov 20:27). We are lamps waiting to be lit by Yahweh—“light and life to all He brings!” (cp. Jn 1:4). His revelation—ultimately Jesus as the light of the world—illuminates us from the inside out. The Scriptures are a witness to that revelation (Jn 5:46)—they connect us to Jesus.
Read the Scriptures with Love!
This is what I’m saying, in the end:
- Read the bible to know God, not to know about God. This is not a call to toss doctrine to the winds—it is not a “we don’t need no theology in this here church!” attitude. It is a plea to keep warmth, love, and personal encounter with Christ via the Spirit at the forefront. Carl Henry was right to acknowledge that personal faith is a gift of the Spirit, but I fear some who follow in his theological train unwittingly make the same acknowledgments in a pro forma manner.
- Read the bible to love God, not to love facts about God. The demons know true doctrine and it does them no good (Jas 2:19)! “The purpose of theology [and bible reading!] is to clarify the propositions involved in faith, but we must never mistake belief in propositions for the faith.”
- Read the bible to grow closer to Him in relationship, not to pick at Scriptures with tweezers.
I have one more example to give. Many years ago, I spoke to an individual who did not believe spiritual illumination helped us understand the bible. Instead, she said the Spirit “allows me to receive the text as it is.” I asked her to explain. She said the Spirit never helped people agree on what a text means. She said she had people in her church who were more spiritual than she, but worse bible interpreters—thus a person’s spirituality was irrelevant. The matter would always be settled by grammar, syntax, rules of interpretation.
I interrupted and asked her flat out, “Are you saying you never pray and ask to understand the bible?” She grimaced, then stammered a bit. “I don’t want to say the word ‘understand’ …” She then rallied, and repeated that interpretation was always settled by grammar and interpretative rules, and that the Spirit simply “enables me to accept the text as it is.”
Basically, she followed Carl Henry. She looked at the Scriptures to discover truth from the ink on the page or the pixels on the screen—she did not look through them to see, know, experience, and love God. If we are not careful, our faith may grow cold and rational. Emil Brunner remarked that “[t]his confusion, this replacing of personal understanding of faith by the intellectual, is probably the most fatal occurrence within the entire history of the church.”
We need to read our bibles, but in the right way!
- I like my espresso machine, but only because through it I see my espresso—the machine is a means to an end.
- We love our bibles, but only because it is a telescope we look through to see, know, and love God.
- The bible in your hand is God’s divine means to an end, and that end is a relationship with Him.
- It is not a puzzle we look at—it is a telescope we look through.
So, when you read your bibles, read them with an attitude of love—not the attitude of a mortician—so that through the Scriptures you can see, experience, and love God. Read for formation, not simply for information.
 See Edgar Mullins, The Christian Religion in its Doctrinal Expression (Philadelphia: Roger Williams Press, 1917), p. 141.
 This need not be categorized as a neo-orthodox statement. Long before Barth or Brunner put pen to paper, Edgar Mullins repeatedly called the Scripture “the record of God’s revelation,” (Christian Religion, pp. 137, 140, 142), as did Alvah Hovey before him (Manual of Christian Theology (New York: Silver, Burdett and Company, 1900), pp. 42, 85.
 Mullins, Christian Religion, p. 141.
 Carl F.H. Henry, God, Revelation, and Authority, vol. 1 (Waco: Word, 1976), p. 238. See especially ch(s). 13-14.
 Henry, God, Revelation, and Authority, p. 1:232.
 To Henry, the Scripture is the reservoir or conduit of divine truth (Thesis No. 11, God, Revelation, and Authority, vol. 4(Waco: Word, 1979), p.7). It is the end of the line. The Spirit’s role in this context is to illuminate the Scripture (see Thesis No. 12, God, Revelation, and Authority, p.4:129) by enlivening it so we understand what it says. He only helps us interpret but imparts no new information (God, Revelation, and Authority, pp. 4:273, 275)—this is illumination, according to Henry. The Christian looks at the Bible as an end in and of itself.
 Henry, God, Revelation, and Authority, pp. 1:218f.
 See Henry, God, Revelation, and Authority, pp. 3:455-459.
 To Henry, the Scriptures are the vehicle and the Spirit simply shines a light upon them. “God intends that Scripture should function in our lives as his Spirit-illumined Word. It is the Spirit who opens man’s being to a keen personal awareness of God’s revelation. The Spirit empowers us to receive and appropriate the Scriptures, and promotes in us a normative theological comprehension for a transformed life. The Spirit gives a vital current focus to historical revelation and makes it powerfully real,” (God, Revelation, and Authority, p. 4:273).
 Henry, God, Revelation, and Authority, pp. 3:482f. “The Bible supplies no basis for the theory that the logos of God must be something other than an intelligible spoken or written word.”
 John MacArthur (ed.), The Inerrant Word: Biblical, Historical, Theological, and Pastoral Perspectives (Wheaton: Crossway, 2016), p. 19.
 This relentless focus on the Scriptures to the exclusion of anything else led Emil Brunner to intemperately accuse such adherents of idolatry. “The habit of regarding the written word, the Bible, as the ‘Word of God’ exclusively—as is the case in the traditional equation of the ‘word’ of the Bible with the ‘Word of God’—an error which is constantly on the verge of being repeated—is actually a breach of the Second Commandment: it is the deification of a creature, bibliolatry,” (Revelation and Reason: The Christian Doctrine of Faith and Knowledge, trans. Olive Wyon (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1946), p. 120).
 MacArthur, Inerrant Word, p. 20.
 “The Christian protest against rationalism in its eighteenth-century deistic emphasis on the sufficiency of human speculation unenlightened by divine revelation is legitimate enough. What is objectionable about rationalism is not reason, however, but human reasoning deployed into the service of premises that flow from arbitrary and mistaken postulations about reality and truth. Christian theology unreservedly champions reason as an instrument for organizing data and drawing inferences from it, and as a logical discriminating faculty competent to test religious claims,” (God, Revelation, and Authority, p. 1:226). Emphasis added.
 Carl Henry wrote, “There is but one system of truth, and that system involves the right axiom and its theorems and premises derived with complete logical consistency,” (God, Revelation, and Authority, p. 1:227).
 For the position I am advocating, see especially (1) Emil Brunner, Revelation and Reason, pp. 3-57, 118-136, and (2) William Hordern, A New Reformation Theology (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1959), pp. 31-76. My telescope analogy is from Hordern (p. 70). For a helpful cautionary note hitting the brakes on Brunner (et al) while disagreeing with Henry’s more rationalistic perspective, see Millard Erickson, Christian Theology, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2013), pp. 157-163. See also James L. Garrett, Systematic Theology, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), pp. 168-182 for a solid, helpful discussion on the bible and authority in Christianity.
 Henry, God, Revelation, and Authority, p. 1:228.
 Hordern, New Reformation Theology, p. 72.
 Emil Brunner, Truth as Encounter: A New Edition, Much Enlarged, of ‘The Divine-Human Encounter’ (London: SCM Press, 1964), p. 165.
 Justo Gonzalez, Knowing Our Faith: A Guide for Believers, Seekers, and Christian Communities (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2019), p. 27. “… our main purpose in reading the Bible must not be information, but rather formation. When we read, for instance, the story of Abraham, what is important is not that we learn by heart the entire route of his pilgrimage, but rather that somehow we come to share that faith which guided him throughout his journey.”