"More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold" – Psalm 19:10

In their classic, How to Read a Book, Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren claim that more books have been written on how to read the Bible than on any other aspect of reading. This post is intended as a primer on how to read the Bible. My intention is to encourage those who have been reading the Scriptures for decades as well as those who are just beginning to take it seriously.

The Importance of Questions

The core of the method I propose is based on asking questions. Questions have a way of guiding our thinking in a way that I find fascinating. We can be led to great discoveries and insights by asking the right questions.

In fact, asking questions is so powerful that one of Plato's theories is that everyone already knows everything. He theorized that we all pass through a river of forgetfulness before we are born. But by asking the right questions, we can be reminded of what we already know. To prove his point, a young boy is led to discover the Pythagorean Theorem with the aid of questions alone. This happens in the dialogue called Meno.

However, finding the right questions can be difficult. The quality of your study will be determined by the quality of the answers you derive. And the quality of the answers you derive will be determined by the questions that you ask. There is no compensating for bad questions.

One of the most common errors in Bible study is reading content into the text that is not there. This is the opposite of the goal, which is to extract content from the text. The former is called eisegesis and the latter is called exegesis. Exegesis, taking meaning out, is the goal. Eisegesis, reading meaning in, is not the goal.

I will share some backstory to these questions. I have enjoyed reading ever since I learned to do it. I spent six years studying literature following high school. Then I attended seminary and studied the Bible and theology for almost four years. It would be easy to conclude that I became some sort of an expert reader a long time ago. But I didn't.

In the first year of my time at university, I came across How to Read a Book in my parents's home. The first thing the book taught me was that I did not know how to read like I thought I did. It had a formative impact on my education, teaching me to approach different kinds of reading in different ways.

How to Read a Book helped to carry me through the different kinds of courses I took, especially the ones that required difficult reading, such as philosophy classes. One of my professors said about one book that its author, when asked years later, could not understand his own work.

In addition to How to Read a Book, I was also taught to use Brian Chappell's "Fallen Condition Focus". His questions have also had a formative impact on the way I read and study Scripture.

The method of reading God’s word with benefit can be reduced to 3 basic questions that can be applied to any reading: 1) What’s the big idea? 2) What are the little details? and 3) Why should I care? Let’s take each in turn.

What's the Big Idea?

To answer this question is to take the passage as a whole and attempt to summarize it in as brief and simple a way as possible. What is the passage generally about? It could be any number of things. The passage may have a particular theme, or it may be centered on a particular problem. It could also be a variety of things that seem hard to pin down and see how it fits together. That is OK.

Scholars such as R.C. Sproul have said that if a teacher can’t explain a text in terms a child would understand then they still don’t understand it well themselves. “What’s the Big Idea?” asks what is the main point or thrust of the text for the original hearers or readers. Answering this question is at once simple and profound; all it attempts to do is understand the basic message of the text. But in doing so, we (the readers) must distinguish between points, words, terms, and ideas that are more central to the meaning from those that are less central.

This leads us to the next question.

What Are the Little Details?

Whichever part of the Bible you find yourself reading, you cannot construct the Big Idea without understanding the individual pieces that make it up! The more your Big Idea makes sense of the individual words, phrases, sentences, and paragraphs that make it up, the more confident you can be that you are understanding God’s Word accurately. But don’t restrict yourself only to the immediate context. Scripture refers to itself often, and details in one passage might remind you of the big idea or a little detail from another passage.

What seems to be important to the author to communicate? This is to ask why the author would want to include this particular passage in what is being written. Can you see what purpose it serves? Oftentimes, it is helpful to ask what question(s) this text answers. If you did not have this passage, what questions might the original readers or hearers have had?

The more you read in this way, the more you will see how Scripture presents a unified message about Christ. But the Scriptures do it in such a way that individual passages, letters, songs, and stories enhance each others’ brilliance as they show us God’s glory.

Why Should I Care?

Although we believe that all Scripture is profitable and useful (2 Tim. 3:16-17), sometimes it is hard to see how. No matter where you are reading in Scripture, there is always something there to contribute to the renewing of your mind (Rom. 12:1-2).

As you read the passage, what connections can you see between yourself and either the author or the intended audience? In other words, how can you identify with or relate to what is being written? Is the passage just as applicable to you as the original author or audience, or is the connection more distant?

As you consider the above question, the following are some questions to help tease out your answer to the ones just listed.

How can the reading today affect how/what I believe, know, or reason? Put another way, how does this passage inform your faith? In other words, how does this passage call you to believe differently than you currently do, to interpret something differently than you currently do, and/or to understand something differently than you currently do? What does this passage tell you about how you ought to think differently than you currently do?

How can the reading today affect my desires, values, feelings, or emotions? Put another way, how does this passage inform your hope? In other words, how does this passage call you to alter your desires, your values, your feelings, and/or the way you emote? What does this passage tell you about how you ought to desire and react differently than you currently do?

How can the reading today affect what I decide, will, intend, commit, or act? Put another way, how does this passage inform your love? In other words, how does this passage call you to alter your choices, your plans, and/or your intentions? What does this passage tell you about how you ought to choose in order to love God and neighbor differently than you currently do?

As we study the Bible, let’s follow David’s lead and cover all of our time in God’s Word with humble and sincere prayer:

"Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart Be acceptable in your sight, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer" - Psalm 19:14

On How to Study the Bible