How Should We Study the Bible?

By Mike Littleton

I can still vividly remember one of the first bible studies I was part of as a young Christian. A small group of us would get together once a week, read through a particular text of scripture and then spend the rest of the time trying to decipher what exactly the particular text meant.

We were all well-meaning, but we had no idea what we were doing. 

We didn’t know what questions to ask. We didn’t have any guidelines to follow. We didn’t even know that scripture was something that had to be “interpreted” or what that even meant. 

The primary questions we asked revolved around what the text meant to us personally, and this was dictated primarily by how a particular text made us feel. Furthermore, we spent much of our time searching for and discussing the potential “deeper meanings” of a particular text.

There is a right way to read the bible

God is gracious and I don’t think much damage was done back in those early days of bible study. I’m thankful I wasn’t the leader, but I also wish I had a leader who was taught how to teach others that there is a right way to read the bible. 

It’s not like other books

I understand why people approach bible reading this way. We believe the bible is the word of God, and as such, we expect it to be different than “ordinary” books. We expect it to speak into our lives differently than ordinary literature. We want it to. We want it to reveal something beyond us and greater than us–and indeed it does. The bible is the only book, to use the words of John Piper, that reveals the peculiar glory of God. This is in fact its purpose.

It is like other books

At the same time, however, the bible is like other books. What I mean by this is that the bible is, like any other book, a work of literature. And what this means is that there are certain rules to follow. When we begin to read a book or an article or any other type of writing, the first thing we do is ask questions that will help us better understand what the author is trying to convey to his or her particular readers. It may not feel like this is something we do because it comes somewhat intuitively with more modern literature. But with ancient literature, like the bible, there’s a little (a lot) more work that needs to be done.  

In order for us to read the bible correctly, we need to understand certain realities. For example, the bible isn’t just one book, but a library of books. It is one book that contains 66 books–39 in the Old Testament and 27 in the New Testament. Not only do we need to know that the bible consists of many books, we also need to understand that these 66 books fall into various genres of literature which greatly effect the way we read and interpret them. The bible contains genres such as: historical narrative, prophecy, poetry, wisdom literature, gospels, and letters.

So where do we begin?

Sadly, it’s assumed that people (Christians in particular) just know how to read the bible. But they don’t. Abby made this clear to me a while ago when we were having a discussion about bible reading. She said, “I was always told by my pastor that I need to read my bible, but I was never taught how to.” 

That was a revelatory thought for me, as well as a reality I’m guilty of. As a preacher, I’ve admonished Christians on countless occasions of the importance and necessity of reading the bible, but often without putting the tools in their hands to do it well.  

The bible is something we need to learn to read. We need to do the hard work and study of learning how to read the bible so that we can read and study it well. This is a process that takes time (a lifetime in fact) and this is okay.

However, regardless of where you’re at in your understanding of how to read the bible, the best thing you can do is simply begin.

A method

Over the next couple of months, with blog posts like this and a sermon series we started on January 29th, we’re going to be working through a particular method of bible reading. One of our hopes in this is that you’ll be encouraged and helped in the process of learning how to read and study it yourself. 

As we do this, it’s important to understand that this is a method among many. If you have a method you already use and prefer, that’s fine. But don't tune out what you can learn here. 

The method we’ve chosen to adopt comes out of Jen Wilkin’s book Women Of The Word. Don’t let the title deter you men, this isn’t a bible reading method decorated with flowers and soaked in rose-smelling essential oils. This method is anything but a method for women only. The reason the book is titled what it is has only to do with the fact that Wilkin’s target audience was and is women. But the content and method is among the best and most accessible I’ve ever read. I’ve adopted this method myself and have noticed a dramatic difference in the way I comprehend and teach biblical texts.

The Five “P’s"

Wilkin has labeled this method the five “P’s.” I am only going to list and briefly summarize them here. Each of these headings will be a specific sermon in our sermon series Knowing Jesus In His Word. 

Study with Purpose –– Understand where your text fits into the Big Story of creation-fall-redemption-restoration. 

Study with Perspective –– Understand the “archeology” of your texts (its historical and cultural context).

Study with Patience –– Resolve not to hurry; set a realistic expectation for your pace of study, focusing on the long term. 

Study with Process –– Begin methodically reading for comprehension, interpretation, and application.

Study with Prayer –– Ask the Father to help you before, during, and after you study time.

The Goal

Our hope and prayer in laying out this method is that we’ll have a consistent way in which we’re able to approach the study of Scripture in Taproot. Furthermore, this will give us consistency in discipleship. Part of knowing Jesus and making him known involves knowing how to read the bible and also being able to teach (discipleship) others how to as well. With this “adopted” method, we’ll also have a consistent approach to discipleship when it comes to reading and studying Scripture. 

Our prayer is that we would ultimately be maturing as followers of Jesus. We cannot do this apart from knowing the glorious God of the bible. 

May we know him more, Taproot.