If you’re like me, you’ve been told there are different types of reading plans for the Bible. There are time when we crack open all the study aids and decipher what’s going on. Then there is the devotional reading, where you just read and let the passage speak to you. Therefore, it is common to have a time set aside for just devotional reading and a time set-aside for some serious, academically oriented studying. I have accepted this polarized approach for years but lately have come to find some problems with it.
This morning was a perfect illustration. I try to read at least one Psalm in the morning as part of devotional time. However, I got hung up on a passage this morning in Psalm 39. I was having trouble deciphering what exactly the author was getting at, especially in vs. 5 and the “handbreath”. My initial inclination was to not bother with any commentaries because after all, it was devotional reading and in devotional reading you just let the passage speak to you. The problem was that I really needed to understand what it was saying, so I did some research. One commentator explained the context and the chiastic structure and the meaning of “handbreadth” in Hebrew. I was relieved. Not only that, but the greater clarity gave the passage more significance because as it resonated with some deeply personal challenges I have experienced. It prompted worship. And it also clarified for me why I have a problem with this polarized approach to scripture.
For the Christian, the whole point of studying scripture is to understand the very revelation of God and his ultimate revelation in Christ. The Bible is God’s self-disclosure as he has exposed himself and his plan for history through the pens of human authors. God’s plan of redemption and reconciliation to mankind, is the overriding messages that coalesces the diversity of genres and the seemingly disjointed eras into a unified whole. Therefore, reading the Bible is not just for information purposes but is expressly designed to make an impact on the lives of those have placed faith in the salvation that Christ offers. Those authors were writing with a particular purpose as they record events, narratives, poems, letters under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, all to unveil the overriding message of Christ. That message speaks volumes but it must be understood in light of how the authors intended it. I have been dragging my tail on a post about authorial intent hermeneutics and the importance of meaning, which will provide more detail on the subject (hopefully I now have the incentive to get off my duff and finish it!). But suffice it to say that understanding what we are reading is significant. Moreover, it is to understand where the Christian fits into that plan and how to apply what is learned so that our lives are transformed by the very words we read.
I think you lose something with the design and application of scripture by creating this dichotomy. On one hand, reading with the intention of academic study can circumvent the application of scripture and associate studying with anti-spiritual activity. This type of reading can be considered less spiritual. On the other hand, reading devotionally can create a false sense of meaning upon scripture because we may not be fully engaged with where the author is coming from. It also can give the false impression that you are engaged in a spiritual activity simply because you’re not bogged down with investigation or that devotional reading is somehow more spiritual.
An academically oriented investigation of scripture and Biblical theology need not be devoid of the spiritual significance of God’s revelation. In fact, I would argue that it intensely spiritual thing to do to gain as much understanding as possible, which builds the foundation for Christ-centered spirituality. I have discovered that even the most academically oriented study can be transformed into an intense devotional. I have this especially true with Greek. The learning process is tough as the mechanics of the language are learned. But those same mechanics compel the force of the original language to illustrate what God would have us to know. It does not have to stop at just learning the information but should be followed up with deep reflection about what the information means. The same is true for studying theology proper or an intense investigation into scriptural analysis and background studies. More information should lead to more understanding, which should create a greater heart impact, which should lead to more worship. It is all in how the information is applied not the fact that you have more information.
On the flipside, if we just pick up the Bible and read along for devotional value and not be concerned with authorial intent, we can really miss what the author is trying to get at. Even worse, we can derive a misunderstanding of what the author is communicating through a self-focused desire to have our heart impacted, without reconciling our understanding with that of the authors’ and especially the context. I recall a time I used to do this with the Old Testament prophets and wanted God to speak to me personally. A lot of misunderstanding was developed because of that and to this day it is continually being unraveled. How rich and rewarding that correction process has been!
Now, I am not saying that every reading session needs to treated like a seminary course. But I do think there is a danger in pitting one type of study against the other, as if one type of reading precludes the other. If we are seeking to know about God on his terms, it is all spiritual. In that way, every study session should be devotional.
I may be alone in not wanting to have two different kind of reading programs. But the thought of God condescending to make Himself known, really encourages me to strive as best as possible to understand what is meant by what is being communicated. In this we who call Christ savior and king, come to know and understand His heart, which should open ours and bow down in worship.
“Give me understanding, that I may observe Your law and keep it with all my heart.” (Psalm 119:34)