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)

C Michael Patton
C Michael Patton

C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger. Find him on Patreon Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I'm a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. Join his Patreon and support his ministry

    11 replies to "The Danger of a Polarized Reading Plan: Why Every Study Should Be Devotional"

    • Tyler

      rayner markley,

      Maybe this is a case of the necessity of distinguishing without separating. At least distinguishing times of emphasis on one or the other. After all, I wouldn’t call a seminary class a “devotion,” even though, hopefully, it’s not devoid of devotion. And I don’t tend to think of my devotions primarily as “studies,” but they often do include some more academic studying.

      -Tyler 🙂

    • Tyler

      Or in John Frame’s “tri-perspectival” terms, maybe “devotions” would be *emphasizing* more of the “existential” perspective while classroom-like study *emphasizes* more of the “situational” perspective. Both are connected to the Bible, the ultimate source of the “normative” perspective.

    • Leslie

      Lisa, I agree with you. In fact, this is exactly what is on my mind, but I couldn’t have penned as well as you have!

    • ScottL

      Lisa, thanks for sharing your heart in this article. You will always be known to me as one who passionately wants to understand Scripture and see others come into full and healthy understanding as well. If only we all stood in that place.

      I guess you are considering writing more on this topic, though I know it is tough for you with classes going on. Here are some questions that I ponder regularly:

      1) In knowing authorial intent, how would address the reality that some of the OT writers did not fully know and understand what they were writing? Some of their words spoke into the new covenant context, which they had a very faint understanding of. How do we move past their initial authorial intent and understanding what they were communicating now that the new covenant has come? This is where I think we have different understandings on things like who is Israel, what is that temple being described at the end of Ezekiel, how literal certain prophetic words will be fulfilled, etc.

      2) Maybe somewhat connected to the first, but not in all things, and I think you have heard me raise this before, but what do you do when an NT writer quotes an OT passage, but maybe in a very, very different context. The passage I always think of is 1 Tim 5:18, but there are some others. How do we consider something like this? Today we might do this, like in the case of someone quoting Ps 46:10 in regards to devotional times with the Lord. But the psalmist was considering cataclysmic events, not devotional times, when the psalm was penned. I personally don’t think such is wrong, but maybe there is a line and how do we come to a healthy balance?

      Ok, some interesting questions that I consider at times.

    • Ed Kratz

      Tyler, yes the point is that every reading should provoke both understanding and devotion. I’m not sure I would draw those distinctions between existential and situational.

      Rayner, perhaps that should have been the title – why every reading should provoke both understanding and devotion. I toyed around with a few but the one I selected is the one that kept surfacing.

    • Ed Kratz

      Scott, thanks for sharing those thoughts. It is a conviction for me personally to spend more time in scripture since school work can easily crowd that out.

      With regard to your questions, I ponder the same things and to date have not come to any conclusive decision.

      With respect to #1 – I do believe that the OT writers remained ignorant of the full scope of what they were writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. They were speaking to their situation at the time. That doesn’t mean that the passages have any double meaning only that the completed revelation in the NT brought more clarity to what they wrote. So under progressive revelation they would understand less than the NT writers did but applied to a fuller understanding of what that meant in a broader context. Does that make sense?

      With respect to #2 – here is where I wrestle a little more. The reality of scripture is that none of it was written to us. I do believe that the promises delivered to Israel were exclusive to Israel but does not negate God’s heart for his people and demonstration of himself. So, for instance, taking a passage like Jeremiah 29:11 and indicating that we cannot use that, I am coming around to seeing that as a little shortsighted.

    • C Skiles

      Great post , Lisa. I have to agree. I have noticed that when I am digging more in scripture , when I am reading books and/or theological papers and such, that the truths that I learn come flooding back to my mind as I am singing a great hymn on Sunday morning as a participating member of my congregation. My heart is engaged in worship on a deeper , intellectually spiritual level.

    • Susan

      My husband has expressed some frustration along these lines to me recently. Ever since his conversion a year and a half ago he has purposed to read through the Bible for the first time. He didn’t complete the task yet. He told me that he often runs into that dilemma of ‘Do I keep on reading…even though I don’t understand this but want to…?’. He showed me an example the other day….one of the parables. He finally reached for a commentary hoping for some light. As you say, the entire passage became much more meaningful as he gained understanding. I think there is value in reading through the Bible as he is…in order to absorb the overall flow of scripture, but it’s good that he sometimes stops to reflect and dig. So, it’s just as well that he didn’t finish in one year!

    • Joe

      Commentaries provide a good way to check your own understanding of scripture and your own interpretations of passages. They help even the casual user to avoid misunderstandings and mistakes about the Bible. They can also help you get a better grasp of major Bible themes and topics and see the flow of the author’s argument better in a given passage of scripture.

      The only concern would be being unduly influenced by a particular commentary so one should read two or three on the same passage, which will serve as a “check and balance” on one another.

    • jim

      Good article Lisa, I agree that we at times need to dig deeper into scripture which is not so clear. I agree with Joe *10, to get a multiply influence from different sources and go from there. There is so much subjectivity in reading God’s word that any help I can get is welcomed. But, in the end , I still come back to chosing the revelation of God’s word that makes the most sense to me, which is , I guess subjective. I like to hear what the church fathers say about a bibical passage and kind of stay to the middle (consenus) with the more diffuclt passages.

      Looking forward to the rest of your thoughts on this subject, Thanks for the post

      God bless,

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