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Three Approaches to Bible Reading

Reading any document, even the Bible, can often become routine. And reading the Bible in the same way every time can keep us from discovering biblical truths that can be found beneath the actual words on the page. So when we become intentional about reading the Bible with a particular approach or method in mind, the Bible can speak to us in new and exciting ways. Three primary approaches to reading the Bible include the social-historical, the literary, and the theological. By following any one of these approaches, we read the Bible with certain questions in mind, constantly interacting with the words of the text and their context. Each of these approaches can reveal different aspects of the Bible. Exploring these can deepen our experiences with Scripture and broaden our awareness of God.

Social-Historical Reading

The social-historical approach is primarily interested in the world behind the text, that is, the social structures, historical events, customs, as well as social issues related to roles, power, and class. We learn to ask questions about the events described or assumed in the biblical text, the key places mentioned (like cities, nations, geographical features, or trade routes), and the political scene within ancient Israel (for the Old Testament) or the Greek-Roman world (for the New Testament). Likewise, attention to the social world behind the text can involve exploring such issues as how the characters relate to one another in terms of power and class (for example, king/servant, parent/child, or teacher/student), what customs are assumed in the biblical text, and how the biblical world is shaped by the religion and philosophy of the larger world (like the Egyptian, Babylonian, Greek, or Roman worlds).

Literary Reading

The literary approach, by contrast, is interested in the words of the text itself, that is, how they are put together and how they convey the biblical message. This approach helps us pay attention to literary features like key words or themes that are repeated throughout a passage (or an entire book), the type of literature being read (for example, law, prophecy, Gospel, letter), the use of unique or unexpected words, the literary context of the passage (what happens immediately before and after it), and how the plot or storyline is developed. In addition, the literary approach is interested in the characters of the biblical text: how they are described and how they interact, what they know or do not know, how they solve problems and deal with conflict, achievements, downfalls, and what they discover or teach about God.

Theological (Devotional) Reading

The theological (or devotional) approach seeks to discover new truths about God and our relationship to God. This approach, the most personal of the three approaches, is interested in the overall purpose or intent of the passage being read. It seeks to answer questions like What did I learn about God (or Jesus Christ) from this passage? What did I learn about human nature? And what did I learn about my own relationship to God and Jesus Christ? In other words, the theological approach wrestles with the "So What" question of reading the Bible: How does this passage apply to me and how is my life changed (or need to be changed) in light of my reading it?

As you begin to be intentional about reading God's Word, you might want to select a passage and read it several times, following each of the approaches described above. Whichever approach we choose to follow, the challenge for all of us is to become more and more aware of the relevance of the Bible and how we can be changed by making it a part of our lives.