How Not to Read the Bible
Glenn Paauw thinks the Bible needs to be saved…from us!
What is the Bible? What are we supposed to do with it?
The standard way to answer these questions is to outline what Scripture says about itself. A key prooftext is 2 Timothy 3:15–17. According to Paul, Scripture is “holy” and “God-breathed.” We’re supposed to use it to “make [us] wise for salvation” as well as for “teaching, rebuking, correcting and training” so that we can be “equipped for every good work.” Wayne Grudem’s classic article, “Scripture’s Self-Attestation and the Problem of Formulating a Doctrine of Scripture,” assembles a formidable array of such prooftexts and is well worth reading.
Glenn R. Paauw (pronounced “pow”) takes a very different approach in his thought-provoking book, Saving the Bible from Ourselves. He begins with how publishers format our Bibles rather than how Scripture speaks about itself. Why? Because, to borrow a phrase from Marshall McLuhan, the medium shapes the message.
To see this, take out the copy of the Bible you read and open it. My guess is that it has, at minimum, two columns per page, chapter and verse numbers, headings, cross-references and footnotes. If it is a study Bible, it has all that plus book introductions, thematic articles, study notes, maps, diagrams, charts, tables, pictures and a handy concordance at the end to help you find the verses you’re looking for. Chances are, there are more words per page devoted to commentary on Scripture than Scripture itself.
The Bible is holy and God-breathed. It is useful in equipping us for every good work.
I don’t know about you, but the only kinds of books I read that have all those features are textbooks, dictionaries, encyclopedias, technical manuals and the like — reference books, in other words. If the medium shapes the message, then how publishers format our Bibles subtly but persistently teaches us to approach the Bible as a reference book. Approaching the Bible as a reference book is both overwhelming and underwhelming for readers, however.
The more information publishers cram onto a page the more overwhelming Bible-reading becomes for the average reader. As Paauw puts it, “We have effectively buried the text and blinded readers with data smog.” I didn’t realize how smoggy my Bible was until I started using the ESV Reader’s Bible a couple years ago. That version presents the biblical text in a single column on the page and deletes chapter and verse numbers, headings, cross-references and footnotes. Prose sections are formatted in paragraphs, and poetic sections are formatted in stanzas. The result is a Bible that is beautiful and pleasing to read.
Paradoxically, however, the reference-book Bible is also underwhelming to the average reader. The standard Bible-publishing format has taught us to think of God’s Word as an encyclopedia of divine quotations organized around topics. Want to know what the Bible teaches about X? On this approach, all you need to do is look up X in the index — I mean, concordance — and find every verse where Scripture mentions it.
The problem is that not every bit of the Bible is as inspirational or as quotable as every other part. My dad graduated from a Christian college. Many of his friends signed his yearbook with a biblical reference, for example, “Jane Doe, John 3:16.” They didn’t quote the verse because most of the time, it was so well known that they didn’t have to. My dad — kidder that he is — signed his name with Exodus 22:18. Had anyone bothered to look up that verse, they would’ve found that it read, in the immortal words of King James, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.”
My dad’s antics make me laugh every time, but they also raise a serious question. If we have been subtly but persistently taught to read the Bible as a reference book of inspirational quotations, what do we do when discover that it contains Exodus 22:18? Or long stretches of ancient history? Or laments and imprecations? Or hard words from Jesus? Or challenging theology in Paul? Or the entire Book of Revelation?
Rather than approaching the Bible as a reference book — which both overwhelms and underwhelms the average reader — how about approaching the Bible without all the reference-book paraphernalia and the interpretive assumptions that go along with? What might reading such a Bible look like?
Paauw describes the resulting Bible this way: “a Bible that is presented as literature, eaten in natural forms, grounded in history, inviting in its narrative, restorative in its theme, engaged in community and honored in its aesthetic presentation.”
In other words, it’s a Bible with clear, easy-to-read pages rather than data smog. It’s a Bible attentive to the fact that prose looks different on the printed page than poetry, and that different literary genres have different interpretive rules and practices. When we read it, we encounter what Karl Barth called “the strange new world in the Bible,” attentive to the fact that God revealed himself to particular people in particular times and particular places, but in such a way that He changed them, their age, and their culture. Reading becomes a matter of seeing the Bible’s individual stories (about Adam, Abraham, Moses, David, Jesus, Peter, Paul) contributing to the Big Story (creation, fall, election, redemption, glorification) that touches on every aspect of our lives. Moreover, rather than reading the Bible as isolated individuals, we remember that God desires to save a people for himself, and thus read it as a fellowship of the redeemed.
Unfortunately, we’ve smogged up God’s Word with all the human additions we print on its page, making it harder to read and understand.
You’ll need to read Saving the Bible from Ourselves to understand what Paauw is proposing in detail. Speaking for myself, I found his book eye-opening, thought-provoking, and habit-reforming. I recommend it highly, and I’ll no doubt read it again.
But before you go out and purchase Paauw’s book, let me encourage you to pick up a reader’s version of the Bible. Crossway publishes the ESV Reader’s Bible. Zondervan publishes The Books of the Bible, which uses the NIV. (Paauw served as a consultant on this project.) If not a reader’s version, at least pick up a single-column Bible that isn’t a study Bible. If your experience is anything like mine, you’ll find it easier to read the Bible for longer periods of time, and you’ll start to notice details that had escaped you before.
Second Timothy 3:15–17 is right, of course. The Bible is “holy” and “God-breathed.” It is “useful” in equipping us “for every good work.” Unfortunately, we’ve smogged up God’s Word with all the human additions we print on its page, making it harder to read and understand. It’s time to save the Bible from our well-intentioned publishing efforts, and Glenn Paauw’s book is a big step in the right direction.
Book Reviewed: Glenn Paauw, Saving the Bible from Ourselves: Learning to Read and Live the Bible Well (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2016).
For Further Study: Check out this Influence Podcast with Glenn Paauw about Saving the Bible from Ourselves.