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How to Read the Bible and Understand Scripture as the Word of God

By Dr. J. Todd Billings

Open bible and dove flying over it to symbolize the Holy Spirit

Learn about how to read the Bible as a Christian from Dr. J. Todd Billings, Western Theological Seminary Gordon H. Girod research professor of Reformed theology. You’ll explore some common ways people approach the Bible, reflect on what it means to understand Scripture as the Word of God, and discover distinctive ways the Reformed tradition approaches interpreting the Bible. This is part one of a three-part series on how to study the Bible. Originally available in video form, the written material has been lightly adapted. 

Key points

  • Interpreting the Bible as Christian Scripture means “being on a pilgrimage of growing in conformity to Jesus Christ by the power of the Spirit, looking forward to the day when we will see God face to face.” 
  • Sola scriptura doesn’t mean we use only the Bible as a guide, ignoring God’s creation and Christian tradition, or that we should interpret the Bible without input from others. When we say sola scriptura, we mean that because Jesus Christ is the only Lord of the church, nothing but Scripture can have the final word on our faith and practice. 

What does it mean to interpret the Bible as Christian Scripture?

“How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth. … Your word is a lamp to my feet, a light to my path. … My heart is set on keeping your decrees to the very end. … May my cry come before you, Lord; give me understanding according to your word.”

— Psalm 119

These prayers from Psalm 119 remind us that the word of the Lord in Scripture is not just an abstract idea. It’s something that we feed upon, that we ingest. We delight in it like we delight in honey. We taste and chew it. We delight in God’s Word together in congregations as we sing it, as we pray it, as we set our hearts upon obeying God’s Word.

And when we are in need, we cry out to the Lord, not just for our problems to be fixed, but to be given a new “understanding according to your Word,” as the psalmist says.

There are a lot of misunderstandings and even conflicts that come up in how we understand the Bible and the different approaches we take to interpreting Scripture.

So I’d like to start with a basic question. What does it mean to interpret the Bible as Christian Scripture? Although it may seem like an obvious question, there are a lot of different ways to approach Scripture among people of faith.

Common ways people read the Bible

The smorgasbord

A lot of Christians approach the Bible a little bit like a smorgasbord. They want a handful of carrots here, a helping of potatoes there. They look to Scripture for a little bit of self-esteem boost when they’re feeling low. Or when they’re upset with someone, they seek out the Bible for a little bit of encouragement about forgiveness. There’s picking and choosing, but nothing that really holds it together.

The fortune-teller

At other times, Christians approach the Bible for secret knowledge about the future, perhaps about future political events. They may look in the Bible for predictions about when the end times might be coming with the second coming of Christ.

The ultimate answer book

Many Christians approach the Bible as a how-to guide for everything in life. The Bible is seen as an ultimate answer book. So maybe it has that secret diet plan that will help me lose those 10, 20, 30 pounds that I’d like to lose.

The encourager

Even a Christian radio station that says things like “encouraging words from your Bible” gives us a certain approach to interpreting the Bible. It conveys that the Bible has encouraging words, which is true. But it may also narrow our scope when there are things in the Bible that we need to wrestle with, just as Jacob wrestled with the angel.

The ancient artifact

Not even biblical scholars necessarily approach the Bible as Christian Scripture. A lot of scholars approach the Bible interested in ancient history or interested in ancient culture. And as valuable as that is, that’s different from approaching the Bible as the Word of God.

Reading the Bible as the Word of God

So what does it mean to read the Bible as the Word of God? In explaining this, I’m going to draw upon an approach of early Christians. From the second century on, in the Christian tradition, we have something called the “rule of faith.” This is a rule by which we interpret Scripture and understand what Scripture is doing in our lives together as a baptized community.

The basic idea behind the rule of faith is that Christians interpret the Bible on a pilgrimage of growing in conformity to Christ. We interpret Scripture as disciples of Christ, growing in love of God and love of neighbor. And we interpret Scripture filled with the Spirit, looking forward to the day when we will see God face to face.

So if you have an interpretation of Scripture that does not lead toward love of God and love of neighbor, then it’s simply not a Christian interpretation of Scripture. You may be doing some interesting interpretation of the Bible, but it’s not understanding the Bible as Christian Scripture.

Similarly, if you have an interpretation of Scripture that is not leading you deeper into your life in Christ and conformity to Christ, again, that’s not a Christian interpretation.

All interpretations of Scripture which are distinctively Christian will lead us deeper into the life and the way of Jesus Christ because that is our identity: people who have been united to Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.

A Reformed approach to Scripture

The next basic question I’d like to deal with here is, what is a Reformed approach toward Scripture? Well, a Reformed approach includes what I have already said about reading Scripture in light of Jesus Christ on this pilgrimage of coming to know God. But it also has some other characteristic features. 

My favorite resource for exploring what the Reformed tradition has to say about how to read the Bible is the Belgic Confession.

The Belgic Confession starts out by saying that we know God by two books–the book of creation and the book of Scripture.

General revelation: God revealed in nature

The book of creation is a beautiful book, which testifies to God’s eternal power and divinity. We are to read it as creatures of God. The revelations we experience about God through the book of creation are known as general revelation.

But the Belgic Confession says that the book of creation alone does not lead us to a saving knowledge of God. Instead, all these things are enough to convict us and to leave us without excuse.

The apostle Paul explains the reason for this in Romans 1:20. On the one hand, Paul gives an exalted view of the creation, how important both caring for and knowing the creation is. But precisely because we know about God and God’s power through the creation, people are made without excuse in our sinfulness before God.

Special revelation: God revealed in Scripture

So then, the Belgic Confession says that it’s in the second book, the book of Scripture, that God makes himself known to us more clearly through his holy and divine Word. It is as much as we need in this life for God’s glory and our salvation. The revelation we experience when we read the Bible is known as special revelation.

We can and should learn from science. We can and should be attentive to learning from all different sources in our human life. And our experiences can deepen our knowledge of God. But the idea here is that it reading the Bible which will give us the clearest way and is the ultimate authority when it comes to our knowledge of God.

Sola Scriptura and the authority of the Bible

In fact, the Belgic Confession goes on to say that we must not consider human writings, no matter how holy their authors, to be equal to the divine writings of the Bible. “Therefore,” the confession states, “we reject with all our hearts everything that does not agree with this infallible rule.”

This means that all other aspects of the church’s life–its polity, its traditions, and its practices–are underneath the authority of Scripture. No human construction, no human work, has the authority that Scripture does.

And this leads us to a key idea about Scripture in the Reformed tradition: sola scriptura, which means “Scripture alone.” 

Some people might think that Scripture alone means that the Bible is all Christians should consult about how we approach the Christian life. In other words, they think we shouldn’t care what other Christians around the world think. We shouldn’t care what Christians in earlier eras thought. We should just go to Scripture alone.

But that’s never what sola scriptura has meant for the Reformed tradition.

Sola scriptura also doesn’t mean that we read the Bible alone as individuals. Instead, we should read Scripture as communities. We should be listening to others who are reading Scripture, giving checks and balances to one another through the Spirit.

But what sola scriptura does mean is that Scripture is the final authority in all matters of faith and practice. It’s because we believe that Jesus Christ speaks through Scripture by the Holy Spirit. Jesus Christ is the head of the church. You can’t have any authority that is higher than Jesus Christ. And Jesus Christ has chosen to speak through holy Scripture.

Reflection questions

  • Not all approaches to interpreting Scripture are equal. Billings gives the example of approaching the Bible like a smorgasbord, picking and choosing what to take away. Share a time when you heard someone interpret the Bible for a purpose other than growing in conformity with Christ. 
  • What does it mean that Christian interpretation involves “being on a pilgrimage of growing in conformity to Jesus Christ”? When has Scripture led you into greater conformity to Jesus Christ? 
  • Have you ever heard someone use the phrase sola scriptura? What did they mean? Describe sola scriptura in your own words based on the definition above.

Continue to the next section: How Culture Impacts Biblical Understanding