Various Ways to Study Scripture

Various Ways to Study Scripture
Photo by Jonathan Simcoe / Unsplash

There is no one right way to study Scripture. The Bible can (and should!) be approached from various angles, each offering unique insights and benefits. Here are a few ways to engage with biblical texts, ranging from devotional reading to critical analysis.

Devotional Reading

Devotional reading is a personal and intentionally uncritical approach to Scripture. Here, the primary goal is to connect with the text on a spiritual level, allowing the Holy Spirit to speak through the words. This method does not require an understanding of historical context or theological frameworks. It is about seeking personal inspiration and guidance. This is an approach many evangelicals are familiar with due to a culture that insisted on quiet time, personal devotions, and Bible studies that end with the question, "What does this passage mean to you?" However, while this approach can be deeply enriching, it is not advisable to use it as a foundation for building a comprehensive theology. And in fact that's where so many theological problems can come from. An uncritical reading of Scripture, unwilling to grapple with modern research, will lead to such uninformed notions such as six-day creation and gender essentialism.

Allegorical and Typological Interpretation

Allegorical and typological interpretation focuses on uncovering deeper, often symbolic meanings within the text. This method was prevalent in the early church, especially when interpreting the Hebrew Bible. Rather than emphasizing a literal or historical understanding, this approach seeks to find connections and foreshadowing of Jesus Christ and other theological themes. This method can enrich one's understanding of Scripture by revealing layers of meaning that are not immediately apparent. Paul himself uses this approach when using the Hebrew Bible to make rhetorical points about Jesus and the Law, such as in Galatians 4:21-31. See also the Jewish PaRDeS method.

Contemplative and Mystical

Contemplative and mystical approaches to Scripture, such as imaginative prayer, centering prayer, and lectio divina, offer meditative ways to engage with biblical texts. Centering prayer is a silent, wordless form of prayer that emphasizes resting in God's presence, allowing the Scripture to speak to the heart rather than the mind. Lectio divina, on the other hand, is a structured practice that involves reading, meditation, prayer, and contemplation. This method encourages a slow, reflective reading of the text, inviting the reader to listen deeply for God's voice. Imaginative Prayer invites you to place yourself as a character in the story, engaging your senses and emotions. These practices foster a personal and intimate encounter with Scripture, nurturing a mystical connection with the divine. They are particularly valuable for those seeking a deeper, experiential relationship with God through the sacred texts rather than the wordy, brainy approaches that much of Western Christianity offers.

Theological Interpretation

The Theological Interpretation of Scripture (TIS) is an approach that consciously incorporates theological principles into the reading of biblical texts. It is not a rigid method but rather a mode of interpretation that prioritizes the theological nature of Scripture. According to TIS, the reader should embrace the influence of theology on their inquiry, context, methods, and results. Since everyone reads with a theological lens, we're better off naming that lens than pretending it doesn't exist. This approach assumes certain theological constants and reads the text through that lens, aiming to do justice to the divine message within the Scripture. Cruciform (Boyd), Christotelic (Enns), Womanist, Non-Violent, and Liberationist are modes of doing theological interpretation.

Reception History

Reception History examines how biblical passages have been interpreted and understood throughout history. This approach looks at the various ways different communities and traditions have engaged with the text over time. For instance, Dr. Rebekah Eklund's The Beatitudes Through the Ages is a study of how Jesus' beatitudes have been interpreted over the centuries. Dr. Lisa M Bowen's African American Readings of Paul explores specifically how Black Americans in the 1700s through the mid-2oth century used the writings of Paul to argue for their freedom and civil rights. By studying the history of interpretation, we can gain insights into how the meanings and applications of Scripture have evolved and dramatically shifted based on culture and context. This method can reveal the richness and diversity of biblical interpretation and help us understand how contemporary readings fit within a broader historical context.

Source Criticism

Source Criticism is a scholarly approach that aims to uncover the layers of editing and redaction within the biblical texts. This method is closely related to the Historical-Critical approach (see below) but focuses specifically on identifying the layers of sources and editorial processes that shaped the final form of the text. By understanding these layers, scholars can gain insights into the historical and cultural contexts in which the texts were written and compiled. For instance, what does the Gospel of Matthew's seeming insistence on legal righteousness and its steps for dealing with church disciplines tell us about the community Matthew was written for, say, compared to Luke. This method can provide a deeper understanding of the complexities and development of the biblical canon.

Historical-Critical Analysis

Historical-Critical Analysis is a method rooted in post-Enlightenment thinking and is prevalent in Western scholarship. This approach seeks to understand "what actually happened" by examining the historical and cultural contexts of the biblical texts. It often involves rigorous analysis of historical evidence, linguistic studies, and archaeological findings. While this method can offer valuable insights into the historical realities behind the texts, it is sometimes criticized for being overly focused on empirical evidence and neglecting the spiritual and theological dimensions of Scripture.

By exploring different methods of studying Scripture, we can develop a more comprehensive and nuanced understanding of the biblical texts. Each approach provides unique insights that another approach may fail to offer. And this article represents just a fraction of the many way we can engage with Scripture.

Approach Description Goal Context and Research Required
Devotional Reading - Personal and inspirational reading - Connect spiritually with the text - Not required, but helpful
Allegorical/Typological - Symbolic and deeper meanings - Find connections to theological themes - Not required, but helpful
Theological Interpretation - Incorporates theological principles - Do justice to the theological nature of Scripture - Assumes theological commitments/constraints
Reception History - Examines historical interpretations - Understand how meanings have evolved over time - Historical context
Source Criticism - Uncovers layers of editing and redaction - Understand historical and cultural contexts of text formation - Required
Critical-Historical - Analyzes historical and cultural contexts - Understand "what actually happened" - Strongly required
Contemplative/Mystical - Meditative practices like centering prayer and lectio divina - Foster a personal and intimate encounter with Scripture - Not required, but helpful
Anthony Parrott

Anthony Parrott

Washington, DC