“He does have surprising, secret purposes. I open a Bible, and His plans, startling, lie there barefaced. It’s hard to believe it, when I read it, and I have to come back to it many times, feel long across those words, make sure they are real. His love letter forever silences any doubts: ‘His secret purpose framed from the very beginning [is] to bring us to our full glory’ (1 Corinthians 2:7 NEB).”
Oral tradition turns to print on animal skins, then papyrus, parchment scrolls, vellum, scritta paper, the faint blue glow of online text. Every Sunday morning you can hear the orchestral sound of crisp, thin pages inked by the blood of the best heaven had to offer. Thousands of years, dozens of authors, countless attacks… yet the Word of the Lord remains. It’s mercifully defiant. Dazzlingly uncomfortable. Painfully specific. This is the only book you’ll ever read that reads you right back. It’s okay if you’re left staggering a bit afterward—to be seen so intimately can be disorienting. And if somewhere along the way you’ve lost the wonder of holding the breath of God in your hands of dirt, it’s time to rediscover glory.
Today’s focus is on how you approach this Book. Yes, there are distinct methods of engagement, and when you can identify yours, it will be easier to see how to strengthen what’s working and bolster what’s weak. If this is your first encounter with any of these methods, hooray! You get a blank canvas and an exciting assortment of choices.
Historical-Grammatical: asks, “Does anything in this passage confuse me?”
The three steps to this method are observation, interpretation, and application. Readers pose a number of questions to get the most context possible—who wrote it? to whom? for what reason? where? when? Then they turn to meaning. What did the original language say? Are there repeated words or ideas? What do commentators notice about this passage? The last step is putting information into practice: “Now that I know the truth, what am I expected to do about it?” If you’ve ever participated in an inductive Bible study, you’ve experienced this approach. While the historical-grammatical method encourages a balance between knowing and doing, be careful to guard against a performance-based mindset.
Systematic: asks, “What major themes do I see in this passage?”
This is the opposite of opening your Bible when you’re in a jam, pointing randomly, and hoping wherever you land is a special word for you. Common tools for this method are reading plans based on time (“Bible in a year”) or topic (“a month of battling fear”). The systematic approach deals with regularly seeing Scripture relate to Scripture, considering how significant threads run throughout the verses, chapters, books, and testaments. This method is helpful in that it provides thorough understanding, but it can easily turn into theoretical data gathering rather than life transformation.
Redemptive-Historical: asks, “Where is Jesus in this passage?”
If every story whispers Christ’s name, the focus of this method is to figure out how. It sees the Bible as one cohesive, unfolding tale about the Savior. (While the historical-grammatical people look at what we can do for God, the redemptive-historical people look at what God has done for us.) How is this text pointing to Jesus? Is He the true and better Adam? ark? passover lamb? tabernacle? older brother? High point: I love how this method makes much of Jesus. Low point: it can detract from the original intent and meaning of specific books.
Contemplative: asks, “What truth in this passage should I meditate on?”
The contemplative method is what you think about when you envision monks. It’s a very intentional, deep, mindful way of being with Scripture. Probably the most popular aspect of contemplative reading is lectio divina, going slowly through the same text using multiple translations and letting truth drop into your soul in the waiting. Sensitivity to the Spirit is crucial here. This is a fantastic way to battle the rush and noise of today’s world, but it can tip into an unstable fixation on self if you’re not watchful.
Experiential: asks, “How does this passage touch my life personally?
The experiential outlook is kind of a mix between the individual meditation of the contemplative approach and the application step of the historical-grammatical approach. It longs to internalize truth and then integrate that truth through patterns of daily life. Readers ask, “What does this mean for me? What is God wanting me to do?” An experiential approach admirably considers personal impact, but if left on its own can quickly stunt community.
Which one jumped out at you as your favorite? Sadly, many believers (myself included) have been taught a kind of spiritual snobbery, singing the praises of our own method’s rightness while looking down on people who cling to different approaches—or who lack an approach altogether. This ego trip, along with our neglect of the other methods, is emaciating the body of Christ. The truth is that we need a good dose of all five, offsetting the weaknesses of each with the strengths of the others. We were created with head, heart, and hands to reflect the complexity of a God too big for any box.