How to Read the Book

(Part 1 of a Four-Part Series)

One of the difficulties of reading the Bible is the Bible itself. Not only new believers, but old ones as well, often find it tough slogging to pick up the book at Genesis and wind up at Revelation without giving up somewhere in between. The Protestant Reformers never said that the Bible is an easy book. What they said is that its basic message is essentially clear, even if not everything in Scripture is equally clear. The Westminster Confession confirms this in a wisely constructed sentence:

All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all: yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation, are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them. (1.7)

What God requires and what he has done to save us in Christ is evident from Genesis to Revelation.

The Bible can be understood by anyone with energy, patience, and wise instruction. As Mark Twain quipped, "It ain't the parts of the Bible I don't understand, but the parts that I do, that trouble me." Yet the more we read it, the more we appreciate its depth and complexity. Like the Ethiopian treasury secretary who asked Philip how he could possibly understand the passage from Isaiah he was reading without a teacher, all of us need to be helped along by people who are even just one step ahead of us.

All the more, it is important for us to read with the wider church. Pastor-teachers and elders are given by Christ to guide us in this privilege of hearing and reading God's Word. The creeds and catechisms are great places to start. After all, they emerged from periods of confusion and controversy. Instead of representing the idiosyncratic emphases of a single leader or school, they are consensus documents forged within actual churches as they sought to clarify the most central teachings of Scripture. It is especially significant that in spite of so many disagreements and divisions, orthodox Christians have for so many centuries affirmed the ecumenical creeds as faithful summaries of Scripture.

The Bible Is a Book…

It seems rather obvious that the Bible is a book. Sometimes, however, we forget this in actual practice. Scripture comes from God, not from human beings (2 Pet. 1:20); it is inspired by the Holy Spirit—"God-breathed" (2 Tim. 3:16). In that sense, it is unlike any other book. However, Scripture itself teaches that God works through ordinary means. So it's never a choice between God's Word and human words; rather, it is God's Word through human ambassadors. Unlike Islam's view of its Qur'an, Christians do not believe that the Bible fell from heaven, dictated by an earthly messenger. Coming from God, the words of the prophets and apostles nevertheless bear the evidence on every hand of their human ministry.

We should not be surprised at this, since God became flesh in our history and through the eternal Son, Jesus Christ, assumed our humanity. He inherited a specific genetic code, including features and characteristics of his family tree; he spoke a particular language that had evolved centuries before he spoke it; and he behaved in ways that reflected the norms of his unique time and place in the world. We can so emphasize the deity of Christ that we forget his humanity or see it somehow like an old-fashioned pair of scales: the more we affirm one, the less we affirm the other. No, Christ is fully God and fully human. He was like us in every way. In fact, he was "tempted like us in every way, yet without sin" (Heb. 4:15).

Analogously, Scripture can be entirely human and yet without error in all that it affirms. When we see evidence of Scripture's humanity, we should not imagine that it is not from God. The Triune God works mysteriously above, within, and through history in a way that connects with us. Given this fact, we should not read the Bible like any other book when it comes to authority. God has the first, middle, and last word. We should meditate on Scripture as God's speech, not only in terms of its authority, but also its comfort and assurance. It would be inappropriate for us to treat any other book in this manner. Yet we should read it like any other book when it comes to interpreting its meaning. The same grammatical and stylistic rules that went into composing these books must be understood in order to interpret them.

Part 2: The Bible Is More Like a Library Than a Book

Part 3: The Bible Is a Ruling Constitution

 Part 4: The Bible Is Not a Code Book


Adapted from Michael Horton, “How to Read the Book,” Modern Reformation, November/December 2013. Used by permission. 

Photo of Michael Horton

Michael Horton

Michael Horton (@MichaelHorton_) is the Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California. The author of many books, including Core Christianity, he is also the host of the new Core Christianity radio show, a daily Bible question-and-answer show broadcasting nationwide. He lives with his wife Lisa and four children in Escondido, California. 

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