How can we read and interpret Scripture well?

I write a quarterly column for Preach magazine, in which I explore a significant word or phrase in the Bible and the ideas that it expresses. I have written for them on:

Louisa Lockwood, who is editor the magazine, invited me for a conversation about the column I write, and what I think is important in relation to our reading of the Bible. The video is only 13 minutes long, linked below, and these are the key things that we cover.

0.40 Introduction: the name of my blog, and how it relates to the idea that Christian faith does all add up and make sense

3.31 Why I find writing the Word of God column interesting. Scripture is a bit like the mathematical figure of a fractal, in which the whole picture can be found in each detail.

4.35 Part of our problem is that we find it very difficult to slow down and read carefully. We live in a world saturated with words, so we are focussed on skimming and reading quickly. The ancient world was very different, and much more used to reading slowly and carefully.

5. 27 This is a good reason to learn biblical languages (Hebrew and Greek) or simply to read the Bible in another language that you know.

6.00 We have lost confidence that words actually mean things, rather than being vehicles for us as readers to impose our own meaning on them. This is critical to our belief that God can actually speak to us.

7.08 Another danger is to detach words from their wider context—we need to read the wider narrative and see how particular details, parts and ideas fit with a wider picture.

8.06 Theological interpretation of scripture is what is needed—look at what Scripture actually says, but then understanding God’s theological intention to form his people so they can faithfully worship him and live out his life in the world by the power of the Spirit.

9.44 The Spirit continues to speak to us—but this meaning is tethered to the words of Scripture. Reading the Bible is like going on a cross-cultural journey to hear what God said to his people in the past and through that to hear what God is saying to us today.

10.40 Scripture is not merely an object to be dissected, but is an act of communication to heard and understood. We therefore need the same kind of personal skills and empathy to read Scripture as we need to understand another person.

11.50 Scripture is not so much a gift to each of us as individuals, but to us as a community. Rev 1.3 models this for us: there is one who reads aloud; and there are many who hear. There is a specialist skill involved (in reading) but Scripture needs to be received and understood by the whole community.

If you would like to explore more about how to read the Bible well, you might be interested in my Grove booklet How to Interpret the Bible: Four essential questions.



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24 thoughts on “How can we read and interpret Scripture well?”

  1. Two comments initially.

    1. Congratulations, you are positioned the same in-frame with Louisa. 😉

    2. Your commentary is conspicuously missing from the mantelpiece.

    Neither of these things have anything to do with the substance of what you said (which, for the record, I completely agree with) but I thought you should know it was noticed.

    • 1. Yes I am! Even more important, I feel, when there are just the two of you. *Though* my camera is above me, and hers is below her, so there are some odd lines of perspective going on.

      2. I know—what an omission!! Glad to see you are paying attention. I ought to add a link to it at the end of the summary of content…

      (Should I be worried that you *completely* agree…?)

    • I would also add that I deliberately moderated my style of speaking to be in sync with Louisa’s, more paced and reflective. I think it works ok.

      I also notice the difference in sound quality between us, with my using headphones and mic, which cuts out any echo.

  2. What a piece of high intelligence simplicity; comprehension.
    Although he has a doctorate, he came to the conclusion that he wouldn’t be a scholar. Why? Because he read too slowly. He wasn’t a fast reader.
    Who? John Piper.
    I liked the point about fractals.
    Too old to learn the languages. Reliable guides are needed.

    Last evening in our home group, we slowed down, looking at Psalm 95 with 4 questions from the leader.
    1 What does the psalm teach us about God?
    2 What does the psalm teach us about ourselves?
    3 Does the psalm raise any questions in your mind?
    4 How might we respond to the psalm?

    Great stuff – it’s there in the psalm. God speaking to us today.

  3. Yes Ian, an amen to your points.

    I enjoy reading but consider myself just a little above average. I am a retired English teacher now in mid sixties with a weakening memory which was never very good in the first place. In earlier (healthier) life I prepared sermons and fairly regularly preached.

    All this is a lead in to the comment that I still feel there are many Scriptures I have not a competent handle on, especially in the OT. The use of commentaries and other tools is good but should be more of a stimulus than an authority. Furthermore they often represent diverse viewpoints. I pray that God will raise up a generation who give themselves to becoming familiar with all of God’s word. I pray that preachers will get to know the word and reshape any faulty theology by what they find in Scripture. Times are only likely to become harder. Christians will need a solid rock.

    I once was young and it seemed as if I had forever to get to know God’s word. The years have flashed by as we were always warned they would. I could perhaps have given more time to reading Scripture than books about Scripture. I certainly could have obeyed more readily.

    I pray that Christians will read with understanding (applying your principles). Understanding, however, also is a product of obedience. As we obey a perspective is opened that throws light on Scriptures that at one point we did not really understand.

  4. I am not a mathematician nor the son of a mathematician. I am wary of the fractal metaphor/ image though I may have misunderstood it. I do not think that each part of Scripture, fully encloses the whole message, rather we discern the deeper truths by holding in tension the debates and questions we should engage in. Big questions like God’s judgement, eg whether it is sometimes carried over on the children’s children (Deuteronomy) or only on the adults (Ezekiel), why good people suffer (Job), are wrestled with through the Scriptures with varying “answers”; the Levitical strand focuses on holiness, the Deuteronomist more on obedience. Jesusis in control in John, but more the struggling victim, (although self-giving) in Mark.
    The Psalms – are they objective truths in each verse, or examples of godly (and even sometimes less than godly praying)? The narratives, not least the four accounts of Jesus ministry require us to read both each and all. The accounts of flawed patriarchs, judges and kings require us to make a judgement. The rich and complex imagery of Revelation or Daniel 7-12 demands interpretation. How do we allow for irony or exaggeration?
    Absolutely that we should read slowly, absolutely that meaning is not just in the eye of the beholder, absolutely that Scripture to be Scripture is more than just a collection of pieces of writing, but I wonder if the image of a diamond which when turned reveals different facets, is a better image, or the image of a symphony which is more than the sum of its notes, but has themes, counter-themes etc.
    The image of a symphony allows us to read the various genres within the Bible as if they are different instruments, to be heard for what they are not assumed to be the same “type”. no one image will suffice.

    • Thanks for the observation.

      I am reflecting on looking at specific themes and issues across Scripture, rather than isolated sections. I agree with you about tensions, and you will know I am not suggesting taken texts in isolation—quite the opposite.

      I think what I have been struck by, in writing these pieces for the magazine, is that it is difficult if not impossible to separate them out. Too often I think people ask ‘What does God think about justice?’ ‘What does God think about grief?’ ‘What does God think about welcome?’ and so on, as if these are separate issues.

      My experience is that, like God, Scripture is really one. It might include diversity, but these are diverse elements of a unified whole, and we need to read it in that way.

  5. I certainly agree that biblical text is best understood as an accumulated narrative, with different themes feeding into each other. That just makes sense, if we see these texts as the evolving religious experience of successive generations of religious community.

    But the term ‘Word of God’ itself arguably needs to be understood in the totality of the deeper Word of God, that Word being ‘who God is’ and ‘who God calls us and creation to become’. We’ve been having a discussion about that over at Thinking Anglicans.

    Somebody said “Jesus was reviled by the conservatives, for example, for healing on the Sabbath who claimed it was against God’s word.” And went on to observe:

    “A significant part of Jesus’s ministry was rebellion against what people were wrongly claiming was God’s word.”

    This is a very significant point.

    All through history, fallible human beings misconstrue what is meant by the Word of God, and how we should understand that.

    I believe it is a major problem in the Church today.

    Jesus seems to point (as in the case of the Sabbath) to the Spirit behind the human text. In the case of Paul’s comments on men having sex, for example, the spiritual source of his writing about that is his concern for holiness, and his cultural/religious view on man-man sex may simply have been an example he was using from his own culture to illustrate the key spiritual message: the call to live a holy life in the context of a life given to a holy God.

    In such a reading and understanding, sex isn’t even the key issue.

    The creative Word of God (not the fallible and human text) is continually calling us… in our daily lives, through various sources, in community… to open our lives to God, to open our hearts, to grow and become more given and devoted and open to the flowing stream of the love of God.

    The Love of God, the Love of God, the Love of God… again and again, that is the key reality of our calling, and of the true Word of God. It is the context within which the entire Bible needs to be framed and understood, because it is utterly primary.

    The Word of God is more than just Biblical text. The Word of God is really the person of God calling us creatively into our being and becoming… into the whole of who we can become in God, and with God.

    When humans tried to appropriate and bottle up that wide-reaching permeating calling of God… calling us through the whole of our lives and not only through a text… then you end up with pedantry over the Sabbath, and pedantry over other issues that present in surface text, but need to be understood in the context of far deeper themes of love, rather than the cultural narratives of a moment and culture in history, which are human, fallible, provisional… unless read deeper, and responded to deeper.

    ‘The Word of God’ can break through to us when we read certain passages of scripture, which reverberate and open up to us, as we ‘re-activate’ the encounters that the authors experienced. We can ‘find ourselves there, also encountering with God, as we read biblical text’.

    But the Word of God is not contained in a book, though it can operate through text, and incite us and open us up… can reactivate ancient encounters as we read them. The Bible is a conduit through which God tries to open us to Love. It’s a pipeline, not a word for word presence of God in itself. The Word of God is the creative force and command of God, calling us to open up into being through life experience, through people we know, through sacrifice, through shared joy and tragedy, through community, through music, through moment, through nature.

    THAT is the Word of God. The Bible can operate as a part of that, and it can do so powerfully. But so often religious people get pedantic and try to elevate the text almost – dare I suggest – to the level of idolatry.

    That was the problem with the people who wanted to deny charity on the Sabbath. The Bible can be a delivery conduit for God, but it is not God itself. It is fallible human text, and fallible humans trying to make sense, and struggling for words, to speak of encounters with a God they can never fully understand, because God is so deep and mysterious. The huge danger is that pedantry and desire to ‘control’ understanding can lead to the denial of charity in the name of a concept of ‘The Word of God’ which they appropriate. That happened over the misappropriation of the Sabbath. It happens still today.

    The Word of God comes at us from all directions of our lives. The absolute fundamental is opening up to the Love of God. That’s the climax of the Bible, seen in Jesus, seen in the priority of Love’s command, and everything else in the Bible needs to be read and understood and contextualised as subordinate and provisional, compared to the totality and imperative of the Love of God.

    An elderly person in hospital, with a need for love and a gesture of love, may open us up to the Word of God, and expand us, open us to the flow of compassion… or give us that compassion themselves from their own decency and vulnerability.

    It is not all about pinning down everything. It is about letting love flow, and givenness to that love.

  6. Ultimate, the insurmountable, incomparable worf, whole counsel of God is a Person, Jesus.
    It is only by and through God revealing that to us that we come to a knowledge of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit; only through Holy scripture, do we know that; only against scripture is God’s word, direction, whether in non – cessationist circles, with words of knowledge or prophecy are to be tested.
    It is only through scripture that we come to know who Jesus is, the word made flesh, only through scripture that we know that the whole of scripture is about him, only through scripture that we know that God is Love, not outside scripture. It is scripture that is living and active, sharper than a two edged sword, discerning the thoughts and intentions of our hearts.
    Only through scripture the we know the Good News of Jesus Christ; the in Him God is Good News.
    Only through scripture that we know that there is an absolute need to be born again, from above.
    Only through scripture do we know we can have a union with God united in Christ.
    Only in scripture do we know we have have an indwelling God the Holy Spirit, who raised Christ from the dead.
    Only through scripture do we know that in Christ, believers we chosen before the foundation of the world, aastonishingly, humblingly so.
    All made alive and real and present by and through the enlightenment of the revelation of God the Holy Spirit.

    Welcome, Susannah to the unthinking blog of Anglican Ian Paul.

    • Exactly. Biblical text is a conduit that delivers the Spirit of God.

      When we say the Word of God is ‘alive’, we are talking about the Spirit of God, right? The person of God?

      To make an analogy, I house can sometimes feel really ‘alive’. But it is not really the house itself that is alive. It is the people in it.

      In a similar way, the Bible is a pipeline, a conduit, and not an ‘alive’ thing itself. But if we say that the Bible is ‘alive’ what we really mean is that the living Spirit of God can flow through to us when we read those texts, and open our minds and hearts to the Love of God.

      The Bible is a pipeline… a chipped, flawed, human pipeline… but it has the power (through reverberations of the encounters its authors had) to open our hearts to the Spirit of God. It’s human-written, it’s fallible, it’s written within the limitations and contexts the authors experienced… and yet… they encountered the Spirit of God, the Person of God, the unfathomable mysterious God. And so can we.

      I absolutely love and value the Bible texts. I love them because, as I read them, the Spirit flows, the Love of God flows, and suddenly I find God meeting me, touching me, opening me to Love.

      But it is God who is alive, not the individual words or the book or the covers. It is in the reception of the flow of God’s Love that we encounter aliveness.

      God is perfect. The Bible (human attempts to make sense of God) is not. These human witnesses were fallible and struggling to make sense of encounter with God. I feel grateful to them.

      But it is the Spirit who is alive and active, able to cut through to the quick of our consciences.

      The Bible is a delivery van at Christmas. The van isn’t the present. It contains the present. And yet, the Spirit of God is not contained by, or limited by, the human accounts of the biblical authors. The Spirit of God, and the Word of God, can call us into our being and becoming through multiple channels, of which the Bible is a powerful one.

      I absolutely agree, because I believe the Bible reports the choice of God to be revealed in the person of Jesus in history, that the narratives are hugely significant. You’ve conveyed that so well, Geoff.

      But it’s not an infallible set of texts at surface level. It simply delivers reports, delivers encounters so profound that they resonate and reactivate in our own lives as well.

      They speak of trust and covenant… givenness and devotion… sacrifice and love… the biblical texts collectively tell us so much about who God is and aspects of what God is like, without telling us anything like everything.

      But as we read, what flows through in a channel, a conduit, from the heart of God to our own hearts – well it’s not a ‘what’, it’s a ‘who’… the Holy Spirit of God. We encounter God. The pipeline delivers, like the Christmas van (even if the van is a bit dented, scratched, in need of repairs).

      Let’s not elevate the Bible to some ‘magic’ status, as if God sent each and every word like in a text message to the authors. It’s not like that. What counts is the covenant God has made, and wants to make with each of us. A covenant of mutual love and givenness between God and us. And the Spirit works to open us up to the flow of that love (which is destined to flow on outwards to other people) and it’s all in the trust and the opening and the flow.

      ‘To those who believe, streams of flowing water will flow out from within.’

      The Bible is not all literally true and fixed fact for all time, though a lot of it may be. Rather, the Bible is a conduit, a delivery channel, but it is the Spirit who is the perfect and the alive, and the Spirit wants to bust open our hearts so we let the streams flow… so we give ourselves up, to be buried in a givenness, and so the Spirit (through our fallible lives) can flow within and without… to renew the face of the earth.

      • Susannah,
        I am trying very hard understand what you are saying here.
        My impression is that seem to put your main emphasis on subjective personal revelation – i.e. what you believe the Spirit is saying or revealing to you personally. So when scripture accords with your personal revelation you regard it as correct and when it isn’t then do you then see this is an example of the Bible’s fallibility?

      • Susannah,
        What your comments, words, reveal, yes, I’ll use that word, is something that regularly crops up in the comments section on this blog from some of those who may inhabit (I don’t know) the Thinking Anglican site; it is the gulf between those who see scripture as central to the people of God, central to preaching/teaching, prayers; to the life of the gathered Church of Christ in community, in worship and as individuals and those who don’t.
        And it is condenses to this point: what scripture is and what is its purpose.
        An older friend, a retired dentist, was right when he said Scripture is all revelation by and of God or it is nothing.
        Questions of the meaning of infallibility and inerrancy and their source and development are perhaps a topic for another article from Ian. But it has been touched upon (argued over) in the comments section in the past. I have little doubt that those who are opposed scripture as God’s words written will remain unconvinced as the CoE takes a contemporary turn to the ethos of the *Emerging Church* and its founding theologies.

        • I respect your courtesy of discourse Geoff, and respect your obvious fidelity, and let’s face it, there are divergent views in the Church of England. But I would always want to honour your faith and your love of God. And I could never rule out that you are absolutely right. What I will say is I hope and trust we all ‘get’ that we each need to try to love God and love our neighbour, otherwise we miss the whole point.

          Please try to understand that I actually love and treasure the Bible for so much that it discloses that is profound and life-changing. My position differs from some in that I believe not all the writing in the Bible should be taken as correct for all time, even though I believe plenty of it is.

          In answer to Chris, (thanks for asking, Chris) I don’t think it’s right to say that a ‘critical’ approach to biblical interpretation is a kind of hedonism where we only choose the easy bits. There have been times when the Bible has helped me confront my own selfishness, face up to sin, or been part of God’s work in leading me to choose paths I would rather not have taken. There is more to listening to God and the Holy Spirit than just doing what we want.

          But in the end, I believe that some of the Bible is right, correct and true… some of the Bible is right for its own time but no longer appropriate… and some of the Bible is simply incorrect and wrong, even if written with sincerity at the time.

          And that simply doesn’t worry me. We’ve been given consciences by God and we need to listen to how God speaks to our consciences. The Bible (for me) really helps in that process.

          Thanks for your thoughtful comments/challenge guys. You’re right, Geoff, we have gone over these different views before, and rather than sink into ping-pong debate, as I’m a guest here of a very tolerant host, I won’t post further in this thread. One thing is for sure: I believe Jesus Christ is the revelation of the living God, a God who urges us to open our hearts, and devote our lives to the flow of God’s love. In Jesus we see that givenness to the point of no turning back. In Jesus we see how God longs to walk alongside us and help us and heal us. And in prayer we learn to have a living relationship with a God who loves us dearly and invites us to open to that love back to God. Covenant is about devotion (in the OT sense really)… givenness… trust… and then the words may trail off… because what we need to do next is love, and let the stream flow… that stream of the Spirit and the Love of God.

          May God grant us grace and peace.

          • Susannah,
            I’d suggest that this is not a marmite question of subjective taste, truth but also objective real life truth, not solely grace but grace and truth, or as our ancestors put it collectively only; scripture, faith, grace, Christ, and glory to God alone.

            And, of course, anyone, Christian, or no, would look after, care for anyone who has undergone the results of life- changing elective surgery/treatment, who has not walked a mile in your shoes.

            But from one of your closing comments on the previous article, there is a seeming paradox.
            It is resolved and fulfilled by God and (Ad) man in the New Covenant of God in Christ in his substitutional sacrificial blood, and resurrection and ascension.
            It is there that the Love of God is gloriously manifest and pored out, gifted from and by our Triune God. There is no new covenant Pentecost without the new covenant Passover. No longer enemies of God, no longer orphans.
            That is the kindness, goodness of God that leads to repentance.

            The paradox is this: simul justus et peccator.

            Stunningly, counted righteous in Christ. Only in Him, Christ Alone.

            And how do we know this objective/subjective truth? Scripture. Light in darkness.
            Yours in Christ,


          • Susannah, thank you for your reply. I think your use of ‘hedonism’ is too strong a word to use here. I am not suggesting that you (or we) should be led by our own desires or inclinations. What I think I was trying to discover is how can you be sure that your primary reliance on personal revelation and conscience is reliable even -as you indicate – it may sometimes cause you to act in a way you would rather not?

            Is there any objective component to your modus operandi when you believe that God is leading or speaking to you?

  7. And I add finally that it is only in the active and passive obedience of Christ in his incarnation, life, death and resurrection and ascension that it is seen that God’s love is only ever Holy Love, from the thrice Holy God, the Holy One.


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