How to Read the Bible: Part VI

Part VI: How Luther read the Bible

By Jim Vitale

Americans, it is no secret, have a fast paced, packed-schedule, checklist mentality. We love our hustle and bustle. We are slaves to the grind. We see a task and we add it to our list with the intent of crossing it off as soon as possible. And, unfortunately, we do that with our spirituality as much as with anything else. I have found that this mentality has deeply affected my Bible reading. I look at it as a task to be done, something to check off. I read from the Bible two days in a row and then fall off the wagon. Or if I do continue reading, I rush through trying to read as much as I can as fast as I can. Or, I see the task of reading the whole Bible as so large and intimidating that I don’t even bother to start.

Throughout this series on how to read the Bible, we’ve been looking at scripture through largely academic terms, focusing on big words like exegesis and hermeneutics. But when you finally carve out the time in your busy schedule to read the Bible, you may not want to do a deep academic dive. Likely, you’ll want something that will feed your spirit, something a little more devotional. Unfortunately, if you’re anything like me, even attempts at a devotional reading a thwarted by the anxieties of my to-do list.

But what if we all slowed down and took the time to read it properly? What would that look like? What would a faithful devotional reading of scripture look like? As we continue our exploration of how to read the Bible, lets look at how Martin Luther read the Bible.

Luther believed that reading the Bible wasn’t about checklists. For Luther, no one ever “finishes” reading the Bible. Rather, one reads from it daily. Every single day. For the rest of one’s life. The point is not how much you read; rather it is that you read, and how you read. He recommends that we read the Bible on three levels: in prayer, in meditation, and in temptation. Bear in mind that these levels are not necessarily independent of each other. They can often occur at the same time!

Reading the Bible prayerfully is an internal act. We find a quiet place and try our best to let reason and analysis take a back seat to what we think the Holy Spirit is trying to tell us. It is easy for us to let our brains rapid-fire, trying to force our own half-baked meaning out of the Bible. Using your mental faculties is a great thing, but during a prayerful reading, it is less about academic understanding, and more about seeking to experience God like a friend or a lover.

Reading the Bible meditatively is done aloud. We read it to ourselves and to others. We sing hymns that reflect upon the words. We examine the verses from every angle, reflecting on the various meanings. This could be a more academic reading, but it’s not only that. We read the verses again and again and thus open ourselves up to new interpretations (even interpretations beyond what the commentaries say). It is easy to fall into a rut of reading the same passages the same ways every time, or to think that if we’ve read it once, we need not read it again. But when we read meditatively, we seek to comprehend all that a text can mean; and we find that God is speaking to us in new ways each time. Remember, you don’t “finish” the Bible. You read it over and over, returning to the same passages again and again.

Finally, Luther says, we read the Bible in temptation or struggle. In part, this means struggling with the meaning of the scriptures and asking the really hard questions. This is what you do when you stumble upon a passage your don’t like or don’t agree with or don’t know what to do with. You wrestle with it. But Luther also says that those who read the Bible more feel the Devil tempting them more. So it is in these moments of temptation, frustration, and despair that we return to the scriptures seeking comfort and wisdom. And often in these moments of affliction we find the Word of God and the love of God make the most sense to us.

As we explore how to read the Bible, it’s important that we don’t get lost in academic and theoretical interpretations. It’s good to look at exegesis and hermeneutics but we also want to make sure that we are reading the Bible in a way that impacts us personally. Whenever we take to “study” the Bible, we should also ensure that we are finding ways to devote ourselves to God. The Bible is not just an academic text to be analyzed. It is a story about God that is meant to captivate us and turn our hearts to God. Luther’s way of reading the Bible is a great way to help us turn toward God.