The Rev. Rob Coutney
Fr. Rob is the rector of St. Paul's Episcopal Church & School
The Bible can be a rich resource for study, devotion, and spiritual growth. Many of us realize this, and want to spend time with the Bible, but don't know where to begin. Here are a few ideas about why reading the Bible is important for Christians, how we approach the Bible in the Episcopal tradition, and how to get going with it.
Why read the Bible?
One clue comes in 2 Timothy 3:16-17 - "Every scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for showing mistakes, for correcting, and for training character, so that the person who belongs to God can be equipped to do everything that is good" (Common English Bible). We read it primarily because, as 2 Tim. says, it's for "equipping us in doing good." It's there to help us grow, and to inspire us to do God's work in the world.
What is the Bible?
The Catechism in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer says that the Bible is called “the Word of God because God inspired its human authors, and because God still speaks to us through the Bible.” It goes on to explain that “We understand the meaning of the Bible by the help of the Holy Spirit who guides the Church in the true interpretations of the Scriptures” (BCP 853-854).
There are a few important points to make when elaborating on these simple statements. First, it’s important for us to remember that Anglicans/Episcopalians have never approached Scripture in an overly literal fashion. As Archbishop Michael Ramsey is reported to have said, we do not believe (as some seem to) that the Bible “fell from heaven in the King James Version, bound in leather, complete with maps.” If only it were that easy! To study scripture in the Anglican tradition is to wrestle with the Word of God like Jacob in the wilderness, and sometimes to come away wounded (Ex. 32:24-32).
It is also important to remember that the Bible, though the word means "book," is not really a book: it is a library of books written by many different people of many different perspectives and contexts; written in different styles over several centuries; and written in languages not our own: Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. These facts should give one a clue that reading the Bible is never a simple task.
Thirdly, it is important to remember that that the Church gave us the Scriptures. The Bible is the Church’s book, and the Church places herself under the authority of its writings. The decision on the canon (rule or measurement) of scripture found in the Bible was a historical process not officially decided upon by the Church until around 400 A.D. The criteria for the decisions made were based on: 1) the belief that the books had apostolic authorship, 2) their wide use in the Christian tradition of the time, and most importantly 3) their witness to the regula fidei, the Rule of Faith, as enshrined in the Nicene and Apostle’s Creeds. The Creeds tell us the story of God’s saving work in history, and it is to this story that we always return when interpreting scripture as a Church community. As the New Testament scholar Christopher Bryan writes, “Whenever we begin to feel confused or lost, it is to the foundational story itself, the story of God’s faithfulness, that we must return” (Christopher Bryan, And God Spoke, Cambridge MA: Cowley Publications, 2002, p. 13). The Church, then, does not create the truth provided in the Scriptures, but the Church gathered together in community as a whole interprets that truth (p. 16).
None of this is meant to imply somehow that because the Bible’s authority is a subjective authority that it has no value or relevance today. On the contrary! The Bible is a story about human beings and our relationship with God. While the names and settings may have changed, the search for meaning in human lives remains. This is what the Bible is all about. It is about living our human lives in light of the Rule of Faith enshrined in the Creeds, and exemplified in passages like 1 Corinthians 15:1-5 and Acts 2-4. The Gospel does not change, but we do, and through a life of faith lived in Christ's Body the Church we come to understand that gospel more clearly, and to embrace it more fully.
So, Where Do I Start?
It's best to start simply. Though some people elect to take on the task of reading the Bible cover-to-cover, and while you might want to do that someday, start by walking before you decide to run a marathon. Begin with one of the four gospels, for example: Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John. You could choose maybe to read a chapter a day from one of those books as part of your prayer time, which would be a reasonable and achievable goal. Or, maybe decide to read one or two of the Psalms each day. The books of Genesis and Exodus are also great places to start. Avoid beginning in deep waters like Leviticus or Revelation - that's for later. Keep it simple. Allow God to begin to speak to you through these somewhat familiar, though still often challenging books.
Another option for choosing where to start would be follow the suggestions of the Daily Office Lectionary found in the Book of Common Prayer. Sometimes, the lectionary can seem to be a bit of a mystery, however. An easier way to follow it would be to pick up a copy of Forward Day by Day, a free devotional book that is available on the tables outside of the church doors. Each day it offers a short meditation based on the appointed readings, and it lists those readings so you can look them up. You can also find this resource online, as well as in app form for your mobile device.
Get a Good Study Bible
Though we're talking about the Bible as a devotional resource, it's also useful to have a Bible with notes to help you in understanding. Any of the following are fine study Bibles. I personally prefer the New Oxford (NRSV) and the Catholic Study Bible (NAB). I'm also gaining a real affinity for the Common English Bible (CEB). Many others swear by the Harper Collins Study Bible (NRSV). Many really seem to like the NIV. Again, all of these contain solid, up-to-date scholarship and are all good translations. Look at them all to see which one might best suit your needs.
Join a Bible Study
The Bible is best discerned in community. Hearing the perspectives of others can expand your understanding of the Bible, and your own spiritual life. You can find several good options here.
Wherever You Decide to Start, START
Encounter with the Bible changes lives. How could it not if it's the inspired word of God? Wherever you begin, I promise you, God will speak to you through what you read. As a wise Jewish rabbi once said to his students, there are 613 laws in the Torah. Where does one begin with such an overwhelming list? To begin, just pick one and start there.
Best wishes to you as you begin your journey with the Bible. If you have questions, don't hesitate to reach out to me.