How do you read the Bible?
It is a seemingly simple question. If you do a Google search on “How to read the Bible” you’ll get 1.36 million hits… so there’s many different ideas on how to approach Scripture and read it.
Early Christian pastors and teachers latched on to a phrase Paul uses in Romans 12:6: “and having different gifts which have been given by grace to us: whether (it is) prophecy, with agreement of the faith.” (my rough translation) Now the italicized portion is usually translated “in proportion to our faith” or something to that effect. Literally the words are according to the analogy (analogia) of faith. Paul then lists other gifts, and sets them within the bounds of their proper use. The early Church Fathers saw this as a thing, namely a creedal body of doctrine. Tertullian states it this way:
Now, with regard to this rule of faith—that we may from this point acknowledge what it is which we defend—it is, you must know, that which prescribes the belief that there is one only God, and that He is none other than the Creator of the world, who produced all things out of nothing through His own Word, first of all sent forth; that this Word is called His Son, and, under the name of God, was seen “in diverse manners” by the patriarchs, heard at all times in the prophets, at last brought down by the Spirit and Power of the Father into the Virgin Mary, was made flesh in her womb, and, being born of her, went forth as Jesus Christ; thenceforth He preached the new law and the new promise of the kingdom of heaven, worked miracles; having been crucified, He rose again the third day; (then) having ascended into the heavens, He sat at the right hand of the Father; sent instead of Himself the Power of the Holy Ghost to lead such as believe; will come with glory to take the saints to the enjoyment of everlasting life and of the heavenly promises, and to condemn the wicked to everlasting fire, after the resurrection of both these classes shall have happened, together with the restoration of their flesh. This rule, as it will be proved, was taught by Christ, and raises amongst ourselves no other questions than those which heresies introduce, and which make men heretics.
Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson and A. Cleveland Coxe, The Ante-Nicene Fathers Vol. III : Translations of the Writings of the Fathers Down to A.D. 325, Latin Christianity: Its Founder, Tertullian., 249 (Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, 1997).
In other words (to put Paul and Tertullian together), if one is to prophecy (that is, to expound upon God’s Word), it should be in agreement, in accordance with the right understanding of the faith. This then also applies to how we understand Scripture itself. When we read Scripture, we cannot come at it without presuppositions as a blank slate. Rather, we bring theological ideas to the table… either ones that are in agreement with sound doctrine, or false teachings. Irenaeus uses the example of a mosaic as he explains what the Valentinians were doing with Scripture.
Such, then, is their system, which neither the prophets announced, nor the Lord taught, nor the apostles delivered, but of which they boast that beyond all others they have a perfect knowledge. They gather their views from other sources than the Scriptures;96 and, to use a common proverb, they strive to weave ropes of sand, while they endeavour to adapt with an air of probability to their own peculiar assertions the parables of the Lord, the sayings of the prophets, and the words of the apostles, in order that their scheme may not seem altogether without support. In doing so, however, they disregard the order and the connection of the Scriptures, and so far as in them lies, dismember and destroy the truth. By transferring passages, and dressing them up anew, and making one thing out of another, they succeed in deluding many through their wicked art in adapting the oracles of the Lord to their opinions. Their manner of acting is just as if one, when a beautiful image of a king has been constructed by some skilful artist out of precious jewels, should then take this likeness of the man all to pieces, should rearrange the gems, and so fit them together as to make them into the form of a dog or of a fox, and even that but poorly executed; and should then maintain and declare that this was the beautiful image of the king which the skilful artist constructed, pointing to the jewels which had been admirably fitted together by the first artist to form the image of the king, but have been with bad effect transferred by the latter one to the shape of a dog, and by thus exhibiting the jewels, should deceive the ignorant who had no conception what a king’s form was like, and persuade them that that miserable likeness of the fox was, in fact, the beautiful image of the king. In like manner do these persons patch together old wives’ fables, and then endeavour, by violently drawing away from their proper connection, words, expressions, and parables whenever found, to adapt the oracles of God to their baseless fictions.
96 Literally, “reading from things unwritten.”
Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson and A. Cleveland Coxe, The Ante-Nicene Fathers Vol.I : Translations of the Writings of the Fathers Down to A.D. 325, The apostolic fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus., 326 (Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, 1997).
Christ said it simply: “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me.” When you read Scripture, it is there to point you to Christ. And flowing out of Christ is the body of doctrine of the Christian faith. Thus to read Scripture rightly one must first understand Biblical Christian doctrine. Without this, Scripture itself remains a closed book.