What is the best way to read and study the Bible? Should we read the Gospels first? Do we read it chronologically? Do we pick it up and just read straight through as it is? What about devotionals and study books? Everybody seems to have an opinion, so let's talk about it!
Now if you are a story teller like I am, the thought of reading a book "out of order" might irk you a bit. (Maybe that's just me?) You might be wondering why the Bible is not organized in chronological order in the first place - at least in the order of the books themselves. Beyond the most obvious division of the Old and New Testaments, the books are first categorized by genre or literary style and then loosely categorized chronologically within the genre. And if you're wondering how that even happened, let's chat briefly about the canonization of scripture...
BRIEF HISTORY LESSON FOR THE HISTORY NERDS...
Canonizing scripture, or the process of declaring which texts were to be regarded as sacred scriptural texts, occurred over the course of hundreds of years. This process was initially undertaken by Jewish rabbis, then early Christians, and it continued well into the 5th century AD with a final change occurring during the 16th century Protestant Reformation. Historically, which books of the New Testament would be considered canonized scripture has been a far more controversial subject than those of the Old Testament. Essentially, scriptures which are considered to be part of the Biblical canon are those which are Holy Spirit inspired, widely accepted by the body of Christ, doctrinally consistent with one another, and are consistent with the teachings and characteristics of the Holy Spirit.
So this still begs the question...why is the Bible organized the way that it is? Don Stewart summarizes it best with this statement: "The books of the Bible are divided for sake of convenience and the logical historical development - there is no sacred order." So while the scriptures of the Biblical canon ARE Holy Spirit inspired, the order in which these have been placed was not. Much of the way the Bible is organized is based on the opinions of previously mentioned early Christians and scholars, not divine proclamation, though (again) we still very much consider all of canonized scripture itself to be sacred, God breathed, and God inspired. While there is much debate regarding the "best way" to read the scripture - and even ongoing disagreement between the Protestants and Roman Catholics regarding particular books which Protestants do not consider part of the canon - Genesis and Revelation stand firmly as the first and last books, because as Stewart states, "they detail the beginning and the end of all things."
With all of that being said, there is truly no "best way" or "best order" to study the scriptures. However, there are many popular study styles, so let's review them and discuss their pros and cons.
Reading plans through the Gospels are likely the most popular, especially for new believers and those who are new to reading the Bible in an organized manner. As these books focus on Jesus, His life, His ministry, His death, and His resurrection, it's no wonder these plans are a popular place to start. The events of these books and Jesus' teachings are the foundation of the Christian faith.
Pros to this Method:
- Starting in the Gospels provides an easily digestible and focused plan. Rather than a plan which covers the entire Bible, this method may be less overwhelming, particularly to someone new to studying scripture.
- The four books cover many of the same events and themes from different perspectives, allowing the reader to read about Jesus's life and ministry multiple times continuously.
- After completing the Gospels, transitioning into the remaining books of the New Testament, particularly Acts and the Epistles, is very natural. The Gospels provide the foundations of what we believe, and the remainder of the New Testament is our "application" - how we learn to live like Christ and make disciples.
Cons to this Method:
- I'm not sure there could ever be a con to reading the Gospels. Read them and read them often, no matter where you are in your walk with Christ.
You could read the Bible in chronological order in a couple of different ways. The first being reading the books of the Bible in the order in which they were written. The second way would be to read the Bible in the order in which stories and events occurred, which would involve some jumping between different books, particularly in the Old Testament and the Gospels.
Pros to this Method:
- For the history junkie, this method may be interesting and provide new perspective. If you enjoy understanding timelines, how events in the Bible relate chronologically to one another, and how they relate to other events throughout history, this method may be a great one to try.
Cons to this Method:
- If you study the Bible truly chronologically by events and accounts, you'll be bouncing between the books frequently. This is not inherently bad, but you risk missing quite a bit of nuance if you fail to consider the literary style of the books themselves and the cultural context. The Old Testament books, especially, are rich with beautiful history, but understanding cultural context and how the literary style plays a role in their interpretation/application is critical. Blue Letter Bible study guides are an excellent resource and provide detailed chapter by chapter guides with historical and cultural context, as well as details on how the events of the Old Testament foreshadow and align with events of the New Testament.
TIME FOCUSED STUDY PLANS
Study the Bible in a year! Read the Gospels in 90 days! A 30 day walk through Proverbs! We've all seen studies like this, and many of us have probably done them. They may not be ideal for everyone, though, so let's chat about it.
Pros to this Method:
- Structure - some people thrive off the structure of a time focused study plan. It's goal focused and organized, allowing those who enjoy studying this way to know exactly what to study and have an "end goal" or time frame in mind. This may help them more effectively set aside the time they need for scriptural study. People who thrive on structure and who are goal oriented likely love time focused study plans.
Cons to this Method:
- The "Checklist" Mentality - While the structure is great for some, time focused study plans may be overwhelming for those who need more flexibility in their study schedule. Skipping a day may incite feelings of guilt or shame, or the act of studying may become more about checking something off a to-do list rather than enjoying studying the Word.
THEME/SEASON BASED/TOPICAL STUDY PLANS
It's giving 30 days of gratitude...it's giving 365 verses for mothers...it's giving family studies...it's giving seasons of life and all that comes with them. When we talk about "topical" studies or "themed" studies, this could mean studies like Gospel studies that we discussed earlier or it could mean "application" style topical studies. There's a lot that could be encompassed here.
Pros to this Method
- These devotionals and study guides are popular because they are relatable. and often easy to process. They foster discussion amongst fellow believers who can relate to one another and also provide their own unique thoughts and perspectives.
- Not everyone thrives in deep theological dialogue - for some, topical or lifestyle application is more inviting and less intimidating.
- In regards to strictly "Biblical" topics and not just lifestyle topics, this can be a great way to study a very focused topic more deeply. For example, a study on the fruits of the spirit, the armor of God, etc.
Cons to this Method
- There is a risk when we enter discussions on more tertiary issues of the faith and lifestyle type topics. With these topics, there's a tendency to steer further into an "I think..." style of discussion rather than a "scripture says" type of discussion. We risk reading devotionals and blog posts or listening to podcasts that may take scriptures out of context simply to prove a point or apply to a topic to which they were never meant to be applied. Discernment and contextual consideration are CRITICAL here. Exegesis, critical interpretation of the text, matters.
- Essentially we are trying to avoid what we call "Eisegesis" or inserting one's own ideas and opinions into the text. Narcigesis is a further extension of this in which we insert ourselves into the text unnecessarily. Reading and interpreting in a way to simply "feel good" or cherry picking to support an argument that the text was never meant to support.
There are so many other types of scriptural studies we could discuss - many that are a mixture of some or all of these methods. Regardless of how you choose to read the Bible, remember that reading the Word of God is such a privilege. We are so very blessed to have the many versions and translations of the Bible that we do. There are people throughout the world who still cannot read the Bible in their native language. With that in mind, please do not create a reading plan to simply check a box. On days that you miss a reading, don't allow feelings of shame and guilt to creep in. Take your time. Meditate over God's great Word and seek His discernment. There is no "perfect" reading plan, but we should all seek to study the Bible with reverence, humility, and gratitude.
THERE'S MORE TO DISCUSS!
Did you catch the part about people still not having access to the written Word? Have you ever thought about how people study scripture who cannot read or afford a Bible? Are you someone who struggles to sit down and read scripture, but you feel guilty that you can't study the way other people do? STAY TUNED! There's a conversation to be had about the way the emphasis on physically reading as the "gold standard" may be negatively impacting the way people study and interact with God's Word...
To be continued...
Cline, C. (2021, June 6). 3 simple bible reading plans for the beginner. A Faithful Step. Retrieved January 27, 2022, from https://www.afaithfulstep.com/blog/3-simple-bible-reading-for-the-beginner
GotQuestions.org. (2004, September 11). How and when was the canon of the Bible put together? GotQuestions.org. Retrieved January 24, 2022, from https://www.gotquestions.org/canon-Bible.html
History.com Editors. (2018, January 19). The Bible. History.com. Retrieved January 24, 2022, from https://www.history.com/topics/religion/bible#section_7
Stewart, D. (2018, July 18). Why are the books of the Bible placed in a particular order or sequence? . Blue Letter Bible. Retrieved January 24, 2022, from https://www.blueletterbible.org/Comm/stewart_don/faq/bible-special/question7-books-of-the-bible-placed-in-a-particular-order.cfm