As you probably already know from your own experience, there is a big difference between reading and studying. Many factors come into play here, including the differences in time, effort, energy, and goals. Just like every other discipline, there’s also a pretty big difference between reading the Bible and studying the Bible.
The biggest difference between reading and studying the Bible has to do with one’s intention. Typically one’s goal in reading the Bible has to do with familiarity, basic comprehension, and enjoyment or appreciation. On the other hand, studying the Bible often implies more rigorous research-focused intentions, such as historical studies, linguistic studies, rhetorical analysis, and more.
Both practices are important for the life of the church and the life of the Christian. One is not more important than the other, however, the two do have to be held in a proper balance. Too much study with too little reading, or vice versa, can lead to a disproportionate understanding of the Bible. Throughout the rest of this blog post, we’re going to look closer at the differences between reading and studying the Bible, as well as the different situations that might call for one set of intentions over another.
Reading the Bible
First, let’s talk about reading the Bible. Several posts on this blog examine this issue from several different points of view, so we won’t go too in-depth here. But I really want to emphasize the value of reading the Bible. Studying the Bible is important, but I think we sometimes elevate the practice of Bible study over the simplicity of reading the Bible. But I just want to put this quick reminder here that reading the Bible is important, even if you don’t have the skills or resources required to launch into a complex and deep study. Now, let’s get into it.
What Is Reading the Bible?
It’s a simple question to ask, with an obvious answer. Reading the Bible is simply that. Reading the Bible. But let’s go a little bit deeper and talk more about the intentions behind reading the Bible.
Reading the Bible is about familiarity. It’s about getting familiar with the world of the Bible. Learning about the places, the people, the stories, the situations.
More than that, reading the Bible is about immersion. It’s about soaking in the scriptures, becoming fluent in its conventions, its language, its quirks.
Reading the Bible is about appreciation. The Bible is literature, after all. Literature was designed to be enjoyed, appreciated, and loved. The Bible is a beautiful work of art and there is value in reading it if nothing else but to enjoy its artistry.
You could say that reading the Bible is focused on modality. We read the Bible for what it is: ancient literature. The more we read it, the more familiar we become with this medium that God chose to communicate his message. Through the familiarity with this mode of God’s revelation, we become more familiar with God.
I have an entire blog post all about why we should read the Bible, which you can read here. In a nutshell, we should read the Bible because we want to, not because we have to. Our reasoning behind reading the Bible often comes down to what we feel like we should be doing as good Christians and good people. We want to please God, we want to please others, or maybe we just want to please ourselves. These are all extrinsic motivations for reading the Bible.
When talking about why we should read the Bible, I am much more inclined to focus on intrinsic motivations. We read the Bible because we want to. We read the Bible because it brings life. It connects us to our source of life. We learn more about God’s work in the world and we grow more into the kind of people that God is calling us to be in the world.
Through reading the Bible, we are able to step into the shoes of God’s people throughout history. In doing so, we are able to learn from their experiences, to see the world from their eyes.
Studying the Bible
Studying the Bible, on the other hand, is less about familiarity and immersion and more about the details. Rather than comprehension, studying the Bible has a much more comprehensive goal. It’s not just focused on the text. It’s also focused on the world behind the text. It’s also focused on the linguistic structure of the text. It’s also focused on the rhetorical strategy of the text. It’s also focused on the social issues which begat the text. I could go on and on because there is an endless number of reasons people study rather than read the Bible. To learn more, here’s another post I wrote recently about the goal of exegetical study.
The best way I can think to explain it is this. Think of Paper Mario. He’s primarily a 2D character living in a 2D world. This is what reading the Bible is like. But every once in a while, Paper Mario leaves his 2D world and finds himself in the third dimension. This is what studying the Bible is like.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not placing value on one dimension over the other. In this example, 3D is not better than 2D. It’s just an extra dimension. 3D does have its strengths. But at the same time, Paper Mario was designed for a 2D space, so sometimes adding that third dimension can be forcing something upon Paper Mario that he wasn’t originally designed for.
Okay, maybe I’m pushing this metaphor a bit too far. Let’s return to the text.
Reading is the default. The Bible was designed to be read. When we read the Bible, our focus is on the text itself. Our concern is the text’s concern. You know when you’re watching TV and you get sucked into the point that you don’t even notice your surroundings? Do you forget that you’re actually sitting in your living room? Your full experience at that moment is wrapped in what’s happening on the screen.
Studying the Bible is concerned with the text, with the literary experience. But it’s also concerned with a lot more than that. The focus is lifted out of the text and taken to a new dimension. It’s as if you were watching TV, but instead of getting sucked into the experience, you were also intentionally aware of everything happening in the room around you.
The Balance Between Reading and Studying
So which is better, reading or studying? They’re both important in their own right and they both have their place. However, reading the Bible takes precedent over studying the Bible. Familiarity and immersion are more important, especially for the individual, than more intense study. Nevertheless, we must hold these two practices in balance.
What does that look like? There are two ways for us to work this out. The first is in the life of the individual; the second is in the life of the church.
Individual Reading and Studying the Bible
As I’ve written elsewhere, the primary intention of the Bible was to be read and experienced in a community. However, that’s not to say there isn’t value in reading scripture on an individual basis. For the first time in human history, we live in a primarily literate society, so we should definitely take advantage of that and read the Bible on our own. However, the irony is that we also live in a Christian culture that is less knowledgable about the overarching story of salvation history recorded in the Bible. How crazy is that? We read the Bible individually more than any other generation of the church, and yet we know far less. I think the reason for this is because of the disproportionate value that our society places on Bible study.
Is studying the Bible a good thing to do? Absolutely. I’m a proponent of faithful study of the scriptures and love helping people better learn how to study. I mean I built this whole website about it. But here’s the thing: studying the Bible is a supplement to reading, not a replacement. Let me say that again for the people in the back: studying the Bible is a supplement to reading the Bible; it is never a replacement.
Another way we can look at the difference between studying and reading the Bible is the old forest metaphor. Reading the Bible is about looking at the forest; studying the Bible is about looking at the trees. It’s important to examine the trees. But examining the trees is useless if we don’t have a basic grasp of the layout of the forest.
Our culture doesn’t know the Bible because we place a heavier weight on studying the Bible than we do on reading the Bible. I’ve heard people say they feel guilty for reading the Bible without some element of study, which is completely different from the way we read any other piece of literature. Yes, we study literature. But never does the study of literature supersede the simplicity of reading and enjoying literature. So why do we get it backwards when it comes to the Bible?
Here’s how I think we can get a proper balance of reading and studying in our personal lives. First, commit to a reading schedule. Just sit down and read the Bible. Read large swaths of scripture over a long period of time. Sit down and just read an entire book of the Bible in one sitting. Read five chapters at a time. Read one chapter at a time. Just read. Experience the story. Experience the poetry. Experience the beauty of it all. No, you’re not going to fully understand it all. Yes, you’re going to have a ton of questions. But just keep reading.
Once you get into a good reading habit, then you can start adding in a layer of study. Perhaps you could pick one book of the Bible to study a bit more deeply alongside your reading schedule. Personally, I like to vary my reading schedule and study schedule so that I’m in different parts of the Bible. Usually, I’m studying the Old Testament while reading through the New Testament, or vice versa. But I don’t stick to a hard and fast reading and study schedule.
The point I’m trying to get across is that study is a supplement to reading. Not a replacement. If you don’t have a healthy Bible reading routine down, that’s where you really need to start. Because if you’re not regularly reading the Bible, you’re not really going to get to know the Bible on an intimate basis. Remember, reading is how you gain familiarity. It’s how you immerse yourself in the world of scripture. That familiarity and immersion are necessary for your Bible study to bear any fruit.
However, you may find that an in-depth study routine just doesn’t work for you, and that’s totally fine. Despite what our Christian culture likes to tell us, it’s not the duty of every single Christian to study the Bible. That brings us to the next section.
Corporate Reading and Studying the Bible
For the vast majority of Christian history, across time, space, and denomination, Bible reading was the focus of Christian gatherings. For me and my upbringing, that’s hard to believe. In the churches that brought me up, the exposition of scripture was the climax of the Sunday service. The sermon. The product of supposedly rigorous Bible study. This model of the modern Christian church service perpetuates the dangerous belief that scripture is not sufficient. Rather, we indirectly teach that a deep uncovering of the mysteries of scripture is the only way to fully enjoy and appreciate the Bible.
From my own experience with the evangelical church, we don’t get together and read the Bible nearly enough. As a result, we are the most literate generation in church history with the least amount of biblical knowledge. Because familiarity and immersion do not come with the study. They come with reading.
So looking at the church’s role in reading the Bible from a corporate point of view, I think there’s a lot of progress that can be made here. We must find a way to show our congregations how to read the Bible by modeling this in our church services.
When it comes to studying the Bible, we ought to keep in mind that we are a body. It’s not everyone’s job to deeply study the Bible, but it’s a very important job for some people. Just like it’s important that some people are pastors, some people are missionaries, some people are teachers, etc. We definitely need people studying the Bible. But if that doesn’t match your interests or skill sets, the good news is you aren’t in this alone. You are a part of a wider community on which you can lean and from which you can learn.
When we work together, we can grow corporately as the body of Christ into the people that God is calling us to be in the world. The transformative power of the Bible is one method by which God shapes us into those people. In order for us to get the most of the Bible’s potential, we must hold reading the Bible and studying the Bible in a proper balance. We must understand the primacy of reading the Bible and the supplementary nature of the study. We must rid ourselves of this societal guilt that comes from the pressure to read and study the Bible and allow the people in our churches to simply enjoy the Bible in whatever way fits with their natural interests and skills.
So my advice to you is to just read the Bible. Get familiar with it. Know the storyline from cover to cover. Know the ins and outs, the nooks and crannies. Get a feel for the layout of the forest. As your curiosity grows, welcome it. Ask questions. Explore questions. A healthy amount of Bible study will naturally grow out of a consistent Bible reading habit. But whatever you do and however you approach it, I pray that your interactions with scripture and my interactions with scripture can collectively grow us together into the image of Christ.
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