How to read the Bible for all its worth
The passion and insights of a great biblical scholar
While studying the book of Romans at Vancouver’s Regent College in 2001, Simon Smart and his classmates joked that it was worth the price of admission just to hear the lecturer’s opening prayer.
This lecturer was Gordon Fee, an American-Canadian theologian, who died in October 2022. In the words of Smart, who now directs the Centre for Public Christianity, Fee was “an amazing teacher and a great scholar.”
Fee is indeed renowned for combining spiritual passion and rigorous scholarship. Smart describes how Fee would “submerge himself into the world of the Bible” then “reemerge into the contemporary world, and share the wisdom, life and joy that he found there.”
“He was unapologetically Pentecostal,” Smart continues. “His lecture would often merge into sermon, and he’d often be in tears as he explained what we were reading. He got very animated too. It was never boring.”
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Fee lamented what he saw as a lack of rigorous engagement with the biblical text at that time, but was determined to hold onto the best of his tradition.
Fee’s worry that Christians, in general, were reading their Bibles superficially prompted him to co-author How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, a popular-level guide that has since sold about a million copies.
Fee’s basic observation was that, while many Christians approach the Bible in a superficial way, the nature of God’s word should dictate how we read it.
What is the Bible really?
The Bible is a collection of written records of God’s eternal truth, as he revealed it in history, climaxing with Jesus, who is himself the Truth and the Word.
Fee aimed, particularly, to help us with the crucial but easily neglected phrase, “as he revealed it in history.”
The method God chose speaks inspiring words again and again into our own stories.
Fee’s passion for the Bible and the biblical story meant that “he wanted with every fibre of his being to plumb the depths of that story,” says Smart. Fee spent decades of passionate and painstaking work seeking to understand both the text and the world of the Bible.
He acknowledged that the Bible could have come to us in a much simpler form, but insisted that the method God chose speaks inspiring words again and again into our own stories.
How to read the Bible for all its worth
Because this eternal truth was revealed in a diverse collection of documents, Fee advocated learning to read the Bible’s different literary genres differently. The gospels should be read as gospels, the epistles as epistles, and so on.
Although relatively simple, this observation opens up infinite avenues for exploration and understanding, and at the same time, closes down many side tracks, showing them to be dead ends.
Fee is not advocating that we read the Bible uniquely but that we read it sensibly, the way we do other texts.
This is, of course, how we read everything else. Reading a poem like a science textbook would be frustrating and counterproductive. Reading a letter like a parable would be confusing and unhelpful.
Fee was not advocating that we read the Bible uniquely but that we read it sensibly, the way we do other texts. In fact, Fee recommended that Christians interested in learning to read well in general find Mortimer Adler’s classic, How to Read a Book. (For what it’s worth, John Piper raves about this book too.)
In the book, Fee recommended that Christians occasionally read a larger chunk of Scripture in one sitting, ignoring chapters and verses, to understand the whole sweep of its message. He often asked experienced Christians to tell him the argument of the letter to the Galatians. He said some could quote many verses, but very few could tell him what the letter is about.
The popularity of Fee’s book has revealed that many Christians are rarely taught how to read the Bible well – at least not explicitly.
In fact, there are only two steps. Both require determination and nuance, and both enable deeper insight and fresh understanding of the word of God. And again, our approach to both varies depending on the genre of the text we are reading.
Step one: Exegesis (what did it mean to them?)
First, we must determine what the text meant to the people of God in its context. Three issues are essential here, all of which could just as easily be applied in an English class. In other words, while exegesis involves complicated answers, the questions are common sense.
Acknowledging historical context means determining how the historical situation of God’s people prompted this text. The best place to start is in the text itself, then you might consult a Bible encyclopedia, an introduction in a study Bible or the introduction to a commentary.
Recognising literary context means asking what the purpose of a given passage is within its broader setting. The key question is simple: what is the point of this word, sentence, paragraph, chapter or book? You won’t need anything other than a good English translation, preferably with verses arranged into paragraphs, rather than each verse functioning as a stand-alone paragraph.
Our reading habits are naturally shaped partly by the format of our Bibles. While the original documents had no divisions, our chapters and verses were added over 1000 years later for convenience. For the purpose of studying and memorising Scripture, these are invaluable. But for the purpose of reading and understanding Scripture, perhaps at times, convenience prevents us from reading the Bible for all its worth.
Discerning content means working out what the passage actually says. This one seems pretty self-explanatory, but this too requires sensible and thoughtful reading. Almost any sentence can be misunderstood. But we can generally be confident about the content of a passage with the help of context, general Biblical knowledge and the right tools. A good commentary will be very helpful here!
Fee would “submerge himself into the world of the Bible” then “reemerge into the contemporary world, and share the wisdom, life and joy that he found there.” – Simon Smart
Step two: Hermeneutics (what does it mean to us?)
The second and final step is to determine what the text means to the people of God in our context.
Smart notes that Fee consistently emphasised the role of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer. In fact, Fee conducted groundbreaking research on this topic in Paul’s writings.
When it comes to Hermeneutics, we believe that the Holy Spirit inspired the words of the Bible and that he guides us in discovering and applying it. So Fee warned that we ought to be careful about going beyond the original intent, lest we speak for God.
But we rightly want to know what the text means to us!
Fee suggested a number of guidelines to restrain us from leaning towards interpretations that simply suit our preferences. Here are just two examples:
- A text cannot mean what it never could have meant to its author or readers.
- When our context is comparable to the original context, God’s word to us is the same as it was to them.
Fee emphasised that the proper control for hermeneutics is accurate exegesis. Having carefully determined what God was saying to the original audience, we can bring our “enlightened common sense” to apply the text’s insights to our own situation. Even if our context is not comparable to the original context, or we believe some elements to be relative to the original culture, we can often discern principles that are communicated in the text.
“Fee would’ve argued that if we really submit ourselves to this word, it will lead us towards life and light.”
Reading with the right posture
Of course, it’s possible to obsess about how we read the Bible in a way that puffs us up and prevents us from humbly hearing God’s word by the inspiration of the Spirit. But Fee would reject this attitude as harshly as anything.
“He was all about submitting yourself to the word and therefore to God,” Smart explains. “Submit yourself to this, and it will at various points lift you up, but also really challenge you. He would’ve argued that if we really submit ourselves to this word, it will lead us towards life and light.”
Careful not to overstate their proximity, Smart says he had several meetings with Fee, during which he was able to ask weighty questions. Smart recalls Fee as being “incredibly personable and interested in me, wanting to know my story and engage with the questions to a degree that I thought was amazing.”
“He was able to reflect the sorts of things he preached about in the way he treated people,” Smart reflects.
Far from becoming arrogant or self-centred, Fee’s painstaking attention to the text of God’s word seemed to make him more and more humble. His book provides us the tools to listen actively to the word of God, so that we too might go away and do what it says.
If you’d like to try deliberately reading the Bible with these ideas in mind, I’ve created a one-page guide to help, based on Fee’s principles and emphases in the book.