Is formal study of Scripture different to personal devotional reading? How do we keep them separate? Should we?
How do I balance my academic reading of Scripture with my devotional reading? It’s a question I get from friends, students and pastors. I understand why: if we read the Bible only to write papers or deliver sermons, we may be missing the main point: the revelation of God.
But I’ll be honest with you: I don’t have separate times for academic and devotional reading. I don’t read sometimes for theological, structural, and critical analysis of the text, and other times for personal sustenance and development.
I used to do that, but I’ve gradually lost the distinction. The God I find in Scripture cannot be divided into a theological God and a personal God. The God revealed in Jesus was doing spiritual development in three close friends, twelve disciples, and crowds of others. At the same time, he was reshaping our theology. If my analysis of God precludes him sitting with sinners and eating with them, my theology must be reshaped by the revelation of God in Christ.
Scientific analysis is dispassionate. Romanticism is emotional. In the 1700s we saw Modernity analysing Scripture as if pulling apart a frog in a lab to identify its constituent parts — the documentary hypothesis of the Pentateuch, for example. In the 1800s we saw Romanticism reacting against the reductionism of modernity, the poetry of Wordsworth and Keats for example.
That’s when faith divided: Modernity versus Romanticism. Some lamented that we had killed God (Nietzsche). Others turned their attention to a more passionate faith, feeling God’s presence. Megachurches were born (e.g. Spurgeon). Revivalism encouraged spiritual experiences. Pentecostalism encouraged the gifts as evidence of God’s Spirit. Leonard Ravenhill summarized the academic / spiritual divide: “A man with an experience of God is never at the mercy of a man with an argument.”
That’s the reason many Christians today believe there are two different ways to read Scripture:
- academic reading: a critical scientific analysis of the text that wrestles with sources, structural and linguistic issues, comprehending ancient worldviews, but never leading us to a personal knowledge of God;
- devotional reading: time devoted to seeking a personal relationship with God, putting myself in the story with the same experiences they had of God, without the academic questions that take us away from the knowledge of God.
Start with God, and you can’t get that division. The God of Scripture is both rational and relational and more. God is love, so knowing God shapes us devotionally. And God’s awesome mind pre-planned goals he faithfully implements across centuries and millennia, plans he progressively revealed as the big story of Scripture unfolds. We could never know the mind of the Lord as if to offer him advice, but we have the mind of God revealed in Christ (1 Corinthians 2:16).
Academic reading in inadequate if it never leads us to know God. Devotional reading is inadequate if it makes me the centre of the story, when God had so much more in mind.
That’s why I’m pursuing an integrated reading of Scripture: both understanding God through his revelation of himself to humanity across thousands of years, and submitting to his sovereign authority to form us into servants of our Lord, everything he intended us to be.
Andrew Abernethy is releasing a book later this year (2022) that sounds like the guidance we need to develop this integrated reading of Scripture. It’s called Savoring Scripture: A Six-Step Guide to Studying the Bible.
What six steps does he suggest?
- The posture to take as we read
- The flow to help us read well
- The contexts: both the historical setting, and the literary one (within the book)
- The whole-Bible context: where this piece fits in the big picture
- Savouring the God revealed in this Scripture (delicious image)
- Developing a faithful response to the God revealed in Scripture.
Andrew is very good at helping us see the bigger picture as we read. I’ve already recommended his book on Isaiah where he recognizes God’s kingdom as the core. Pre-order the new book from Logos, Kindle, or IVP Academic.
To be clear, I do have specific times for preparing sermons or lectures. My Bible reading is not just what I’m feeding others. But when I read, it’s wholistic: all of me, reaching out to know all I can of the God who reveals himself, and how I can serve the one who is worth expending our lives for.
At worst, academic reading is a form of pride that makes my mind the judge. At worst, devotional reading is a form of pride that makes my experience the centre. My prayer is to see God at the centre as I read. Then I’m blown away by the enormity of his strategic plans to restore heaven’s governance to earth, plans that come together in Christ who empowers all his servants with the Spirit, so we find our place in the community that embodies his kingdom.
It’s not new. The church fathers were doing this long before Modernity and Romanticism gave us different approaches. But the most fruitful way to read is not separating mind from experience. Placing everything we are before everything he always is, always was, always will be — that is transformative on a grand scale.
That’s when the joy of the Lord is our strength (Nehemiah 8:10).
What others are saying
Recommendations for Andrew T. Abernethy’s Savoring Scripture: A Six-Step Guide to Studying the Bible (IVP Acacemic, 2022):
Andrew Abernethy has produced an incredibly accessible and stimulating guide for how to study the Bible. You don’t have to be a scholar of Hebrew or Greek, or an expert on ancient Egypt or Rome, as Abernethy shows, all you need a teachable heart and a desire to learn. If you have that, then Abernethy has a great plan to help you get the most of your study of Holy Scripture, to have you way illuminated by the guiding light of God’s Word.
— Michael F. Bird, academic dean and lecturer in theology at Ridley College in Melbourne, Australia.
Savoring Scripture takes seriously the psalmists’ confession that the Word of God is rich food that delights and satisfies. Abernethy offers a simple and well-rounded approach to Bible study that opens the path to formation and nourishment. Spiritual reflection without deep study is foolish; study without worship is lifeless. This book intertwines both and makes for a perfect recipe.
— Nijay K. Gupta, professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary.
Seeking to understand Jesus in the terms he chose to describe himself: son of man (his identity), and kingdom of God (his mission). Riverview Church, Perth, Western Australia
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Used with permission of the author, Allen Browne.