How To Read the Bible (I’m Not Being Snarky!)

The last post in this series of posts on hermeneutics was titled: How to Read Your Bible (or How You Actually Read the Bible), I must admit that that the title was a bit snarky. You probably thought I was going to tell you about ways to read your bible but I fooled you and showed you how you actually read your Bible. I’m sorry about that. This time I will actually outline a few methods for reading the Bible. There are at least three rather obvious places where we can find meaning in the text of the Bible. When you read you probably find yourself engaging in trying to find meaning in all three” locations” Here are the three:

  1. Behind the Text
  2. In the Text
  3. In front of the Text

Behind the Text

  • This way of approaching the texts attempts to locate the meaning especially in history. This has been the dominant approach in biblical studies for centuries. When reading this way the reader attempts to isolate the historically intended, correct meaning of the text. It attempts to inquire into the historical situation/background of the text. It places a majority of its emphasis on what is going on during the actual writing of the text. This type of reading makes use of other discipleins like “Historical Criticism,” “Extracannonical Jewish Text Studies,” and “Classics.” The key word for this type of reading is “History.”

In the Text

  • In the text methods (obviously) attempt to focus on the text itself, its form, its structure, its consistency, etc.  Many times this sort of reading will make use of other disciplines like “rhetorical criticsm” or “Genre Analysis” or “Linguistics.” The in the text reading” is where we might locate the blooming discipline of “new testatment use of the old.” This discipline fits into this way of reading scripture because it focuses on how some texts make use of other texts. This type of reading (new testament use of the old) makes use of intercannonical liteary themes. Thus it limits itself to the study of the text itself. The key word for this type of reading is “Literature.”

In Front of the Text

  • This way of reading scripture takes very seriously the questions, “who is doing the reading?” This method emphasizes the fact that the reader is not an empty receptacle for meaning, rather as the reader engages with the text, the reader contributes (baggage) to his/her reading of the text. In-front-of-the-text readings do not pretend to be neutral, rather they recognize that all our readings come from a particular vantage point, that is, there is no “view from nowhere.” This way of reading scripture makes use of other disciplines like “Feminist Criticism,” “African American Criticism,” and “Latino/a Criticism.” Interpretation for the sake of Christian Ethics might also fall into this sort of reading, namely because Christian Ethics is about the response of the reader and his/her understanding of the text. The key word for this type of reading is “Response.”

This was just a really short outline of three ways we approach scripture. Although professional scholars usually engage primarily in one of these methods (N.T. Wright would be considered “Behind the Text” and Walter Bruggeman would be considered “In the Text”) the truth is that when we read scripture we actually end up using all three methods. When reading a tough passage you probably have asked yourself:

  1. What did this passage mean to them 1000’s of years ago?
  2. What is the “big picture” truth?
  3. What does it mean for me today?

In a rough way these three questions parallel the three methods outlined above. So in one sense you are a biblical scholar engaging in complicated hermeneutical methods!


Published by cwoznicki

Chris Woznicki is an Assistant Adjunct Professor of Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary. He works as the regional training associate for the Los Angeles region of Young Life.

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