Should We Give up on Private Bible Reading?

Recently I have talked with a number of Christian leaders from various denominations.  They have told me they are giving up on any private reading of the Bible.  They said it with a bit of uncertainty in their voices, wondering if they were doing the right thing, wondering if they were secret heretics.  You see it has been drilled into them that a good Christian has a quiet time every day and part of that includes personal Bible reading.St Dominic with Scripture

Now these leaders aren’t giving up on the Bible altogether, they have just concluded that Bible reading ought to be communal practice not individual.  They point out correctly that the books of the Bible were not addressed to private readers; the various authors expected these books to be read to gathered audiences of the faithful.  Even letters addressed to private persons like Philemon and Titus were expected to be read publicly. Consider Paul’s admonition that “faith comes by hearing” (Romans 10:17); the apostle assumes one who speaks for God and one who listens to the good news.  Revelation 1:3 pronounces blessings upon those who read—that is, those who read aloud to the congregation—and those who hear the words of the prophecy.  The one who reads is one; those who hear are many.

These leaders also cite church history, particularly, the development of the daily office and other regular gatherings of the faithful to chant the psalms and read the Scriptures.  In particular, lectio divina—the  spiritual reading of Scripture—is  not intended as a solitary enterprise; it requires that believers gather and listen to the Scriptures together. It assumes a community of people who are living life together and not just a haphazard collection of people with some common interests.

It’s clear to me these leaders are feeling a bit guilty and are unsure about their decision.  They want to be good Christians.  They see themselves as good Christians.  They want others to see them as good Christians too.   It’s not that they have found private Bible reading unproductive; it’s that they have found engaging the Bible publicly more productive.  It seems to me they have arrived at this point along their spiritual journey in good faith.  They aren’t trying to get out of anything or take any short-cuts.  They’ re serious in their Christian commitments.

For my part, I’m not quite ready to give up on private Bible reading.  On my own blog, I share some reasons why, in case you’re interested.

So, what do you think?  Have you given up on private Bible reading?  Or do you think it is time you did?   If so, why?  If not, how would you convince these leaders that private Bible reading is a practice worth pursuing?

8 responses

  1. You said……” It’s not that they have found private Bible reading unproductive; it’s that they have found engaging the Bible publicly more productive.”.

    I think this is a good way to put it and a worthy goal. I am a Protestant, attending a Baptist church. However, before a move to this part of Virginia, I attended an Anglican-Catholic church. I greatly miss the profoundly reverent liturgy, but also the communal nature of Bible readings, including the entire book of Psalms in their entirety four times a year during Evensong. When the Psalms are sung, you cant help but start to internalize and memorize large portions. The choir composed of children and adults knew most of the Psalms by heart, and this has a transforming effect on one’s heart and mind.

    Protestant’s seem to have lost many of the most important things that were practiced since the early church, and which were never lost in (at least pre-Vatican II) Catholicism, and in much of the Orthodox Church. I get weary sometimes of the perpetual effort to refashion the church and worship by Evangelicals. This is particularly evident on “The Gospel Coalition” site.

  2. I’ve had very much the same journey regarding private, devotional Bible reading, and have come to exactly the conclusions you sum up in this piece about Scripture being written for an assumed communal audience – and that this shapes (or should shape) how we receive it. I don’t think it’s an either/or, though, but rather a balance – I would say that hearing Scripture in the community of worship should be the central engagement with the Bible, with private devotional reading being the supplement. Attending daily Mass, I hear Scripture every day: an Epistle or Old Testament reading; a Psalm; and a Gospel lesson, in addition to all the scripture embedded in the liturgy. On Sundays I spend some time reading privately, usually reading a single book all the way through (or, a large chunk of a longer one). At least for me, this seems to hit the right balance between communal and private reading, and I feel that it’s helping me internalize Scripture much more deeply than before.

  3. An increasing number of people I know have given up reading the Bible personally as they realize they have been taught wrongly how to read it. As they realize the extent to which it was writing to and within a specific culture, they have realized how poorly we have incorporated that cultural knowledge into our understanding of the Bible. Feeling 20+ years behind on learning what is going on between the lines in the Bible, being able to read the Bible on an individual basis seems an insurmountable task.

    It is only my personal forays into historical criticism have allowed me to recreate the original sense of community to which it was written. This has saved Bible-reading in general for me. Even that, however, is a daunting task, and I really only feel like I have a solid grasp on certain key texts that I have been able to research amid the many other things I must do on a day to day basis.

    We are so far gone from the original cultures that we are deceiving ourselves if we believe we can just pick up the Bible and understand it, whether in a private or public context. A public context could even be worse if the person presenting it were not well-educated in the Bible’s historical background, because then everyone would be conforming to a single person’s poor interpretation. At least private interpretation would force people to reconcile differences in how they see the text.

    The ideal for me is that the Bible is read publicly by people who have studied the Bible while reading commentary peer-reviewed by a diverse number of scholars. The task of the layman in the process of reading the Bible is to hold their leaders to this standard.

  4. I’ve actually thought about this for a few years, starting around the time I graduated from HBU in 2005, but never shared with anyone for fear of being labeled a heretic. I began to question the idea that had been drilled into me my entire life, growing up in evangelical “Bible churches”– that somehow you couldn’t be close to God if you didn’t read a chapter or more of the Bible every day. I did begin to think of those in the early church, before the time when everyone had a pocket bible in their purse or on their Iphone. I thought of how at least the Jewish boys *memorized* much of Scripture, and contemplated it often throughout the day, but certainly didn’t carry around a “Bible” with them all the time. I think Bible study is incredibly important, but I agree that Biblical interpretation is best done as a joint effort. And while there’s nothing wrong with utilizing all the tools we’re blessed with today (Bible on Iphone, etc) and reading daily, I also grew up in the church and have *internalized* much of the Bible. For a while, I felt guilty, like I was not growing in my faith if i wasn’t reading every day. But now I feel that throughout my day, the Spirit reminds me of specific texts as they are needed. Nevertheless, I don’t think I’ll ever *completely* give up on reading the Bible privately, because quite frankly, I love the Bible and find peace there. Even the stories I’ve read a hundred times. I just don’t feel the pressure any longer to do it daily, as though I’ll somehow become stagnant in my faith if I don’t.

  5. I just read this on the ‘Gospel Coalition blog’ today, and it seemed to apply perhaps to some of things you said…….

    “[C.S. Lewis] commented on the fact that certain kinds of obligation kill desire. For example, we know that we should be moved by the death of Jesus on our behalf, but the very fact of the “should” makes it harder to actually be moved. Fairy stories, by taking us out of our own world, allow the beauty and desirability of the truth to shine forth in all its glory.”

  6. It’s not the private devotional bible reading of it but the private interpretation of it with the stance dancing of an agnostic who publicly disdains established Christian doctrines and habitually substitutes his private judgment over that of the Church’s. The verse in 2 Pet 1:20 is commonly misinterpreted contextually by limiting the warning therein to biblical prophecies only (Of course, Matt 16:18 is also a prophecy about the establishment of the Church and her authority on earth). The demarcation of chapters and verses in the bible was a fairly late invention. The warning in 2 Pet 1:20 is explained immediately following it in chapter 2. We read:

    “But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their licentiousness, and because of them the way of truth will be reviled” (2 Pet 2:1-2).

    The standard is then not for private individuals to bring out their bibles and compare verses. It’s that they have to obey the biblical prescription of bringing internal disputes to the Church as the final arbiter (Matt 18:16). The bible may be “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” but it is the Church which is called “the pillar and foundation of truth” (1 Tim 3:15). I don’t see anywhere in the bible which substitutes this authority of the Church with academia (bible commentaries, learned seminary professors) or by the act of polling opinions through a democratic process, and certainly not by the private interpretation of the modern factious corinthianized Christians. I do see however even the great St. Paul would go down to see Cephas to insure that his teachings are in line with orthodoxy “lest somehow I should be running, or had run in vain’ (Gal 2::1-2). The perplexing question is how to find “Cephas” and the authority of the NT Church today?

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