Posted by: chuckbumgardner | June 14, 2012

False Dichotomy in Reading Scripture

I buzzed through Piper/Carson, The Pastor as Scholar and the Scholar as Pastor (Crossway, 2011), and among other Carsonian gems, appreciated the following:

Fight with every fiber of your being the common disjunction between “objective study” of Scripture and “devotional reading” of Scripture, between “critical reading” of the Bible and “devotional reading” of the Bible. The place where this tension first becomes a problem is usually at seminary. Students enter with the habit of reading the Bible “devotionally” (as they see it). They enjoy reading the Bible, they feel warm and reverent as they do so, they encounter God through its pages, some have memorized many verses and some chapters, and so forth. Seminary soon teaches them the rudiments of Greek and Hebrew, principles of exegesis, hermeneutical reflection, something about textual variants, distinctions grounded in different literary genres, and more. In consequence, students learn to read the Bible “critically” or “objectively” for their assignments but still want to read the Bible “devotionally” in their quiet times.

Every year a handful of students end up at the door of assorted lecturers and professors asking how to handle this tension. They find themselves trying to have their devotions, only to be harassed by intruding thoughts about textual variants. How should one keep such polarized forms of reading the Bible apart? This polarization, this disjunction, kept unchecked, may then characterize or even harass the biblical scholar for the rest of his or her life. That scholar may try to write a commentary on, say, Galatians, where at least part of the aim is to master the text, while preserving time for daily devotional reading.

My response, forcefully put, is to resist this disjunction, to eschew it, to do everything in your power to destroy it. Scripture remains Scripture, it is still the Word of God before which (as Isaiah reminds us) we are to tremble—the very words we are to revere, treasure, digest, meditate on, and hide in our hearts (minds?), whether we are reading the Bible at 5:30 am at the start of a day, or preparing an assignment for an exegesis class at 10:00 pm. If we try to keep apart these alleged two ways of reading, then we will be irritated and troubled when our “devotions” are interrupted by a sudden stray reflection about a textual variant or the precise force of a Greek genitive; alternatively, we may be taken off guard when we are supposed to be preparing a paper or a sermon and suddenly find ourselves distracted by a glimpse of God’s greatness that is supposed to be reserved for our “devotions.” So when you read “devotionally,” keep your mind engaged; when you read “critically” (i.e., with more diligent and focused study, deploying a panoply of “tools”), never, ever, forget whose Word this is. The aim is never to become a master of the Word, but to be mastered by it.

John Piper and D. A. Carson, The Pastor as Scholar and the Scholar as Pastor: Reflections on Life and Ministry (Crossway, 2011), 90-91.

I couldn’t help but bring to mind an observation by C. S. Lewis in the same vein:

For my own part, I tend to find the doctrinal books often more helpful in devotion than the devotional books, and I rather suspect that the same experience may await many others.  I believe that many who find that ‘nothing happens’ when they sit down, or kneel down, to a book of devotion, would find that the heart sings unbidden while they are working their way through a tough bit of theology with a pipe in their teeth and a pencil in their hands.

C. S. Lewis, “On the Reading of Old Books,” in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, ed. Walter Hooper (Eerdmans, 1970), 205.



  1. And in this same vein, I just read the following in an essay by Kevin Bauder in a new publication by my alma mater Central Seminary.

    “Too often, we draw a distinction between reading the Bible for study and reading the Bible for devotion. We read it for exegetical purposes, then we throw the switch and read it for edification. Another flip of the switch and we are studying for sermon preparation, but then we switch again and find ourselves in meditation mode.
    “This switching back and forth produces two problems. The first is a propensity to read the Bible academically without reading it devotionally. The toughest exegetical work should nevertheless yield fruit in our walk with God. The second problem is that if we keep flipping that switch, sooner or later it will get stuck, and it usually gets stuck in intellectual mode. When we accustom ourselves to reading the Bible for information only, we soon lose sight of the God whose communion we ought to crave.”

    Heart, Soul, Might, ed. Kevin T. Bauder (Central Seminary Publications, 2012), 8.

    (Download the entire publication at,%20Soul,%20Might.pdf )

  2. […] contribution was less autobiographical and, I think, more helpful overall (particularly this point).  I would have profited from reading this before I hit […]

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