What is the best way to learn the Bible? What gives the best bang for the buck? If you are going to engage in some type of Bible reading or study in the coming twelve months, what approach is most likely to yield the best results? I first became self-consciously interested in such questions during college. At that time I was being trained in the inductive Bible study method and taught to have a daily quiet time. The QT tended to emphasize a subjective response to God’s word, while the inductive study focused on learning God’s word.
Within a couple years, however, I found that if I simply read the Bible, using any time that I might have previously used for in depth study to read yet more, I learned far more and I learned it more quickly. I discovered that as I read the whole of the Bible, challenging passages gradually became less daunting. Paradoxically, I discovered that what I had previously considered a simplistic reading of the text led to a deeper understanding than my in depth Bible studying was able to yield.
That college experience no longer surprises me, though I think it runs contrary to the expectations of many evangelicals. Put most simply, I had discovered that the Bible is a book and that it was most fruitful to approach it as a wonderful piece of literature, replete with themes and plots that were carried through from one end to the other. Overlooked by many well-intentioned Bible study methodologies aimed at basic discipleship, the implications of God having given us a book, a unified piece of literature, are fairly straight-forward and known by almost any literate person. Books are meant to be read. They can also be studied, and such study can be tremendously fruitful, but the basis is a familiarity with the text. No literate person would expect to study in detail only the middle chapter in the most simplistic, plot-driven novel and gain much insight.
Familiarity with the Bible takes time. It is not simply a novel with a linear plot and simple characterizations. It is literature that builds words into larger structures that span the text. Thus, it takes a fair amount of broad reading to gain that familiarity that would normally be considered a precursor to in depth study. That is the source of the paradox. Normally, broad is associated with shallow, while narrow is associated with deep. When the subject matter is a fairly long piece of literature, quite the opposite can prove true. Diving deep without the knowledge to understand the themes and structures being displayed in a slice of the text will usually yield rather shallow and possibly misleading insights. Reading broadly (i.e. reading the whole Bible over and over) allows one to accumulate the knowledge needed to understand what a particular passage is communicating, thus yielding what would typically be considered deeper knowledge.