In an interview with DesiringGod, Glenn Paauw, the Executive Director of the Biblica Institute for Bible Reading and author of Saving the Bible from Ourselves: Learning to Read and Live the Bible Well, shared how “Bible clutter” can provide a framework that warps how we engage with Scripture. (“Bible clutter” refers to anything added to Scripture including chapter and verse numbers, study notes, cross-references, concordances, etc.)
The interview overlapped so much with the “Text and Framework” hermeneutical principle that we are compelled to share the interview mp3 and our notes below.
Unintended consequences from “Bible Clutter”:
- Chapter numbers (added in the early 1200s by Steven Langdon, a church leader in England) and verse numbers (added in the 1500s by Robert Essien, a Frenchman working on a Bible concordance) can cause Bible readers to see books as fragmented collections of verses rather than an entire book.
- Concordances, while being great reference tools, can change the way people interact with the text and hurt the plain reading of Scripture by neglecting the immediate or whole-book context of a passage.
- While cross-references are helpful, they might prevent a reader from focusing on the text in front of them and wrestling with meaning. Again, what is primarily lost is a sense of context—something vital for faithful interpretation.
- Many modern Bibles are designed for people who aren’t readers and who may not be very biblically literate. This pushes Bible publishers to make Bibles with help, notes, and highlights because that is what buyers want.
- While we may boast confidence in Scripture, our true confidence might rather lie in a certain study Bible we align with theologically more than Scripture itself. Many feel Bible reading needs ‘guide rails’ to keep people from falling off of the theological cliff.
- A temptation of using Study Bibles is engaging with study notes more than Scripture itself. Research on Study Bibles proves this is the case for many.
- All of the colors and special designs common in many Bibles today (study notes, graphics, special sections, etc.) can draw people’s attention more than Scripture, which is generally left untouched.
- We want to read Scripture and apply it to our lives fast. Our desire for quick application can short-circuit the study process by jumping to application to early or buying a study Bible that will apply it for us.
Two flawed approaches to engaging Scripture:
1. Seeing Scripture as a collection of inspirational quotations.
Many who do this take favorite verses like Philippians 4:13 and Jeremiah 29:11 out of context and virtually ignore most other passages of Scripture. This greatly misrepresents what the Bible is and deforms us spiritually just like a pure cotton candy diet would. (Interviewer Tony Reinke deems these using verses in this way as “Scripture McNuggets.”)
2. Seeing Scripture as a self-help manual.
Some want to gather all of the Bible verses on a certain topic and create messages from those verses. This also strips verses of their context and fails to take Biblical Theology into account. Biblical theological themes develop throughout the Scriptures in various genres, and, as Paauw reminds, some accounts are not to be taken prescriptively but rather descriptively. (For example, Paauw says we wouldn’t build a doctrine of marriage on the example of patriarchs.)
A Better Comparison
A better comparison for the Bible is “the collected papers of the American Antislavery Society” because,
“the Bible is a collection of different kinds of writings, each of which exist in its own context, its own literary form, and they have to be taken as this kind of a collection. It is true that the collection of the Bible comes together to tell this amazing, redemptive, restorative narrative of what Jesus the Messiah has done. But the books themselves are the core units. The Bible is the collection of those things. It is not a collection of verses, so not a collection of little how-to passages. Again, it is a matter of receiving the Bible on its own terms, receiving the Bible in the form that God actually chose to give it to us. That, I think, is something that our modern format tempts us to move away from.”
How can we fight against “Bible clutter”?
“The first and the primary and the most natural thing to do with the Bible is to read individual books at length in their own terms. So understanding the kind of literature it is, who was the author, who were they writing to, what was the issue, those kinds of things are necessary.”
“We need to make sure we are always ready to listen to the text first…[not] our material [or thinking], which is not inspired… A real high view of Scripture says: Let the text be the text, and always seek to let it speak to me, even on things where I think I might have my mind settled… But we need to always be willing to say: What does the Word of God say? Not: What have I always said that the Word of God says?”
The true spiritual riches are found in engaging God’s Word directly, not going through another’s explanation of God’s Word.