How to Study the Bible Like an Atheist

by Bryan Bergman

I watched as two of my friends gobbled up pancake after pancake. All around there was an even mix of disgusted glances and loud cheering. It was a youth camp after all, and it wouldn’t have been complete without at least one display of gluttonous debauchery.

After my less-than-peaceful breakfast, I headed to the meeting room for our morning session. We sang worship with our best morning voices a while before sitting down to hear the lesson. S. O. A. P., that was the key. We were taught the recipe for successful “quiet times.” First is Scripture: read any passage of the Bible. Then Observation: write in your journal any verses that struck you. Next comes Application: ask how you can apply those verses to your life today. And finally, Prayer: write a prayer about what you just read and ask God to help you apply it to your life.

Original Meaning and Christian Meaning

If you are like many Evangelicals today, your relationship with the Bible probably looks similar to the S. O. A. P. method. Whether things are written down or not, there is an expectation that God will speak through scripture in a way that is relevant to your present situation. But even if this were the perfect way to approach the Bible for the believing community, it would still be of no help in understanding what the Bible’s authors and editors meant to communicate. There is a difference between a text’s original meaning and its meaning for Christians.

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If the Protestant canon of scripture is authoritative and divinely inspired, then its original meaning might not be as important for Protestants as its canonical meaning.1   But we can’t have much productive dialogue about the Bible with nonbelievers if we continually appeal to divine inspiration. A text’s meaning for Christians may have value, but we cannot escape the importance of discovering a text’s original meaning. We will need something more than S. O. A. P. to help with this task.

Like an Atheist

To understand the original intended meaning of a passage, we must learn to study the Bible like an atheist. The atheist Bible scholar (there are more than you might think) does not look at the text through a religious lens. Sure, he might have anti-supernatural biases, but his goal is to objectively reconstruct the historical situation behind the text (e.g. what the Gospel-writers wanted to communicate about Jesus). This approach is called Biblical criticism.

The word “criticism” might sound threatening to Bible-believing Christians. How dare we “criticize” the Word of God? But this kind of criticism is not accusation. Rather, it is an attempt to make informed judgments about the text by analysing it from an objective standpoint…

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