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Come Reason's Apologetics Notes blog will highlight various news stories or current events and seek to explore them from a thoughtful Christian perspective. Less formal and shorter than the www.comereason.org Web site articles, we hope to give readers points to reflect on concerning topics of the day.

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Tuesday, January 07, 2014

My Concern with One-Year Bible Plans

The New Year has descended upon us and many people have resolved to improve themselves in different ways. People are starting exercise regimens, cleaning out their desks, and hiding their credit cards (because cutting them up would be, well, a little too permanent!) Nicotine patches and diet books are flying off the shelves. I applaud the desire of people who want to better themselves. I know of many Christians who also desire to become more intimate with the scriptures and so they set themselves to read through the entire Bible. Some of them adopt various read-through-the Bible-in-a-year plans.



I think a more intimate knowledge of God's word is a very laudable goal. However, I have some concerns in the way the one-year bible reading programs are laid out. In fact, I think that many of the programs may actually hinder the goal of knowing the scriptures better. Here are my top three concerns:

1. One-Year Reading Plans Impose Artificial Breaks on the Text

There are several different ways the Bible is laid out by one-year plans. The oldest is to provide a section of the Old Testament, a section of the New Testament, a portion of Psalms and a portion of Proverbs. But this is a terrible way to read the Bible! The books of the Bible are written as just that, books that have a central purpose carried throughout. For example, January 7ths New Testament reading presents Matthew 6, but stops ten verses short. Those ten verses are the completion of the thought of Matthew 6. Jesus says in Matt. 6:25, "That is why I tell you not to worry about everyday life" easily showing that verse 25 and following are connected to verse 24. By dividing the text up this way it become harder, not easier, to see what the author's intent and overall message really is.

Other plans, such as beginning-to-end plans or chronological versions are better, as you are at least not reading only a portion of a psalm. But because most of these plans are designed to fit within a specific time period, such as 15 minutes a day, they will still be forced to break the narrative. The books in the Bible were written to be taken as a whole. The New Testament epistles were initially letters to specific audiences. Would you ever read bits of a letter every day for a week and then writing a reply to your correspondent? You would want to read the entire letter so you would have the proper context to form a proper understanding.

2. One-Year Reading Plans Creates the Illusion of Verse Independence

One of the classic ways the Mormons or Jehovah's Witnesses twist scripture is to take certain verses that by themselves seem to support their teaching and use them as proof, ignoring the larger context of the entire text. For example, the Jehovah's Witnesses will use Romans 10:9 to show that Jesus is not God. However, in the verses immediately following, Paul tells us that Jesus is "Lord of all" people, Jewish and Gentile, and he quotes Joel 2:32 to say "Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved" (Romans 10:13). Interestingly, that Joel passage uses the divine name of God, YHWH, where Paul writes Lord. This clearly equates Jesus as YHWH.

While Christians will rightly decry the JW twisting of scriptures such as these, the church has become complicit in such abuses by elevating Bible verses over Bible books. We take simple, quotable lines out of their context and use them in ways the writer never intended.

Unfortunately, by presenting the biblical texts as bits, the idea of the verse above the book is elevated. For example, we read about the feeding of the 5,000 in Matthew and we think it is only about what little thing can we bring to Jesus that He could multiply. However, if we were to read the full context of Matthew, we can see how he portrays Jesus as fulfilling Israel's mission: Jesus was "called out of Egypt" (Mat. 2:14), He wandered in the wilderness (Mat. 4:1-10), He delivers the law of God on the mountain (Mat. 5-7), and He relies on God to provide for Him and His flock as the feeding of the 5,000 demonstrates. This picture is hard to see with daily readings but reading Matthew as a whole will show it more easily.

3. One-Year Reading Plans Create Misplaced Goals

A last concern I have over one-year plans is I think it subtly shifts the goal of bible reading itself. As I mentioned at the top of this article, I believe that many people begin such a regimen in order to become more intimate with all of scripture. However, I know when I had previously attempted such a plan things began to get difficult after mid-February. Until then, the Old Testament stories are fairly familiar. One can suffer through a genealogy or two, but Abraham offering Isaac or the plagues of Egypt bring us right back to Cecil B. DeMille familiarity. When the reader hits Leviticus, though, it becomes tough sledding! All of a sudden my intent shifts from understanding the context of the passage to simply getting through it. My goals changed. I was only looking for checking off the box that I did my reading today, not necessarily on what part the passage plays in telling God's story, it essentially defeated the purpose for which I started reading-to become more intimate with the scriptures!
Please note that I'm not saying there is no benefit to one-year plans. Neither am I saying that everyone who engages in the Bible this way will fall into these traps. I'm only expressing my concern that structuring one's reading in this way makes doing so easier and may hinder the primary goal of true knowledge of the Bible.

Instead, I want to pass along a recommendation that was given by Dr. Walt Russell in his book Playing With Fire: How the Bible Ignites Change in Your Soul. Dr. Russell is a bible scholar and he recommends creating a reading plan where you focus on one book each month. Start off with a gospel account, or even a short epistle such as Galatians. Once you've chosen your book, you should read it every day. At first, don't stop for the parts you don't have a full grasp of; simply read it as a complete work. After the second week or so, you will begin to notice refrains in the text—ideas that are repeated or reinforced. You can begin to see the work as a single message and then you can go deeper with a commentary or bible helps.

The goal is to master one book per month. On the next month, select another. One you get used to this approach you will find that it really doesn't take an incredible amount of time to read through a book (Galatians can be read in 20 minutes or so.) But you will be going deeper and truly understanding the scripture as God intended.

I'm indebted to Dr. Russell and his teaching in enlightening me with this approach. I think it will provide a very different experience for you. Read Playing with Fire and see how you can ignite change in your soul!

3 comments:

  1. I have been reading the bible in a year which has benefited me greatly. I use the Harvest 1 year planner which goes through the Old testament (usually 2-3 chapters) and 1 chapter of the New Testament. I do not use the Psalms & Proverbs one because I feel it breaks up the thought pattern too much. However, I have taken each days reading and applied it inductively and I love it! It has changed my life. I get a great understanding of the text in a full bodied form and sometimes the Old Testament reading will somehow correlate to the New Testament reading. That of course is from the Holy Spirit. I have more time to sit and meditate on it than most people, so for me it has been a big blessing. I can understand your point but not for everyone. Everything can have pros and cons depending on the application. It all comes down to the heart and how God speaks to us in our daily reading whether it be a 1 year bible reading, or a daily devotional, or maybe even a verse from a children's bible story. The point is that we are practicing God's Word in our life and responding to it. However,I do believe that every Christian should read the bible through in it's entirety in order to better understand the whole meaning from beginning to end. For me, that changed my life as a Christian, because for years I was only reading portions and didn't get the full picture. If it takes 3 or more years to read it through, so be it... as long as you are reading it from beginning to end. How can we truly understand God's Word if we are not seeking it to the fullest? The Old Testament is very important to lead us into the New Testament of grace. You should not avoid it, every believer should know it. I am amazed on how God continues to reveal Himself through His Word every time I read the bible over each year. Just my thoughts...

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  2. Hey Jen!

    I'm glad to hear that your reading has helped you. I think that beginning-to-end Bible reading plans are the best of the lot because they don't break up the pattern as much. My goal in writing the article is to challenge people to go deep and not simply wide with their devotional time. But a lot of people will give up their plans if they slip too far behind "the schedule." Or they feel they must conquer the plan instead of lingering and meditating. As you said, there's nothing wrong with taking three or more years instead of just one. The suggestion I'm presenting hopefully avoids both of those dangers.

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  3. I came looking for an article like this because I was getting into a rot. I was beginning to read the plan just to be able to check the boxes and to show some form of achievement. I have stopped meditating on the words and began to ask myself what is really important. Unfortunately there are few articles like this online and I wish I had read this before I started. Thank you for sharing and I am going to change from this moment even if the plan takes longer to complete (It has already taken more than a year anyway). Meditating on the words should be priority and I am sure there are many like me in this situation.

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