What I Learned by Reading the Bible from Cover to Cover
By Eric Stetson — April 2006
(Note: This is an abridged version of an article originally published in The Christian Universalist Connection newsletter.)
During the month of March, I read the entire Bible, all 66 books of the standard Protestant canon. It took me nearly four weeks to finish, reading several hours per day, every day. I chose to read the HarperCollins Study Bible, New Revised Standard Version, which is an excellent academic version with detailed notes. It was the Bible I used in college, when I majored in religious studies and philosophy at the University of Virginia.
The purpose of my intense, comprehensive Bible study was as preparation for a book I am writing about Christian Universalism. Although I have done much Bible reading in the past, I have never read the whole thing from cover to cover as one would read a normal book — rapidly and without skipping around or ignoring the boring or difficult parts — and I wanted to do this to get a different view of the Judeo-Christian scriptures and see what I might learn from such an exercise. Now that I’ve done it, I must say that going through it all in a few weeks from start to finish is definitely not the same as reading the Bible piecemeal, studying individual books or sections.
While reading, I filled up pages of a notebook with verses worth remembering and thoughts I had. After some further reflection, here are some important things I learned:
1. There is an overall theme of the Bible. It is the idea that man falls, God judges, and then God restores. This is repeated over and over again in Biblical stories and teachings. Actually, the Bible itself embodies this theme: Genesis tells of the fall of man in the beginning, and Revelation contains a prophecy of ultimate restoration in the fullness of time — and many of the books in between describe specific examples of divine judgment and punishment for disobedience, especially in the context of Israel, God’s chosen people who represent humanity as a whole and each individual.
The basic pattern of our relationship with God is well described by the Bible, which promises that after a fall and judgment comes restoration as the goal of God’s plan in all instances. Even Sodom, the archetypal example of people who were utterly fallen into sin and totally destroyed by the fiery wrath of God, is prophesied to have its fortunes restored one day (Ezek. 16:53), because God’s mercy is truly limitless. …
2. The Bible contains diverse views and ideas. Individual authors of Biblical books do not all agree with one another about how to understand Judaism and Christianity. If we were to put them all into a room together, many of them would probably be yelling at each other and calling each other heretics!
In the Old Testament, some writers promote animal sacrifices and Temple worship, while others criticize these things. In the New Testament, one version of Christianity is put forward in the Pauline epistles, and another version in the Book of James. The Gospel of John is very different from the Synoptic Gospels, and even among those three, there are significant differences in the portrayal of Jesus’ message. I especially noticed a strong Jewish slant in Matthew. The nature of the afterlife is a key question on which various books of the Bible do not agree, which has led to much ongoing debate.
I have never been a proponent of “Biblical inerrancy.” My recent study confirmed my belief that the Bible is a book containing much divine revelation — some of which is stunning in its beauty and power — but that it also contains much human opinion of its authors and editors. This strengthens my view that Christians should focus on the basic teachings of the Gospel that unite us and are truly essential, rather than detailed doctrines and creeds.
3. What is “right” and “true” changes over time. The Bible shows a progressive revelation by God and changing comprehension by man. In fact, I would say that the Bible showcases the grand sweep of history of civilization through a religious prism, starting with primitive patriarchal culture and then following the Hebrew people through phases of development, culminating in the revelation of Jesus Christ and mission of the universal church.
In the Torah, we see God leading Abraham into monotheism, the first major stage of religious progress. Then we see God giving Israel the Law. Then the creation of the monarchy and a nation-state. Meanwhile, the further evolution of Judaism beyond merely law, king, and temple into deeper spiritual concerns, as exemplified by some Old Testament prophets and writings. Ultimately, with the coming of Jesus and the apostles, legalism and nationalism are rejected as things of the past, to be replaced by new understandings of truth and righteousness. Simple monotheism is transcended with the concept of divine incarnation and an emphasis on the Holy Spirit.
What really struck me was the way that in each era or dispensation in the Bible, its authors thought their truth was the truth, never to be changed. But then later on, God brought new ideas that made many of the old ones obsolete. We Christians need to learn from this pattern and not make the same mistake of assuming that all of our current “truths” will always stand and God has nothing more to reveal to the world. Knowing as we do that the Holy Spirit will continue to lead us into greater truths, as Jesus promised (Jn. 16:12-13), we should not make the Bible into a prison restricting future growth and understanding.