How To Read The Bible | Peter Kreeft | How To Read The Bible | Peter Kreeft | An Excerpt from You Can Understand The Bible: A Practical and Illuminating Guide to Each Book in The Bible

There are thousands of books about The Book. Why another one?

This Book itself says, "Of making of many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh" (Eccles 12:12). (This is the favorite Bible verse of lazy students.) How is this book different?

First, it is for beginners. It is needed because biblical literacy is declining in Western civilization, as is literacy in general.

Second, it is especially (but not exclusively) for Catholics. Ironically, biblical literacy has declined among Catholics too since Vatican II, even though that Council strongly called for a renewal of it. A book like this on Bible basics would have been superfluous fifty years ago.

Third, it is short and simple. Each chapter can be read over a cup of coffee and a doughnut. It is not full of the latest theories in professional biblical scholarship. I am not a professional Bible scholar, but a teacher and an amateur. (Amateur means "lover".)

It is also designed to be practical. It is not a short-cut to reading the Bible itself. It is like a lab manual rather than a textbook. (So is the Bible itself its Author intends reading and thinking to be preliminary to doing: see Mt 7:24-29.)


Reading the Bible should be a form of prayer. The Bible should be read in God's presence and as the unfolding of His mind. It is not just a book, but God's love letter to you. It is God's revelation, God's mind, operating through your mind and your reading, so your reading is your response to His mind and will. Reading it is aligning your mind and will with God's; therefore it is a fulfillment of the prayer "Thy will be done", which is the most basic and essential key to achieving our whole purpose on earth: holiness and happiness. I challenge each reader to give a good excuse (to God, not to me, or even just to yourself) for not putting aside fifteen minutes a day to use this fundamental aid to fulfilling the meaning of your life.

Both prayer and Bible reading are ways of listening to God. They should blend: our prayer should be biblical and our Bible reading prayerful.

In Catholic theology, the Bible is sacramental: it is a sign that is an occasion for grace. The Bible fits the two classic definitions of a sacrament: (I) a visible sign instituted by Christ to give grace and (2) a sign that effects what it signifies. However, unlike the seven sacraments, it does not work ex opere operato; it does not give grace by itself, but is dependent on our use of it.

How do you get grace? The same way you get wet. You don't make the rain, and you don't make God's grace. But to get grace you have to go outside yourself, you have to go where God is, just as you have to go outside to get rained on. If you stand in the street, you'll get hit by a car. If you stand in the Bible, you'll get hit by God's kiss. The Bible is a big sprig of His mistletoe.

Though it is not a sacrament, it has power. Its power comes from two wills, God's and ours. It is the Spirit's sword (Eph 6:17) that cuts our very being apart (Heb 4:12), though we must give it an opening by exposing our minds and hearts and wills to its cutting edge. When we do that, God's Kingdom comes to earth. For it first comes to that tiny but crucially important bit of earth that is your mind and will. Then it transforms your life, which your mind and will control. Then, through your life, your world.

What strange kind of a book is this, anyway?

The word Bible means "book" (singular). But the Bible is in fact seventy-two different books (sixty-six in the Protestant canon) from many different authors and times and in many different literary styles and forms: history, poetry, prophecy, drama, philosophy, letters, visions, practical advice, songs, laws, and much more. This is not a book, this is a world.

Yet there is a unity in this diversity. Most essentially the Bible is a story. Unlike the holy books of other religions, the Bible's basic line is a story line. It narrates real events that really happened to real people in real history. G. K. Chesterton said, "There are only two things that never get boring: stories and persons." The persons involved here include the three most important Persons of all: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The Bible is "stories of God". But it is also stories about us, about our relationships with God and each other. (The word religion, from the Latin religare, means essentially "binding relationship".) The horizontal (man-to-man) and vertical (man-to-God) relationships meet here and form a cross.

But there are many kinds of stories: war stories, love stories, detective stories, and many more. What kind of story is this? It tells us what kind of story we are in; that is how it tells us the meaning of our lives.

It is a love story, because it is history, and history is "His story", and He is love. Love is God's plan and purpose in all that He does.

The story unfolds in three acts, which theologians call creation, fall, and redemption. Every story ever told fits this pattern, because this is the basic pattern of all human history.

We could call the three stages setup, upset, and reset. First a situation is set up; then it is somehow upset by a problem or conflict or challenge; and then it is reset, when the challenge is confronted, either successfully or unsuccessfully. Paradise, Paradise Lost, and Paradise Regained are the three acts of the cosmic human drama, and we are now in the third act, which began as early as the third chapter of Genesis, when God began to "redeem", or buy back, fallen mankind.

This third act, in turn, has three scenes. First, God reveals Himself as Father, in the Old Testament; then'. as Jesus the Son in the Gospels; finally, He sends the Holy Spirit to be the soul of His Church for the rest of time.

The books of both Old and New Testaments are divided into three main categories: history, wisdom, and prophecy. Thus the Bible encompasses past, present, and future. But its history books are more than records of the past; they tell us truths that are just as true and operative for the present. And its wisdom books tell timeless truths that are not just for the present time but for all times. Finally, its prophets do not merely foretell the future, but "forth-tell" God's truth for all times. The whole Bible is God's permanent prophet continually telling forth the truths we need to know to guide our road on earth to a happy eternity.


There are two fundamentally different ways of reading the Bible: as God's Word to man or as man's word about God; as divine revelation or as human speculation; as God's certain "way down" to us or as our groping and uncertain "way up" to Him. It claims to be the first of those two things: divine revelation, "the Word of God". But it is the Word of God in the words of men. For God is a good teacher and therefore gives us not only everything that we need but also only what we can take. He reveals Himself more and more, progressively, as we progress through our story. Stories are not static. At first, it is simple, even simplistic and crude–"baby talk", if you will. But it is true, even perfect, baby talk. We should expect the Old Testament to be more primitive than the New, but no less true. For instance, good and evil are revealed first primarily as justice and injustice, right and wrong; then, gradually, the primacy of charity is revealed. For a charity that has not first learned Justice is only sentiment.


The Bible claims to give us four things that we need and want most, four things God has to give us: truth, power, life, and joy.

First, the Bible claims to give us truth–truth about God that we could not have discovered by ourselves (and also truth about ourselves that we could not have discovered by ourselves).

But what kind of truth? Not just abstract correctness but something more solid, the kind of truth that we say is "tried and true" (see Ps 12:6), the kind that is "made true" or performed (see Ezek 12:25), the kind that "comes true" as the fulfillment of promises (see Mt 5:17-18). This is the kind of truth we find in a person, not just in an idea–in a person who is totally faithful to his word. God is that Person, and the Hebrew word for that kind of truth is emeth. If you let this Book speak to you, you will find that it shows you the true character of God and of yourself. It is a mirror.

Second, the Bible claims to have power. It uses images like a hammer and fire (Jer 23:29) for itself It calls itself "the sword of the Spirit" (Eph 6: 17).

But what kind of power is this? It is not physical power but spiritual power, which is infinitely greater, for it is the power to change spirit, not just matter, power over free hearts and minds, which the Chinese call te. It is the power of goodness, and of love, and even of physical weakness and suffering and sacrifice.

Third, the Bible claims to give life. Jesus calls it a seed (Lk 8): a living, growing thing. Hebrews 4: 12 says that "the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit ... discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart." Physical swords only give death; this gives life. Physical swords only cut bodies; this cuts open souls and heals them. For a sword, though in itself a dead thing, can come alive in the hands of a swordsman; and this is "the sword of the Spirit". What happened in Ezekiel 37, when the dry bones came to life, can also happen to you as you read this Book, if you let it–that is, if you read it prayerfully, in the presence of God, talking to Him as you read it. For this is no trick or gimmick of human imagination; He is really there! And "He is not the God of the dead but of the living" (Mt 22:32).

But what kind of life is this? It is spiritual life, eternal life, supernatural life, a sharing, by grace, in the very life of God (see I Pet 1:4). The Greek word for this in the New Testament is zoe. When you read the Bible, beware: it will do things to you. For when you read it, it is reading you. Its Author is reading you, from within. It is like looking into a mirror and seeing another face there looking at you. Or like sitting on a rock that suddenly moves and turns out to be a large and alarming animal. "Look out! It's alive!" Bibles should come with warning labels.

Fourth, the Bible claims to give joy. The Psalms are chockfull of expressions of joy in God's Word (e.g., 1:2, 19:8, 1 19: 97, 119:103). Jeremiah says to God, "Thy words became to me a joy" (15:16).

But what kind of Joy is this? It is the joy that does not depend on anything earthly, anything in this world; the joy that is apparently without a cause, because its cause is bigger than the universe: it is God's love. This Book is a love letter from God with your name on it. God doesn't send junk mail or spam. He says, "I have called you by name, you are Mine" (Is 43: 1). The words I love you are magic words: they change us, they bring wonder and inner surprise, they bring us the greatest joy our lives can contain on earth. How much more when we hear them from our Creator!


The Bible calls itself "the Word of God". But it points beyond itself to the "Word of God", Jesus Christ. Every word in this book is part of His portrait. The words man can utter are not alive, but the Word God utters eternally is not only alive but divine. He calls Himself "the Son of God". Meeting Him is the point of the whole Bible (see Jn 5:3 9) and the whole point of our lives.


Here are ten tips for reading the Bible profitably.

1. At first, forget commentaries and books that try to tell you what the Bible means. Read the Bible itself Get it "straight from the horse's mouth". Data first. The Bible is the most interesting book ever written, but some of the books about it are among the dullest.

2. Read repeatedly. You can never exhaust the riches in this deep mine. The greatest saints, sages, theologians, and philosophers have not exhausted its gold; you won't either.

3. First read through a book quickly, to get an overall idea; then go back and reread more slowly and carefully. Don't rush. Forget time. Relish. Ponder. Meditate. Think. Question. Sink slowly into the spiritual sea and swim in it. Soul-surf its waves.

4. Try to read without prejudice. Let the author speak to you. Don't impose your ideas on the book. Listen first before you talk back.

5. Once you have listened, do talk back. Dialogue with the Author as if He were standing right in front of you–because He is! Ask Him questions and go to His Book to see how He answers. God is a good teacher, and a good teacher wants his students to ask questions.

6. Don't confuse understanding with evaluating. That is, don't confuse interpretation with critique. First understand, then evaluate. This sounds simple, but it is harder to do than you probably think. For instance, many readers interpret the Bible's miracle stories as myths because they don't believe in miracles. But that is simply bad interpretation. Whether or not miracles really happened, the first question is what was the author trying to say. Was he telling a parable, fable, or myth? Or was he telling a story that he claimed really happened? Whether you agree with him or not is the second question, not the first. Keep first things first. Don't say "I don't believe Jesus literally rose from the dead, therefore I interpret the Resurrection as a myth." The Gospel writers did not mean to write myth but fact. If the Resurrection didn't happen, it is not a myth. It is a lie. And if it did happen, it is not a myth. It is a fact.

7. Keep in mind these four questions, then, and ask them in this order: First, what does the passage say? That is the data. Second, what does it mean? What did the author mean? That is the interpretation. Third, is it true? That is the question of belief. Fourth, so what? What difference does it make to me, to my life now? That is the question of application.

8. Look for "the big picture", the main point. Don't lose the forest for the trees. Don't get hung up on a few specific points or passages. Interpret each passage in its context, including the context of the whole Bible.

9. After you have read a passage, go back and analyze it. Outline it. Define it. Get it clear. Don't be satisfied with a nice, vague feeling. Find the thought, and the structures of thought.

10. Be honest–in reading any book, but especially this one, because of its total claims on you. There is only one honest reason for believing the Bible: because it is true, not because it is helpful, or beautiful, or comforting, or challenging, or useful, or even good. If it's not true, no honest person should believe it, even if it were all those other things. And if it is, every honest person should, even if it weren't. Seek the truth and you will find it. That's a promise (see Mt 7:7).

Peter Kreeft, Ph.D., is a professor of philosophy at Boston College. He is an alumnus of Calvin College (AB 1959) and Fordham University (MA 1961, Ph.D., 1965). He taught at Villanova University from 1962-1965, and has been at Boston College since 1965.

He is the author of numerous books (over forty and counting) including: C.S. Lewis for the Third Millennium, Fundamentals of the Faith, Catholic Christianity, Back to Virtue, and Three Approaches to Abortion. In addition to You Can Understand the Bible, his most recent Ignatius Press books include Socrates Meets Sartre and The God Who Loves You.

Dr. Kreeft's personal web site | Dr. Kreeft's author page at, with full listing of books in print

If you'd like to receive the FREE e-letter (about every 1 to 2 weeks), which includes regular updates about articles, reviews, excerpts, and author appearances, please click here to sign-up today!