Unfiltered Fridays: Bible Reading and Bible Memorization Are Not Bible Study

Let’s get the obvious out of the way. You should read your Bible. You should also commit Scripture to memory. Both spiritual disciplines are axiomatic for Christians. But neither is Bible study. I’ll explain what I mean by taking one at a time.

Reading Is Casual; Study Isn’t

Reading the Bible is not where your engagement with the Bible ends. It’s where it begins, or at least ought to. But over the course of my teaching career I’ve been dragged kicking and screaming to the realization that many Christians think the act of reading Scripture is to be equated with study. That simply isn’t the case.

Reading is casual, something done for pleasure. The motivation is personal enjoyment or enrichment, not mastery of the content. We read Scripture to be reminded of God’s story in human history and the life lessons that story provides for our own lives and relationship with God. Bible reading is inherently devotional and low maintenance.

Bible study, on the other hand, involves concentration and exertion. We have an intuitive sense that study requires some sort of method or technique, and probably certain types of tools or aids. When we study the Bible we’re asking questions, thinking about context, forming judgments, and looking for more information.

It’s not hard to illustrate the difference. Practically anyone could manage to make a cup of coffee, but they’re not baristas. We know instinctively that both perform the same basic task, but what distinguishes the barista is a lot of time, effort, research, and experience in learned technique. It’s the same with Bible study.

Let’s say you and your friend were from the moon and didn’t know what coffee was. You’re only mildly interested in the topic, so you decide to look it up in a dictionary. You read that coffee is “a popular beverage made from the roasted and pulverized seeds of a coffee plant.” Good enough. You learned something. But your friend wants to know more—a lot more. How is coffee made? What’s the process? Is there more than one process? Is there more than one kind of coffee bean? Where are the beans grown? Does that make any difference in color, aroma, or flavor? How is coffee different than tea? If it’s a popular beverage, how much is consumed? Does consumption vary by country? State? Gender? Age? IQ?

Maybe your friend doesn’t need to discover caffeine. But you get the point. Study requires passion and commitment; reading is way less intense.

Memorization Isn’t Thoughtful Analysis

When I was freshman in Bible college, one of my professors was something of a zealot for Bible memorization. During the semester he had us memorize 150 verses—with punctuation. I had an excellent short-term memory, so the feat wasn’t that hard. While the discipline of that class was good for me, I have to be honest. I never learned what any of the verses meant in that class.

Being able to recollect a verse with precision does not mean you understand it. You could memorize your tax forms, but that isn’t going to provide answers to any confusion that may arise from what they say. (It also won’t turn you into an accountant or an IRS agent). It’s the same with Scripture. I could memorize the entire Bible, but how does that nurture my comprehension?

Real Bible study demands analysis and thinking. For example, you could easily commit the following sentence to memory: “New Study of Obesity Looks for Larger Test Group.” Knowing what the words mean, though, takes some reflection . . . and a sense of humor.

Many things we read, especially in the Bible, aren’t as easy to parse as this funny headline. Many Christians will have memorized Eph 2:8-9 (ESV):

8For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9not a result of works, so that no one may boast.

How many of us have bothered to ask the obvious question: What is the gift of God in this verse? Is it grace? Faith? Both? Something else? How would we know? Memorizing these verses is a good idea, but understanding what they mean is even better.

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Agree? Disagree? Want to qualify? Sound off in the comments, and check by every Friday for more unfiltered insight from Dr. Michael Heiser.

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Written by
Michael S. Heiser
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7 comments
  • I agree with you there is a downside to just learning the words, but not the meaning of the passage (which might have taken more than a semester ;). I’ve never been disciplined enough to memorize scripture. However, about 3 weeks ago I was listening to an NT Wright talk given at Wheaton College. He challenged the audience of students to memorize the book of Ephesians while on break for the summer. Being a college student as well I took on his challenge, and after 3 weeks have the first chapter down. Instead of moving onto chapter 2 right away, I’ve decided to stay in the first chapter until the Holy Spirit has got me through some of my questions. I agree with you that systematically memorizing 150 verses or the whole lot of them (with punctuation) and not taking the time to let them permeate us, really doesn’t scratch the surface. Although, I think there really is something to memorizing and letting the Spirit open our minds through this discipline. I’ve noticed since taking on Wright’s challenge a clarity in my mind, and I’m learning to pull back the reins on wanting to march onto more scriptures without understanding what I’ve already memorized. Sometimes I pray Luke 24:45 that He would open my mind to the scriptures. Also the Eph 1:17 prayer for a spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of him. Thankfully he is teaching me to let it soak in before moving forward. I wonder how much time Paul spent memorizing the OT, and after his conversion how many glorious Aha moments he must of had?!

  • I have heard one who could quote more scripture than you and me and many pastors. He is someone who really loves the Lord. His scripture memory is outright impressive. A general read is good but not deep study of Gods word.

    When hard times come, it doesn’t take much to see where any one is spiritually.

    good word

  • Yes … and no. Reading the Bible in a prayerful manner or in a version of lectio divina can be sitting at the feet of the Master listening. In an oral/aural culture this is a major form of study. One also needs to consider reading the Bible in a study partnership (havruta), a Jewish tradition, which is a form of study. But if you define Bible reading as casual reading for pleasure or reading simply to complete the requirements of a reading plan, then Bible reading is neither Bible study nor a spiritual discipline.

  • I feel that the Bible would remain in the realm of the elite if it required the kind of work that this post says is required. Most people don’t have years of months to take courses in ancient religious studies, and morphology etc etc. If the Bible was given FOR US, than it was given to everyone (the enlightened, the patience, the dull and ignorant), and, Providence has allowed the Bible to survive throughout the centuries when people did NOT know all the information we have today to make accurate readings of the text.

  • God bless you all:

    Excellent article, and excellent input in the comments section.

    I wonder what Zechariah meant in the following prophecy:

    Zechariah 14:9
    9 And Yahweh will be king over all the earth; on that day Yahweh will be one and his name one.
    LEB

    Blessings.

  • I was in a church where the preacher made it a point to quote verses he memorized( a lot of them) and thought it foolish pride to do so in the manner he did. It seemed to become a sort of spiritual snobbery.

    On the other hand I am disappointed at seeing the author relate memorizing scriptures to memorizing the tax code. How dreadful. My experience is that memorizing scripture becomes very powerful. Does not make me more spiritual than the author or anyone else. I always see it as placing the word of God in your mind, your thoughts, and your heart.

    A good suggestion, ask God to make the word of God become alive, let it teach you when reading and memorizing.

  • In a sense, I would say that you proved your point by many of the posts that were written, and the analogies that you used were purposefully simplistic to further accentuate your point. It does seem, however, that many do utilize the custom of intense Bible reading as a form of Bible study and are fairly confident with that process, and I certainly did not sense that you were assuming that those who partake of that medium were any less knowledgeable of God’s word, since He certainly is able to provide insight from His word to those who will fully lean upon Him.

    Then there are those of us whose spirit through the years has yearned for more than what can be discerned in the scriptures alone, including even some of the seemingly popular commentaries that teachers and some preachers rely.

    I wholeheartedly agree with you and I sense no desire to belittle those who faithfully read the Bible, expecting God to reveal to them His word. NEVERTHELESS, Bible reading alone, no matter how intense cannot be measured on the same level as Bible study and if anyone has a powerful Bible software tool such as Logos Bible Software, they too will in time, come to the same conclusion!

Written by Michael S. Heiser
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