Stephen Burnhope is a British Evangelical pastor-scholar. How to Read the Bible Well reflects the strengths of the combination of those two vocations. The writing is clear and accessible. The focus is on practical theology in the sense of how the Bible may be read in ways that encourage faithful living. Burnhope is not interested in abstract, authoritarian theology. At the same time, he is well-read and draws effectively on current theological scholarship.
This book serves as a good resource for people who want to know not only how we best read the Bible, but why we do so. For someone working in an Evangelical context, Burnhope displays an admirable openness and honesty about the alleged problems of the Bible—its apparent internal contradictions, its humanness, its proclivity to give us positive views of violence, the tensions between the Old and New Testaments, how Jesus can be God and human at the same time, and the problem of evil among others.
Being an Evangelical, Burnhope’s thoughtful responses to these issues tends toward affirming the Bible’s divine inspiration and its authority for Christians. He’s clearly right of center on most theological issues. Even for non-Evangelical readers, though, this conservatism should be seen as an asset more than a liability. We are not given simplistic, authoritarian answers here, but carefully reasoned affirmations of the positive role the Bible may play for seekers. We may consider some of Burnhope’s positions to be more traditional than we would prefer, but we will still learn good things by sharing in his wrestling with questions commonly asked about the Bible.
The aspect of How to Read the Bible Well that I most appreciate, I think, is its emphasis on what Burnhope calls “the Big Story of the Bible.” He believes that it is important to read the entire Bible together, not as a perfectly harmonized, internally consistent book that comes directly from God with no human frailties complicating its presentation of divine truths. To the contrary, Burnhope’s understanding of the Bible allows for quite a bit of humanness, quite a bit of frailty, quite a bit of complexity. Yet, he refuses to reduce the Bible to fragmented pieces in the manner of much contemporary biblical scholarship. The Bible does give us a reasonably coherent “Big Story” with a message of God’s healing love most definitively expressed in the part of the story that tells us about Jesus.
Most importantly, Burnhope affirms the connection between the Big Story of the Bible and the human story that continues of which we are part. So, How to Read the Bible Well is ultimately a solid resource for our work of engaging the Bible and following the message of Jesus to be agents of the same healing power that liberating ancient Israel from slavery for the purpose of blessing all the families of the earth.