Posted by: Philip Rushton | November 4, 2013

Car Manuals and the Spiritual Reading of Scripture

I came across a helpful analogy in our Alpha course last week that explains how we should go about reading scripture. Nicky Gumble says:

“I have a battered old Nissan car. Suppose I got a new Nissan delivered to my front door. I went out, looked at the Nissan car, stepped inside and discovered a beautiful, glossy Nissan manual in the glove compartment. I thought `Wow, this is fantastic!’ so I took it indoors and I started studying it. I got out my felt-pen, started underlining bits that looked really interesting, started learning particular bits that I liked off by heart, maybe cutting out bits of it and sticking it on my mirror so I could look at it while I was shaving!nissanmanual
I thought, `Well, maybe we could set some of this to song’— I asked Al Gordon to compose a song so we could sing bits of the Nissan manual! I thought, `Well, you know, I wonder whether other people like the Nissan manual. Perhaps I’ll join the Nissan Club. Or maybe I should learn Japanese so I can study it in its original language!’ But I would have missed the point—the point of the manual is to help you drive the car.

Gumble uses this analogy to illustrate how we should read scripture. The purpose of studying scripture is not simply to accumulate head knowledge. The purpose is to grow closer to God and experience spiritual growth.

Jesus writes in John 5, “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.” To read scripture without applying it to our lives is similar to reading a car manual without actually taking the car for a drive. Scripture is a means by which we can encounter and hear from the living God.

While the goal of reading scripture is not to simply accumulate head knowledge, scripture study does require that we use our heads! We cannot skip over the hard work of interpreting the bible. Our application of scripture must be rooted in a proper interpretation of scripture. Jumping directly to application without examining the text can be dangerous. For example, there would be tragic consequences if we failed to recognize that Jesus is using a hyperbole when he tells people to chop of their hand if their hand causes them to sin (Matt 5:30). However, it would be equally tragic if we wrote a 10 page essay on the use of Semitic hyperbole in first century Judaism but failed to actually listen to the point of this text and deal seriously with our sin.

I write this as an encouragement to those of you who are working through the New Testament this year. I truly believe that scripture has the power to transform our lives. As you work through the bible I encourage you to see the significance in both the interpretation of scripture and the application of scripture.

I like to use a very simple format for reading through a text, which follows the acronym REAP. We read the text slowly and make a note of things that stand out to us. We then examine those sections that speak to us and seek to really understand what they are saying. This may require us to look at a study bible, evaluate the context, or compare the idea with similar texts. Following the examination of the text, however, it is essential to figure out how it applies to us. Does the text offer instruction, conviction, encouragement, or direction? Finally, I encourage spending time in prayer based on what you have read. The text may lead you to confess sins, praise God, lament, ask God questions, or respond to God’s leading in your life. This method leads us beyond simply acquiring head knowledge to actually encountering the living God behind the scriptures.


  1. At the risk of taking the metaphor too literally (hah, me, be literal?) the Bible isn’t an instruction manual. I drive a Nissan, funnily enough, and I can read the instruction manual, but it doesn’t make me believe in Nissan or in my car any more than I already would or do. But I can read my Bible and it can revitalize my faith in God, more than what previously might have been present in my battered, cynical soul.

    Comparing the Bible to an instruction manual might help in terms of its role in providing spiritual guidance, but I think it may short on the faith part of the equation.

    • Ah yes, the inevitable breakdown of a metaphor. I certainly agree with your assessment that the bible is not simply an instruction manual for life! I think the point of this particular illustration is to warn against the possibility of reading scripture on a purely theoretical level without encountering the God it speaks about. The comparison has to do with methodology not content / genre.

  2. Good thinking, good words. I need to listen up because my background and culture value “knowledge of the Word”. And it is easier to do knowledge than action. As the biblical admonition says: ‘be ye doers ‘.
    ……………….Keep on keepin on………………………..Gil

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