David Whitehead. Making Sense of the Bible: How to Connect with God Through His Word. Bloomington, MN: Bethany House, 2014. 176 pp. $12.99.
David Whitehead is a pastor in Manhattan, a church-planting coach, and founder of the popular website TheDailyBibleVerse.org. His new book, Making Sense of the Bible, largely flows out of that online ministry. Those who want to come to grips with Scripture often don’t know where to start. The Bible can be a very intimidating book: there are unfamiliar literary styles, seemingly obscure laws, and some challenging narratives—not to mention the fact that it is an enormous book. Whitehead has written Making Sense of the Bible with the aim of giving the new Bible reader something of a pep talk and launching pad into the adventure of getting to know God’s Word. This is a laudable aim. Whitehead’s own explanation of why he wrote the book reminds us that there is a great need for many good entry-level books for those new to Christianity.
Whitehead’s approach is simple. He opens with chapters on why there are so many Bible translations, and the proper attitude as we approach Scripture. The rest of the book deals with the various writing styles found in the Bible, with a chapter on each interspersed with others introducing major characters: Abraham, Moses, David, and Jesus. Making Sense of the Bible concludes with appendices on a one-year reading plan, and further resources for the interested reader.
There is much to commend in this book. On a number of levels Whitehead succeeds in equipping his readers to make sense of the Bible. He writes in a way that is easy to read, with great warmth and gentle enthusiasm. We never doubt that Whitehead loves the Scriptures and wants his readers to as well. His conviction that Scripture is “the very words of God” (15) is apparent throughout the book.
As a result of this conviction, Whitehead is crystal clear on why we read the Bible. “The goal in reading the Bible is not to simply read the Bible,” he explains. “The goal in reading the Bible is to get to know and interact with the God of the Bible” (11, emphasis his). He repeats this line a number of times over the course of the book, and many of us cannot hear it too often. His chapter on the heart attitude of the reader is one of the best in the book, again reminding us of the humble, expectant posture we are to adopt before God’s Word.
Yet for all these important strengths, there are sadly a number of flaws in the book.
First, the structure is somewhat problematic. The chapters jump between different biblical writing styles and characters with little apparent rationale. The reader goes from New Testament epistles straight into Old Testament narrative, and from Abraham straight into the Gospels. The overall effect is a bit chaotic and risks implying that Scripture is itself something of a mishmash. Within the chapters too there are some structural problems. During the course of his chapters on writing styles Whitehead (commendably) summarizes individual books of the Bible for the reader along the way, but at times the books themselves don’t easily fit the overall genre his chapter is treating. Leviticus, for example, is categorized under “Old Testament Narrative.” Many biblical books, of course, contain and straddle multiple literary genres.
Second, and much more seriously, the book suffers from a lack of good biblical theology. Whitehead surveys the writing styles, characters, and individual books of the Bible, but with little reference to the overall storyline of Scripture. In the book’s final page he touches on how the parts of the Bible “all point to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ” (153). But this point needs to be stated right at the start of the book and then demonstrated throughout rather than being mentioned almost as an afterthought at the end. There is precious little about the gospel patterns and types in which the Old Testament is drenched. David, for example, is dealt with only as an example of the ups and downs of the life of faith; there is hardly anything about the significance of him being the pattern of the greater David to come. This lack of biblical theology is a serious problem: it is, after all, the gospel itself that makes sense of the Bible.
It also seems strange that a book seeking to help make sense of the Bible says little on the doctrine of Scripture. Whitehead admits in his introduction that he’s assuming the Bible is the Word of God without expounding why Christians believe that. But it would have been valuable to include at least a few pages on why believers regard Scripture this way and how that viewpoint derives from Jesus’s own teaching about the authority of Scripture.
By the end, I was left with the impression that we still hadn’t quite left the on-ramp. While it may help some to break the ice a bit in getting to know Scripture better, too much vital to making sense of the Bible is omitted. As a result, though I liked the book, I find it hard to get excited about. If someone was willing to read 150 pages on making sense of the Bible, I would likely point them to Andrew Wilson’s Unbreakable: What the Son of God Said About the Word of God or Vaughan Roberts’s God’s Big Picture: Tracing the Storyline of the Bible instead.