Why I Read and Study the Bible

Engagement with the Bible is a priority for me for one important reason.

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I have been writing this blog for five years. Sometimes the pressure of coming up with yet another new posting makes me anxious. Yet I continue to write because I continue to find myself captivated by the Bible. You may wonder why, so let me offer an answer.

It is not because I regard the Bible as a simple collection of ready answers to every spiritual problem or need. If I am feeling fear, then I turn to…. If that were the case, then the Bible would be just another volume of magic spells comparable to something Harry Potter might find in the library of Hogwarts.

I certainly have favorite passages of the Bible that I turn to in distressing times. But that’s not why I continue to invest my time and energies in reading and studying this book.

Nor do I read the Bible because I expect there to find infallible answers to every question I bring to it. To be honest, I give no credibility to any doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture, although that was certainly the teaching in the religious tradition I grew up in. I am fully prepared to acknowledge that there may be errors of fact and viewpoint in some of what I read in the Bible.

I hold this position because I do not believe that human beings are given the gift of infallibility, infallibility of any kind whether we locate it in reason, the Pope, general church councils, or the Bible. Only one is infallible. That is God. And human beings do not share that divine characteristic. To be human is to be capable of erring, and we all do, including I believe the authors of the Bible.

The very human process by which the Bible came to us

My study of how the Bible was written, edited, and compiled has shown me how thoroughly human was the process by which we received the Bible. No angel dictated the words of the Bible to its authors (as Muslims believe Gabriel did with the words of the Quran). The process that brought us the Bible is full of all the historical contingencies that accompany any human endeavor.

Furthermore, that process means we find different voices and viewpoints expressed in the Bible as a whole. The books of the Bible do not speak with one unified voice.

I offer one example. The books of Ezra-Nehemiah and the book of Ruth offer contradictory viewpoints on the legitimacy and value of Israelite men marrying foreign wives. Yet all three books are included in the Bible. And for that reason I must hear and take seriously what each of them says in their contradictory viewpoints. I cannot pick and choose to accept only one. The canon of the Bible means I must hear each voice with equal seriousness, for given different historical situations, one voice may speak a message that I need to hear at that time over the others.

 The divine mystery that is the Bible

So skeptics may say to me with some astonishment, “Why do you continue to read and study the Bible? Isn’t it a vast waste of time?” Some might even say a detrimental waste of time. Look, they say, at all the pain and hurt people quoting the Bible have brought into human history.

Their question reminds me of a scene in the movie Zorba the Greek, where Zorba asks his scholarly English companion Basil why anyone dies. Basil says that he does not know. Zorba responds, “What the use of all your damned books if they can’t answer that?” Basil responds: “They tell me about the agony of men who can’t answer questions like yours.”

In an analogous way, I continue to read and study the Bible for one important reason. It may not answer all my questions, but tells me of the privilege and challenge of being called to be a child of God, of living in the divine mystery that lies around, beneath, above, and inside me. It feeds my spirit, nurtures my faith, shapes my mindset, guides my behavior, forms my character, and inspires my hope like no other book.

Because of all that I can affirm with full conviction what the Pauline author says in 2 Timothy 3:16-17:

All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work. 

 I would ask you to notice about this sentence (so often quoted as proof of the Bible’s divine inspiration) that its primary focus is not on the use of the Bible to proof text doctrine, but to shape the way we live and behave. The author is most concerned in the power of the Bible to form us as believers so we can live lives of Christian service.

I truly believe that the Bible is divinely inspired, but not because the Bible claims to be so inspired or a church authority declares it so, but because of the mysterious power it has continually to nurture me in my life of faith. I do not understand the nature of that power, anymore than I understand the mysterious way the Spirit of God guided the contingent process of bringing the Bible into being.

Exactly how God has inspired the Bible is a mystery to me. Yet I continue to believe that God has done so because of the power the Bible has played in my life. I first became captivated by the Bible as a teen-ager. And through all the up’s and the down’s of my tumultuous spiritual journey I have been able to turn to the Bible as a steadying force in my life.

The dual pillars of my spiritual life

I said my spiritual journey has been tumultuous. I mean that. And through all the twists and turns of my spiritual and emotional life, two things have proved my anchor. One is my engagement with the Bible; the other is my regular participation in the Eucharist. They have been my personal Jachin and Boaz, those foundational pillars that stood at the entrance of Solomon’s temple (2 Chronicles 3:15-17).

Together, the Bible and the Eucharist have grounded me spiritually. And I note that they also form the two foci—the liturgy of the Word and the liturgy of the Sacrament—that have formed the historic Sunday liturgy of the church. That liturgy, too, has a mysterious divine power. It feeds me spiritually. It heals my emotions. It challenges my passivity. It shapes my character.

So why do I continue to read, study, and wrestle with the Bible? Why do I try to share something of the fruit of that engagement in my blog postings? Because here I touch the mystery of God and God’s ways and purposes in the world. Hear I touch the mysteries, the challenges, and privileges of being a human being.

And here too I gain insight into the nature of this cosmos in which we live. The Bible tells me this cosmos is not meaningless, despite all our experiences that suggest otherwise. Instead the Bible calls me to trust in the hidden ways God is guiding this cosmos to its mysterious, but glorious destiny.

 

 

 

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Turning the Bible into a Living Word for Us Today

Some thoughts on how we discover the Bible’s contemporary message for today.

 Note to reader: This posting continues the discussion on Bible study that I began in my previous posting How to Read the Bible for Greater Insight. I recommend you read it before you read this posting.

 In my previous posting, I mentioned the woman in my church who found Bible study utterly boring. She speaks for many, I believe.

In that same church, I also had a man who found the process of exegesis (which I described in my previous posting) tedious. He was a retired corporate CEO. In Bible study he always wanted to know what was the bottom line in the text we were studying. How does it apply to us?

Like the woman who finds Bible study boring, he also speaks for many. They have little interest in history or literary analysis. Instead they want to know immediately the text’s contemporary relevance.

To be frank, that is why most believers continue to study the Bible. We believe that in it we find a word from God that can illumine and direct our own lives individually and corporately. So for those who regard the Bible in this way, the process of Bible study is never complete until we have grasped its application.

Step 4: Reflection and Application

In my previous posting, I discussed the first three steps in my approach to Bible study. Now I want to move to Step 4. This step focuses on reflection on the text and its application to our lives today. I will offer some of the ways I do that for myself.

I assume throughout that we have moved through Steps 1-3 before we move to Step 4. I believe that how we hear the text speaking to us today should grow out of how the author intended his original audience to hear and understand the text. If we don’t keep Step 4 grounded in Steps 1-3, then we run the risk of floating off into wishful thinking or self-deception.

So here are some ways I use to discern a text’s possible application.

Chew Our Spiritual Cud

 A cow can spend a day munching its way through pasture grass. That grass gets stored in its first stomach and is later regurgitated for further chewing. This facilitates digestion. It’s called chewing the cud.

I use this metaphor to describing a process of meditating on Scripture. We read a passage and then turn it over and over in our mind. We look at it from different angles. We pay attention to details. We try to be alert to something that emerges and engages us as believers today. When it does, the text begins to speak to us as a living voice rather than as an ancient document.

This process of reflection resembles the hallowed spiritual discipline of lectio divina. We listen intently to the text until it leads us to a message for us personally. I value lectio divina as a tool for personal spiritual exploration.

Lectio divina, however, does not always keep our thoughts rooted in the text’s original meaning. It uses the written word as a launch pad for our own thoughts, thoughts the Holy Spirit may guide to address a personal issue.

Lectio divina is not then the best tool, in my opinion, when I as a pastor plan to use the Scripture passage as the base text for a sermon or for pastoral teaching. Then we are appealing to the Scripture text as a kind of authority. When we use the Scripture in that way, then I feel it is essential that we keep our meditations grounded in the text.

Otherwise we run the risk of making our own speculative thoughts the word of God. And that runs the risk of violating the third commandment that we not use the Lord’s name in vain. We most often violate that command not by profanity, but by claiming divine sanction for our viewpoints.

Search for Broad Principles

 When I read a Bible text, I also try to be alert to any principles that the author applied to his own situation that can broadly provide wisdom for today.

For example in 1 Corinthians 8-10, the apostle Paul discusses a controversy roiling the church in Corinth. Should Christians eat meat sold in the marketplace which had previously been sacrificed in the pagan temples? Some in the church see no problem with the practice; others are deeply scandalized.

Paul sees Christians as being free to eat without any moral violation. But if the practice upsets other believers, then a Christian needs to ask himself if the practice serves to build up the community of faith? If the practice is going to destroy the bonds uniting the community, then a Christian would be wise to refrain.

His advice gets summarized:

All things are lawful,” but not all things are beneficial. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up. Do not seek your own advantage, but that of the other. (1 Corinthians 10:23-24)

Here Paul articulates a broad principle of wisdom that applies to many challenges Christians face.

Notice Any Parallels

As we read a Biblical text, do we notice parallels between the ancient situation that the biblical author is addressing and our own situation today? This may alert us to how the Biblical text provides guidance and insight for today.

I provided an example of this in my previous posting Inviting in the Devil. There I talk about how the crisis that the Judean king Ahaz faced (as described in Isaiah 7-12) provides a parallel to how some American Christians are approaching the current Presidential campaign in the United States. I suggest that the Isaiah passage offers cautionary wisdom for us today.

Watch for Patterns

It is very important to watch for patterns repeated in the Biblical text, especially in the narratives. These patterns provide insight into how the Biblical writers understand the character of God, God’s purposes, and God’s way of relating to the world and humanity.

I do not believe God’s character and purposes change, but God’s ways are infinitely adaptable as God deals with the twists and turns of the human world and the human heart. Yet we can see God’s ways often falling into a pattern that seems to reveal something of his character.

For example, in the social world of the ancient Israelites and their neighbors, the eldest son is usually privileged. He is generally regarded as his father’s heir, and if he does not receive the total inheritance, he receives a far greater portion.

But God does not seem to conform to these social norms. In narrative after narrative, we find God favoring the second born son, or the last born within a family of brothers. Abel is favored over Cain, Isaac over Ishmael, Jacob over Esau, Jospeh over all his brothers, and David as the last of Jesse’s sons.

Throughout the Old Testament, God is said to be the special protector of the widow, the orphan, and resident alien, all of whom were disadvantaged in ancient Israelite society.

What do these patterns say about where we should look for God in contemporary society? Certainly we cannot claim the Bible as an unqualified approver of any social status quo.

One of the most significant patterns in the Old Testament is the story of the Exodus. In my reading of the Bible, it is the supreme paradigm for how God works in creating a redeemed people. It is the paradigm by which the gospel writers understand the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The apostle Luke explicitly calls Jesus’ passion, death, and resurrection his exodus (the Greek word behind the translation departure in Luke 9:31).

And I find it the Biblical paradigm for the spiritual journey for any serious spiritual seeker. As we mature in our spiritual lives we can feel as if we are reliving the Exodus. So we can find the events of the Exodus story instructive for us as we pursue our own spiritual journey with God.

A Final Word of Caution

This posting is getting long enough, even though I could say much more about how the Biblical text becomes relevant to us today. So let me end with one word of caution.

When we sit down with a Bible to read, we should not expect that in every text we open we will encounter something that will apply to us at that moment. We should never force an application. Not every passage will speak to us every time we read it. It may come vividly alive to us at another time in our life, but just not now.

There is still value, however, in engaging in a steady habit of reading and studying the Bible. As we do that, we are incorporating the Biblical mindset into our own. And that Biblical mindset with its understanding of God, its patterns and principles begins to shape the fundamental assumptions and convictions by which we come to understand God and respond to the challenges of the world in which we live as Christians.

Bible reading and study, therefore, play an important role in that transformation that comes from that renewing of the mind that the apostle Paul talks about in Romans 12:1-2:

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.

May that be so for all of us as we chew our cud on Scripture.

How to Read the Bible for Greater Insight

Lazy reading will yield shallow results.

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Once when I was beginning to pastor a church, I spoke about my hopes for my ministry with the church’s governing body. I mentioned that I hoped to start an adult Bible study session, as teaching the Bible is my passion.

A woman on that governing board responded, “Pastor, I can’t think of anything more boring.” I’ve learned she spoke exactly how many people, both inside and outside the church, feel about Bible study.

Why is that? I find the Bible a deeply engaging and ever fascinating book to read. Why don’t others? I have come to believe that one source of their attitude is that they have not been taught to read the Bible with skills that open up its depth. Instead they engage in light, lazy reading that yields shallow results.

As a result, I’ve made it a point to teach adult classes my four-step method for reading the Bible. I’m going to share that method in this posting and the next. Maybe this method can help some of you my readers to enrich your Bible study.

Step 1: Read the Text

I am constantly amazed at how many people authoritatively proclaim what the Bible says and yet have never opened the book to read it. So when I start a Bible study class, I always insist that we read the text out loud before we ever begin to discuss it.

This is essential. We must expose ourselves to the actual text before we start to talk about what it may mean. We need to have that actual text at the very center of our attention.

I insist we do this out loud for two reasons. One, because that is how millions of people through the centuries who did not have access to a written Bible came to hear the Bible text. It entered into their lives through their ears, not their eyes.

And two, even for us today who have access to numerous printed Bibles, when we read the text aloud, we absorb it into our bodies as well as into our minds. For Bible reading to release its power, it must become something more than just a mental exercise.

Step 2: Observe the Text

After we hear the text read aloud, I teach my students to try not to immediately make sense of the text, but rather to take time simply to observe what the text is saying. We want to note carefully what is there in the text. What is the text saying or not saying? Questions like these can help us do that:

  • Who are the characters in the story, if it is a narrative?
  • Who is speaking? Who is addressed? Who acts?
  • What happens in the text? What is said?
  • Are there any key words that get repeated?
  • Do peculiar words, phrases, actions stand out in the text?
  • How does the text unfold? Does the text make an unexpected shift in its thought or tone at one point?
  • What strange juxtapositions do we find in the text?
  • What is omitted that we would expect to be there?

In this step, as I said, we do not try to understand what we are seeing. Instead we want to just note what the text is saying.

Step 3: Interpret the Text within Its Context

After we have spent some time observing the text, then we are ready to try to understand it. The overarching question in this step is: What is the author of the text trying to say and why?

When we try to interpret the text, I consider one rule as the most important: Interpret the text within its context. The meaning of the text depends upon the context in which it is placed.

A passage, however, may belong to several different contexts, all of which may be important to its meaning.

  • The literary placement of a sentence, paragraph, or chapter. Where does the passage we are reading fit within the Biblical book to which it belongs? What precedes it? What follows it? What precedes or follows may affect how we read the passage we are focusing on. For example, the story of the healing of the blind beggar Bartimaeus recounted in Mark 10:46-52. This can seem like a simple healing story, until we notice it follows a story of James and John asking Jesus to sit on his right and left when Jesus enters his glory. Jesus asks Bartimaeus the same question he asks James and John: What do you want me to do for you? This signals, I believe, that we are to read the two stories together. For the question the story of Bartimaeus raises is: Who is the really blind one?
  • The context of literary genre. Literary genre refers to the kind of literary work that the passage is. Is it a fictional story, a historical narrative, poetry, a sermon, a letter, a legal document, a parable, a teaching lecture, etc.? Knowing what literary genre the passage belongs to helps us determine how to read it.

For example, the book of Jonah. Is it a historical narrative or a didactic short story? For various reasons, I believe it is the latter. If we read it as historical narrative, we will miss the important spiritual insight the author is trying to convey.

  • The literary context formed by the whole canon of the Bible. When we read a passage in one book of the Bible, we need to pay attention to what other books in the Bible may say about the same theme. Individual books may be in dialogue with one another.

For example, the books of Ezra/Nehemiah tell us of the rigorous requirement the scribe Ezra lays down that Jewish men who have married non-Jewish wives must divorce and dismiss them. This is necessary to maintain the integrity of the fragile community in Jerusalem. Yet the book of Ruth tells the striking story of a foreign woman married to a Jewish man who ultimately proves the spiritual equal of Leah and Rachel, the revered wives of Jacob. Both books are in the canon. The canon forces us to hear the two books in dialogue with each other.

  • The context of the Hebrew and Greek languages that the books of the Bible were written in. How does the vocabulary or grammar of the passage in English translation reflect something peculiar to the Hebrew or Greek language?

As an example, let’s take an important Bible word: peace. In John 20:19 the risen Jesus greets his disciples with Peace be with you. To fully appreciate what Jesus is saying, it is important to recognize that Jesus uses the word peace in its Hebrew meaning that we find in the Old Testament. The Hebrew word is shalom.

In English peace means primarily a calmness or lack of conflict. But in Hebrew shalom is much richer in meaning. It can mean calmness or lack of conflict, but also well being, wholeness, prosperity, social harmony, prosperity, and a healthy relationship with God. In many ways, the word shalom is a synonym for salvation in all of its many dimensions. When you read Jesus’ blessing in this context, it becomes a rich blessing indeed.

Now obviously if one is not fluent in ancient Hebrew or Greek, one will not capture these subtleties in English. One may find it necessary then to rely on commentaries from Bible scholars to help illumine some of these dimensions of the text.

  • The cultural context of ancient Israel and the early church. How does the history and culture of the period when the text was written affect its meaning?

For example, in John 15:14-15 Jesus at the Last Supper calls his disciples his friends. This remark takes on far deeper significance when we realize that in the ancient Greco-Roman world of the New Testament, friendship was regarded as the highest and most intimate relationship among human beings. In fact, a higher and more intimate relationship than marriage.

Once again, it requires some additional background reading to familiarize ourselves with ancient Israelite and Greco-Roman culture. But the more we do, the more elements of the Bible’s text will begin to take on richer meaning.

What we strive for in Step 3 is to understand the text as the author spoke to his original, intended audience. This is important grounding for our next step, which explores how the text may speak to us today. Any application to today should grow out of what the text actually says, not what we want it to say.

Two Words of Caution

I have two final comments. One is that I believe no individual person alone can ever come to a fully unbiased, objective understanding of the Biblical text. Every one of us approaches our reading of the Bible with conscious, and more often unconscious, assumptions and biases that affect what we see in the text and more importantly, what we do not see. We all have blind spots when we come to reading the Bible. So no one can aspire to an infallible interpretation of the Biblical text.

We correct against our assumptions and biases by reading the Bible in dialogue with other people. As we listen to other interpretations, we as a community of believers stand a better chance of perceiving the Bible’s meaning. So there are times when liberal Protestants need to pay attention to what their fundamentalist brothers are saying, and vice versa. Catholics must listen to Protestants and Eastern Orthodox and Pentecostals, and so must each of the others as well.

This is what can make Bible study so exciting. It can be an energizing group activity. But it is what makes Bible study sometimes frustrating as well. If we are looking for certitude in interpreting the Bible, we are not going to find it. But if we take joy in the journey of debate, we are more likely to find something deeply satisfying.

And second, what I am advocating means that we must put some serious work into our reading of the Bible. As I said earlier, lazy reading will yield shallow insight. If we want to tap into the riches of the Bible, we must be prepared to dig deep into the text to find the insights we seek.

And Now on to Step Four: Applying the Text to Our Lives

 The last step in my method for reading the Bible is one that only believers, whether they are Jewish or Christian, will take. That is because we seek from the Biblical text words that may speak to us today, in our life challenges. This is what we mean when as believers we talk about the Bible as the Word of God. We believe that through the Bible, God continues to speak to humanity.

This is the step I call reflection and application. In this step the ancient text ceases to be ancient and becomes contemporary in speaking to us today. It is why most people continue to read the Bible as a religious discipline. I will talk about how we can exercise this step in my next posting. Stay tuned.

Note to Readers:

The steps I describe in this posting are what Biblical scholars call the process of exegesis. Exegesis is a Greek-derived word that implies that what we are doing is trying to extract the meaning that lies embedded in the text. This contrasts with eisegesis, in which we read our own meaning back into the text. In eisegesis we make the author say what we want him to say; in exegesis we strive to listen to the author as accurately as we can.

Exegesis is a tool not only for reading the Bible, but any work of literature. I first learned the principles of this tool in a college class in poetry writing.

How Do We Come to Know God’s Character?

Discerning the character of God requires donning special spectacles.

In my last posting (The Slippery Witness of Religious Experience), I wrote about the crucial role of religious experience in answering the question: How do I know God is real? Religious experiences are not infallible proofs for the existence of God. Nonetheless they have played an important role in grounding my own confidence that in such experiences I confront something/someone divine that is real, not a delusion.

Believing God exists, however, does not carry one very far into a full-fledged Christian belief. After we are convinced that God is real, a new question emerges: What is the character of this divine presence we have encountered in our religious or mystical experiences?

If we base our theological reflection on a study of nature alone, we end up with more questions than answers. Is God one or many? Polytheism seems just as compatible with the evidence of nature as any monotheism. In fact, polytheism has been the preferred answer for most people in human history.

Is God good or evil, or just plain uncaring? Again if you try to answer that question by an appeal to nature alone, you get more equivocal answers. Certainly the finely tuned order of the natural world suggests that its creator is not only powerful, but supremely wise.

Is that divine power, however, beneficent? All the natural disasters that have devastated human life would suggest otherwise. At the very least the divine power is unpredictable and possibly capricious.

So where do Christians and Jews get their idea that the divine power they perceive in their religious experiences is a God of justice, love, and forgiveness, committed to their ultimate welfare?

Historical events as revelations

Christians and Jews don’t get that understanding of God from any contemplation of nature. Instead they draw these conclusions from theological reflection upon events in history where they believe God intervened and acted. These events, these acts of God as we call them, reveal God’s character, will, and intentions.

For Old Testament theology, those events include the call of Abraham, the liberation of the Israelites out of Egyptian slavery and their subsequent journey through the wilderness, the establishment of Israelite life in the land of Canaan, the preaching of the Hebrew prophets, the exile of the Israelites from Canaan, and their restoration to the land under the Persians.

Within those events, the experience of the Exodus is especially revelatory of the character of God. In it, we encounter a God committed to liberation, to covenant living, and to compassion for the underprivileged. This Exodus experience reveals a God committed not to the status quo, but one who leads us out of that status quo into something new and more life giving.

Through theological reflection upon this Exodus experience, the Israelites came to one of their greatest insights into the character of God. God is a God of committed, loving grace.

The book of Deuteronomy expresses this insight explicitly in a passage in which Moses addresses the people of Israel just before they leave the desert to enter into Canaan. It reads:

For you are a people holy to the LORD your God; the LORD your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on earth to be his people, his treasured possession. It was not because you were more numerous than any other people that the LORD set his heart on you and chose you—for you were the fewest of all peoples. It was because the LORD loved you and kept the oath that he swore to your ancestors, that the LORD has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt. (Deuteronomy 7:6-8)

This passage identifies the motive behind God’s actions on behalf of Israel as God’s gracious love and faithfulness. As the theology of the Old Testament and then of the New Testament unfolds, we find that God’s actions on behalf of Israel become the paradigm for how God relates to all humanity. God chooses all of us to be God’s people not because of our superiority, but because God dearly loves the good creation which God created.

For the New Testament, the decisive historical event that reveals and fulfills this character of God is the life, ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. Here we find revealed the depths of the compassion of God. For in those events Christians assert they discover that the character of God is supremely the character of self-giving love, a love that expresses itself in service.

The events of Jesus Christ also confirm those insights into God that we find in the Old Testament. That’s why for Christians the capstone of Biblical theology is reached in the assertion of the Gospel of John: For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. (John 3:16)

The Bible offers our spectacles

And here’s where the Bible comes into the picture. The Bible is a collection of writings that report these historical events where the faith communities of Judaism and Christianity have seen God’s intervention into history. The Bible also gives us the theological reflections that those believing communities have used to interpret those events. Through that dialogue between the events and the theological reflections upon those events, our confident assertions about the character of God emerge.

It is for this reason that the Bible continues to play such a central role in the life of faith within both the Jewish and Christian communities. We return again and again to this written word to be reminded of those historical events and to be challenged by the theological interpretations that those written words give to those events.

John Calvin famously taught that the Bible is the spectacles through which we look to understand the God we perceive in both nature and human life. Whereas the God we perceive in nature remains somewhat blurry, through the Bible the character of that God comes into sharp focus. The Bible is also the spectacles through which we discern the character of the God we encounter in our religious experiences.

Those who are unconvinced by the Jewish or Christian faiths will be forever puzzled as to why we believers give such importance to these writings from the ancient world. For much of the modern world, science provides the interpretative spectacles through which we see and interpret the world. Writings that many today regard as outdated and mythical can provide no doorway into the truth.

But for people grounded in a biblical faith, it is the Bible that gives us that interpretative key. That is why we invest so much time and energy in reading, studying, and discussing this book. For in this book we discover the character of God that guides the way we worship, believe, and live.

 

God Does Not Ask for What We Do Not Have

Scripture text: 2 Corinthians 8:10-15

My preferred English translation of the Bible is the Revised Standard Version. I like it because it is a literal translation. Its English stays close to the Hebrew or Greek text.

Sometimes, however, reading a text in a different translation opens up a text for me that the RSV cannot. That happened recently when I was reading 2 Corinthians 8. In this chapter the apostle Paul urges the Corinthian congregation to be generous to the assistance fund he is collecting for the Christian community in Jerusalem.

He urges them to be generous. At the same time, he recognizes that some of them may not have a lot to give. They are poor. He does not want to create a guilt feeling within them that they must give more than they can. He underscores this point in verse 12, which in the Revised English Bible translation reads: If we give eagerly according to our means, that is acceptable to God; he does not ask for what we do not have.

I stopped in my mental tracks when I read that. I think here Paul is articulating a fundamental principle of the spiritual life, a principle that I wish I had understood much earlier in my life. God does not ask us ever to give up something that we do not possess. For if we do not possess it, we cannot give it up.

It is very important to remember this when we think about Christian asceticism. For example, fasting is an honored spiritual practice in Christian asceticism. But I don’t think God asks the destitute poor to fast. Their very life is a form of fasting, for they do not have enough to eat.

Rather the divine call to fast comes to the rich and affluent. I think the strongest expression of that comes in Isaiah 58, a text often read on Ash Wednesday. It is the rich and well-fed that God calls to give up eating as a way of expressing their solidarity with the poor. The prophet then goes on to link fasting with pursuing social justice for the poor and disadvantaged.

Likewise, who is the one called to go and sell all he has and followed Jesus in poverty? It is the rich young ruler, one who is rich in this world’s goods. Again it is not the poor who are called to do so.

I find it interesting that the two figures in church history who heard this text read in church and took it as a personal call to themselves were both sons of wealthy families. One was the Egyptian hermit, St. Anthony of the Desert. Anthony came from a family of great landed wealth and he grew up in affluence. But he gave it all up when he heard Christ call him to do so.

 The other figure is St. Francis of Assisi. Francis was born into a wealthy merchant family and lived a life of pleasure and dissolution until he heard Christ call him to give it all up.

Both heard the call to poverty by hearing the same text (Mark 10:21) read out in church. Go, sell everything you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come and follow me.

This same principle—God does not call us to give up something we do not have—applies, I think, to the call to celibacy. Throughout church history, Christians have glorified celibacy. It has been presented as the higher or more spiritual character of life. The impression has often been created that if one opted for married life, one was choosing a more worldly life.

But does God call people to the celibate life if they have not yet come into full acceptance and possession of their sexuality? I think not. If one has repressed and smothered one’s sexuality, one has defaced God’s good gift. And in such a situation, opting for a celibate life can be nothing more than a form of escapism that will ultimately betray a person.

I was recently listening to a CD where the former abbot of a Trappist monastery stated that he had come to the conclusion that no one should enter a monastery until they have reached their 40s. Why? Because they need to have fully claimed their sexuality and accepted it before they opt to give it up.

All that I have said does not mean that God does not call some Christians to a greater ascetical life than other Christians. I do not think Anthony and Francis misperceived God’s call to them.

But we need to be wise about discerning God’s call. Many immature Christians have created great—and needless—anxiety for themselves by assuming that God is calling them to great acts of asceticism because of the superiority of the ascetical life. Our attractions to specific lifestyles can arise from very complex and tangled motives. And I think the Pauline principle expressed in 2 Corinthians 8 needs to be kept as a constant check on thoughts that arise from our neuroticism. 

Reading the Bible in Canonical Context

My professor of Old Testament in divinity school was Dr. Brevard Childs. I am deeply indebted to him for my approach to reading the Bible.

Childs had an amazing command of the tools for a modern critical reading of the Bible. But he often questioned how valuable those tools were for opening up the Bible as Scripture for the church. How was one to find the word of God in the words of the Bible?

Childs advocated reading the Bible in canonical context. That meant reading the various books of the Bible in the final format that they had when they were accepted by both the Jewish and Christian communities as Scripture, that is accepted in the canon of Scripture.

This is not to deny that the books of the Bible went through a long process of development before they acquired their canonical format. The Torah consists of the editorial assembly of at least four documents—traditionally labeled J, E, D, and P—and probably even more. Behind them all lies a period of oral transmission of stories and laws.

But what the faith communities of Judaism and Christianity canonized was not these earlier versions, but the redacted composition that we call the Torah or Penteteuch. It is this final, redacted format that is authoritative for the life of the faithful.

This means a study of prior sources to the canonical text can be useful if you are writing a history of the religion of Israel or a history of the Old Testament theology, but none of those previous formats were canonized. Only the final text was.

When we approach the Bible as Scripture for the church, we are then concerned primarily with the canonical text of the Bible, not with its earlier sources. And so in my reading of the Bible I am always most focused on the canonical text rather than with the earlier history of the text.

Childs also contended that the canon provided important guidelines for interpreting Scripture. For example, most scholars today accept that the book of Isaiah is composed of the writing of at least two or three prophets, and possibly other sources. Chapters 1-39 are largely the work of a prophet working in Jerusalem in the 8th century B.C. Chapters 40-66 come from one or two prophets working a 150 years or more later.

Yet the canonical text of Isaiah merges them all into one book. That provides a key to how we are to read them all. We get the full message of God not from reading any one of the sources separately, but reading them together in their dialogue with one another. To fully understand God, we must take seriously both the vision of God as judge in the first part of the book and the God of liberation in the second portion.

The canon sometimes brings together contradictory voices. Ezra takes one view on the place of foreign women in the life of Israel. Ruth takes a diametrically opposite viewpoint. Yet both are in the canon. We must therefore listen to both voices respectively, for they are both a part of the word of God to his people.

We are all inclined to pick and choose our favorite passages of the Bible and hold them up as authoritative. We create a canon within the canon. But the canon does not allow us to do that and thereby saves us from distorted theology.

The canon presents us with a diversity of voices. And we must accept that diversity as an inherent part of the life of faith. It is not accidental, I believe, that the early church canonized four gospels and not just one. Each of the four gospels presents a different approach to the life and teaching of Jesus. Only in listening to the four together can we access the richest understanding of the gospel.

An implication of this canonical approach to reading Scripture is that what we take seriously is not the seed but the full-grown tree. Isaiah may have many different sources, but the full-blown canonical text of Isaiah is much more than its sources.

This is an important principle as well for the study of Christian doctrine. The orthodox doctrine of the Trinity is not taught explicitly in the New Testament. But the seeds of the doctrine are in the New Testament, and in that respect the doctrine is biblical. It will take the church 400 years to see the seed develop into the fully developed tree.

This, too, serves as a caution on the traditional Protestant bias that regards the New Testament church as the pattern for church life today. It is the reason why many Protestants look with disdain on later developments in Catholicism.

But God never intends a seed to remain a seed. Its calling is to grow into a tree. And so later Catholic elements may be the seeds of the New Testament church growing towards their fuller maturity. We need to be very nuanced in our judgments.