Never Read Your Bible Alone

Friday, October 7th, 2011

The most recent edition of Christianity Today (Oct. 2011) highlights the issue of “How we read Scripture.”  The front cover of the journal boldly declares, “How to Read the Bible.”  There is a also a little callout on the cover which stands as a kind of subtitle, “Why leading evangelical scholars are arguing for a new way to interpret scripture.” When I read the article I quickly realized that what is being advocated by several theologians (e.g.  Joel Green, Kevin Vanhoozer, John Webster, Todd Billings, Stephen Fowl, etc.) is not actually a “new” way of reading Scripture at all.  It is calling for a theological reading of the text which is quite ancient. In other words, we read our Bible in light of the apostolic witness and the collective witness of the Church through the ages.  To put it bluntly, we never really read the Bible alone. That is an important point which we often fail to emphasize enough in our teaching and preaching. Even if we read the Bible in a room by ourselves with the doors all shut and the window shades pulled, we are still not reading the Bible alone. The Bible is always read in the presence of the Risen Christ and in the company of the saints who have gone before us.  We are the recipients of an Apostolic witness which has been tested by history, died for by martyrs, preached on in the world, and received with joy by sinners.

The re-emergence of this theological reading of Scripture is a response to the explosion of quite bizarre, so-called “evangelical” uses of Scripture which have emerged in recent years.  For example, there are those who have gone through the Bible and created a new dieting guide called the “Bible diet” which is “based on the Bible.”  Others have used the Bible to create financial planning manuals, to build construction guides, and even to try to show evidence for extra-terrestrials and to unlock hidden meanings and decipher future history with the use of “biblical” numerics and Bible “codes”.  A little theological perspective shining down on some of this wouldn’t hurt, would it?

What was really revealing is what lay on the inside cover of this issue of Christianity Today.  Just inside the cover was an ad for the NIV Life Application Bible.  The ad shows a young woman, with an open Bible on her lap, sitting on the edge of a dock with her feet dangling in the refreshing water, overlooking a beautiful solitary scene of a sparkling lake surrounded by distant trees…  She embodies the solitary reader of our day.  The ad declares, “no matter what you’re dealing with, the Bible offers answers to any question.”  In this era of the silent, solo reader of the Bible, we might do well to remember that before we bring all our questions to the text (and we have many important questions), and before we regard the Bible as yet another commodity that offers to meet our needs, we should first remember that the starting point of the Biblical revelation is this, God addresses us first.  We are addressed by God through his Word and we receive His Word in the company of the saints.  When we encounter Scripture this way, we will not be so quick to see the Bible as the proverbial tool bag, how-to manual, or secret map.  The Bible does, of course, speak to many of the endless issues which we face in our day to day lives.  However, God knows that we have deeper needs and issues which go way beyond anything we are able to fully articulate or understand. To use an analogy, we have come to recognize that our high priced sun chair on the upper deck of a large ship on its maiden voyage is no longer sitting straight.  God knows that the Titanic is sinking.  His “list” is always better than our “list.”

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