Tag Archives: interpretation

Remembering How to Read the Bible

15th century image of St. Benedict of Nursia. Courtesy WIkipedia.
15th century image of St. Benedict of Nursia. Courtesy WIkipedia.

An isolated reader of Scripture is as dangerous as a self-taught surgeon.  One of the presenting conceits of contemporary Christianity is that the isolated interpreter has become normative.  Few things are deadlier to Christian truth than exegesis stifled by personal idolatries and hidden prejudices. Princeton Seminary’s C. Clifton Black suggests, as a cure to such (mis)reading, bringing the saints alongside us as we explore “the strange new world” we call Scripture.  He takes a cue from Benedictine spirituality and encourages reading the Bible with both hospitality (welcoming strangers) and humility.

If you’ve never experienced Benedictine hospitality, you’re missing out.  Following the lead of both the Bible and the Rule of St. Benedict, this vision of hospitality recognizes that in welcoming the stranger, we welcome Christ himself.  This delightfully informs our reading of Scripture, for if we meet angels unawares when welcoming guests, might the Spirit also speak to us about the truth of Scripture from voices we would otherwise ignore or neglect?  Thus, Black concludes:

“If like-mindedness is our overt or tacit criterion for interpreting Scripture in community, then we shouldn’t be surprised to hear only echoes of our own biases while learning little. Does the theologically liberal reader shield herself from scholarship more conservative? Does the neo-orthodox read nothing of the liberationist? For as long as members of the three Abrahamic faiths read their Scriptures only within conventicles, ignorance and mistrust are bound to proliferate. None of us holds  the truth in Scripture by the ears, and none of us ever shall. Hospitable interpreters seek help in understanding Scripture wherever they can find it. ” (58)

An openness to others’ thoughts naturally tends toward taking our own ideas less seriously.  The resulting – or at least correlative – humility is also a great aid to the exegete who desires her reading to be not only accurate or insightful but also an act of worship.  Humility is a monastic virtue that is foreign even to many Christian ears today.  Readers of Scripture, lay or clergy, novice or doctorate-wielding, would do well to remember the distance between our thoughts and God’s thoughts – and treat our interpretation of the text accordingly.  Again, Black is insightful:

“Because we are frail creatures and not our own Creator, we beware of mistaking our own voice for God’s alien word.  We discipline ourselves to listen more keenly, assuming our ignorance and not our knowledge. We resist a constant temptation to control other interpreters and to manipulate other voices – including those within Scripture itself. When the Lord sounds just like us – when Scripture can no longer surprise or disturb or offend us – we should be very, very afraid: it’s likely we’ve locked ourselves in an echo chamber. And if, God help us, we are entrusted with teaching others about Scripture, we should remember that we too much someday give an account of what we have said and done (Jas 3:1).”

The world has seen enough of proud,  isolated, and eccentric readings of the Bible.  What is needed today, for the renewal of the Church and her witness, is followers of Jesus who are able to read the holy writ well.  A humble and hospitable approach to the sacra pagina holds great promise, for personal study and discipleship but especially for community worship, witness, and discernment.  After all, the Bible is the book of the church, and reading it wisely means reading in a way that does not create a scandal  or shipwreck with our neighbors in the Body of Christ.

Benedictine vespers, from a monastery in New Jersey. Photo Credit: John Stephen Dwyer.
Benedictine vespers, from a monastery in New Jersey. Photo Credit: John Stephen Dwyer.

Humility and hospitality don’t cover everything, but I believe they would certainly go a long way towards renewing our encounter with the God’s word, which is, “living, active, and sharper than any two-edged sword. It penetrates to the point that it separates the soul from the spirit and the joints from the marrow. It’s able to judge the heart’s thoughts and intentions.” (Hebrews 4:12, CEB)  Such a gift from the Triune God’s treasury will not be opened to hearts ill-disposed to the humility and hospitality which mark a disciple of Jesus Christ, the incarnate Word from all virtue and wisdom flows.

What do you think? What other virtues are needed to read the Bible well? Are there downsides to these?

 

Source: Black, C. Clifton, Reading Scripture With the Saints (Eugene: Cascade Books 2014).

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Suffering through ‘The Late Great Planet Earth’: Part I

In preparation for leading a Bible study at my church on Revelation – which is a source of concern anyway just because of the incendiary nature of conversations centered on the book – I’m attempting to look at all sides.  Attempting, I say, because I can’t pretend to give a fair reading of certain materials.  At a young age, I was influenced by the premillenial dispensationalist crowd.  I read the Left Behind books and all jazz.  Only later did I realize what a house of cards that whole system was and is – but not before wasting a good deal of time, energy, and money on trying to know things beyond my station in life.

At any rate, I’m reading The Late Great Planet Earth by Hal Lindsey just to say that I did;  from the get-go, I have not thought I’d get anything from it – a prediction (nay, a prophecy!) that was right, unless you count the headache of actually going through it page by page.

But this book is so utterly terrible, so lacking in anything close to good Scriptural interpretation, so mind-bogglingly unsophisticated in its understanding of prophecy and history, that I need to vent.  And unfortunately for all of you, that means writing about it.  My reading copy is a 1992 Harper reprint that I found somewhere for $2; I thought one day I’d want to have it, if nothing else just to reference it.  Now, as research, I think it is important for me to read it so that I can say I have given this system a shot.  So here’s part I – my beef with the Introduction of the book:

Part I

Introduction and Preliminary Issues

“This is a book about prophecy – Bible prophecy. If you have no interest in the future, this isn’t for you.  If you have no curiosity about a subject that some consider controversial, then you might as well stop now.” (p. vii, the opening lines of the book)

Several things come to mind, not least of which is the desire to throw my computer monitor through the window of my office.  But that can wait.

First things first.  Right off the bat, we can see that we are dealing with a very narrow definition of “prophecy.”  He uses that specific phrase – “Bible prophecy” – to indicate his perspective.  Mickey Efird has pointed out that this is also just another name for the whole Darbyist system. 

But Lindsey here is telling us that prophecy is, in its totality, a future-oriented activity. “If you have no interest in the future, this isn’t for you.”  But what was prophecy about for those that wrote it?  For those that read it in the past?  In our own recent history, the prophetic tradition has been seen to be effective and powerful, not merely in “predicting” or looking at the future, but also (and primarily) for empowering God’s work in the world right now. 

Granted, it is an annoying cliché for seminarians to speak of their prophetic desire to “speak truth to power” – in truth, they are often just adolescents/young adults who want to rebel against the system like everyone else their age – but the power of the prophetic worldview remains.  Much power to fight injustice comes from the Bible’s great prophets.  Even the Special Forces have drawn inspiration from Isaiah’s comment to God: “Here I am, send me.” (Isaiah 6:8)

Secondly, there is no questioning at all of motivations behind this desire to know the future.  Here again on the first page, Lindsey notes,

As a traveling speaker for Campus Crusade for Christ [sigh] I had the opportunity to give messages on prophecy to thousands of people.  These messages have consistently proven to be popular with every age group. (p. vii)

But popular and edifying are not the same things.  They are often the opposite.  It is troubling that Lindsey never stops to ask why people are hungry to know the future, or if this is even a desire that should be encouraged.  It is our Lord Jesus, after all, that taught us to pray, “give us our daily bread.”  (Matthew 6:11)  The same Lord said, “Do not worry about tomorrow, for each day has enough troubles of its own.” (Matthew 6:34)  And lest we forget, he also said –  for me, this is the real clincher – “No one knows the day or the hour…not even the Son, but only the Father.” (Mark 13:32)

He goes on to say,

This is not a complex theological treatise, but a direct account of the most thrilling, optimistic view of what the future could hold for any individual. (p. vii)

Will he is absolutely correct that nothing he writes is theologically complex.  We’re not even in the same neighborhood as theologically complex.  What I find preposterous is the notion that anything he writes is “thrilling” or “optimistic.”  He’s talking about massive wars, death and disease on a grand scale, and we are supposed to be thrilled?  I find that disturbing.

Lastly, a note on the final paragraph of the introduction:

In this book I am attempting to step aside and let the prophets speak. (viii)

An excellent sentiment.  Too bad it is total and complete poppycock.  When it comes to any Scripture, and especially those dealing with eschatology (study of the end times), we can never simply “step aside” and let them speak.  As a preacher, I am not a tabula rasa when it comes to the Bible.  Neither is Lindsey as an author.  We always come to Scripture with a hermeneutic of some kind, an interpretive lens through which read.  This is even, and perhaps especially true, for those who are the most radical sola Scriptura-minded.  Even if you go to 1st  Independent Fundamental Bible Church, someone has taught you how to read and interpret Scripture, whether formally or informally. 

When it comes to Lindsey, he should be honest enough to put his cards on the table.  He should be honest enough to say he didn’t invent this mode of Bible “prophecy.”  A book like this doesn’t come from reading the Bible in a vacuum.  His lineage includes folks like John Nelson Darby and Cyrus Scofield.  His descendants include Tim Lahaye and the current crop of dispensationalists.

To conclude, I should confess to having no interest in the details of the many kinds of premillenials.  If you are looking for me to examine nuances in this field, you’re going to be disappointed.  People spend years and decades researching the nuances among different schemes of Bible prophecy.  I think this is a tragic, scandalous waste.   Jesus himself spent a great deal more of his own ministry doing things like eating with sinners, healing he sick, and teaching about the Kingdom than trying to help people figure out when he was coming back for them.

 Oh well.  More to come.

All this was from reading a two-page introduction.   I apologize in advance…

…and now its time to toss this monitor out the window.