On Reading Scripture

Repost from 2011. -JB

In the October 2011 issue of Christianity Today, J. Todd Billings has a gem of an article called, “How to Read the Bible.”  He makes the initial claim that “Even when the Bible is turned to as the authority, it’s not necessarily interpreted Christianly.”  He then describes the two most popular ways people approach Scripture today before offering another more fruitful and faithful approach.  Here’s how he describes most readers of the Bible today:

“When examining how we interpret Scripture, we should pay attention to our functional theology of Scripture: how our use of Scripture reflects particular beliefs about what the Bible is. There are two common approaches to using Scripture today.

Some readers start with a detailed blueprint of what the Bible says, then read individual passages of Scripture as if they were the concrete building blocks to fit into the blueprint. They translate each passage into a set of propositions or principles that fit the established details of the blueprint. This approach assumes that we already know the larger meaning of Scripture; our system of theology gives us the meaning. Thus, the task of interpreting Scripture becomes a matter of discovering where in our theological system a particular passage fits.

Others prefer a smorgasbord approach. Imagine a huge cafeteria loaded with food of many kinds for many tastes; you are at the cafeteria with the members of a small-group Bible study. Can you imagine what some of the other members of the group would choose to eat? I suspect that there might even be patterns based on age, gender, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status, but each person chooses which foods to feast on based his or her appetite. In the smorgasbord approach to Scripture, the Bible becomes the answer book for our felt needs and personal perspectives.

With both the blueprint and smorgasbord approaches, we end up using Scripture for our own purposes. We are in control. The Bible may be viewed as authoritative, but it provides either confirmation of our preconceived ideas or divine advice for felt needs.”

Billings then suggests a “theological reading of Scripture” whereby “our reading sends us on a journey in which God in Scripture encounters us again and again, both with comforting signs of his presence and surprises that confound us, yet may open new vistas.”  He adds: “Reading Scripture is not about solving puzzles but discerning a mystery. Through Scripture, we encounter no less than the mysterious triune God himself.”

I’m so thankful for this article, as I have been very passionate about this topic for some years.  A short piece I wrote a few years back was published at Jesus Creed and Gospel.com, also addressing the problem I see with making the Scriptures bend to our own purposes as we mine the Bible for simple self-help principles and demand that God’s Word always “apply to our lives” — reinforcing our self-absorption with our own life’s concerns and needs.  Read my The Dark Side of Bible Reading for more.  This prompted me to write a serious of 8 posts on Reading the Bible.

I am in a new season of ministry as we are on the cusp of starting regular worship services at MainStreet, and I will soon have the opportunity to regularly preach and open the Scriptures together with our new church. Different churches handle the Scripture differently, and I’ve been spending extended time seeking God as to how I will approach preaching at MainStreet.  For example, will we go the expository route where we go verse-by-verse through books, bringing out the significance of what happens to be in each text?  Or, will we go the topical direction, letting relevant topics and contemporary concerns shape which texts we explore to find God’s truth on the matter?  Or, will be follow the lectionary?

These are all significant questions to ask.  One thing is certain: My own experience of Scripture’s power to radically interrupt my life and change my direction, and my own repeated encounters with the Living God who continues to speak afresh through Scripture have deeply shaped my view of Scripture and how we should approach God’s word.

Every evangelical church has the Bible as a core value in their founding and guiding documents. But as Billings has pointed out, how we approach the Bible will differ from church to church, from pastor to pastor.  MainStreet’s website says this about the Scripture as a core value:

LIVING WORD: God’s Word is alive and active, speaking afresh to us today.

When people show up for worship at MainStreet, we don’t just want them to learn sound doctrine, better understand Bible history, or gain some spiritual principles to live by. Yes, we hope they get these as well. But what we desire most at MainStreet is for people to find their own lives swept up into the much bigger story of what God has done and is still doing in the world, and to have a fresh, life-altering encounter with the Living God by the illuminating power of the Holy Spirit in order to live a more Jesus-shaped life.

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