“I want to know one thing: the way to heaven, how to land safe on that happy shore. God himself has condescended to teach the way; for this very end he came from heaven. He has written it down in the book. O give me that book! At any price, give me the book of God! I have it: here is knowledge enough for me. Let me be homo unius libri [a man of one book]. Here then I am, far from the busy ways of men. I sit down alone-only God is here. In his presence I open, I read his Book for this end, to find the way to heaven. Is there a doubt concerning the meaning of what I read? Does anything appear dark or intricate? I lift up my heart to the Father of lights: ‘Lord, is it not your Word, “If any man lacks wisdom, let him ask of God”? You “give liberally and upbraidest not” [Jas. 1.5]. You have said, “If any be willing to do your will, he shall know.” [Jn. 7.17] I am willing to do, let me know your will. I then search after and consider parallel passages of Scripture, ‘comparing spiritual things with spiritual’ [1 Cor. 2.13]. I meditate thereon, with all the attention and earnestness of which my mind is capable. If any doubt still remains, I consult those who are experienced in the things of God, and then the writings whereby, being dead, they yet speak. And what I thus learn, that I teach.” [From John Wesley (Library of Protestant Thought) edited by Albert C. Outler, 89-90]
Ellen Davis reports a time when she was a part of a discussion with scholars representing a broad spectrum of Christian traditions. One question on the table, “Identify the kinds of theological inquiry that should be pursued and funded in order to provide solid intellectual grounding for this stage of the church’s life.” In other words, what is the biggest need that the Church faces today? Davis’ answer is stunningly simple, “To learn again to read and teach the Bible confessionally.” What does that mean? “The need for the church to learn afresh to acknowledge the Bible as the functional center of its life, so that in all our conversations, deliberations, arguments, and programs, we are continually reoriented to the demands and the promises of the Scripture. Reading the Bible confessionally means recognizing it as a word that is indispensable if we are to view the world realistically and hopefully. We acknowledge it as a divine word that is uniquely powerful to interpret our experience. But more, we allow ourselves to be moved by it, trusting it is the one reliable guide to a life that is not, in the last analysis, desperate. Reading the Bible confessionally means reading it as the church’s Scripture.” [from The Art of Reading Scripture, 9-10]
“Greeting in God, my most excellent sir, and venerable son Gregory, from Origen. A natural readiness of comprehension, as you well know, may, if practice be added, contribute somewhat to the contingent end, if I may so call it, of that which any one wishes to practise. Thus, your natural good parts might make of you a finished Roman lawyer or a Greek philosopher, so to speak, of one of the schools in high reputation. But I am anxious that you should devote all the strength of your natural good parts to Christianity for your end; and in order to this, I wish to ask you to extract from the philosophy of the Greeks what may serve as a course of study or a preparation for Christianity, and from geometry and astronomy what will serve to explain the sacred Scriptures, in order that all that the sons of the philosophers are wont to say about geometry and music, grammar, rhetoric, and astronomy, as fellow-helpers to philosophy, we may say about philosophy itself, in relation to Christianity.”
“Do you then, my son, diligently apply yourself to the reading of the sacred Scriptures. Apply yourself, I say. For we who read the things of God need much application, lest we should say or think anything too rashly about them. And applying yourself thus to the study of the things of God, with faithful prejudgments such as are well pleasing to God, knock at its locked door, and it will be opened to you by the porter, of whom Jesus says, To him the porter opens. And applying yourself thus to the divine study, seek aright, and with unwavering trust in God, the meaning of the holy Scriptures, which so many have missed. Be not satisfied with knocking and seeking; for prayer is of all things indispensable to the knowledge of the things of God. For to this the Saviour exhorted, and said not only, Knock, and it shall be opened to you; and seek, and you shall find, but also, Ask, and it shall be given unto you. My fatherly love to you has made me thus bold; but whether my boldness be good, God will know, and His Christ, and all partakers of the Spirit of God and the Spirit of Christ. May you also be a partaker, and be ever increasing your inheritance, that you may say not only, We have become partakers of Christ, but also partakers of God.” [Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 4. Edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe.]
As I mentioned earlier I am going to post a series of gems that I stumble upon as I work my way through RIchard Hays’ The Conversion of the Imagination.
At the opening of the book Richard Hays does a superb job outlining few broad features that are characteristic of Paul’s approach to the reading of the Scriptures:
First, Hays highlights the pastoral context of Paul’s reading of Scripture. He writes, “His readings are not merely flights of imaginative virtuosity; rather, they seek to shape the identity and actions of a community called by God to be the bearers of grace. The conversion of the imagination that Paul seeks is not merely the spiritual enlightenment of individuals but rather the transformed consciousness of the community of the faithful.” [xv-xvi]
Second, Paul’s reading of Scripture has a poetic character to it. Hays writes, “He finds in Scripture a rich source of image and metaphor that enables him to declare with power what God is doing in the world in his own time. He reads the Bible neither as a historian nor as a systematic theologian but as a poetic preacher who discerns analogical correspondence between the scriptural story and the gospel that he proclaims.” [xvi]
Three, Hays points out the narrative mode of Paul’s engagement with the text. “It is not for him merely a repository of isolated proof texts; rather, it is a saga of God’s election, judgment, and redemption of a people through time. Paul sees the church that has come into being in his own day as the heir of that vast ancient story and the remarkable fulfillment of the promises made to Israel.” [xvi]
Four, Paul reads the scripture with an eschatological mindset. “The fulfillment of those promises has taken an entirely unexpected turn because of the world-shattering apocalyptic event of the crucifixion and resurrection of the Messiah, Jesus. When he rereads Israel’s Scripture retrospectively, Paul finds prefigurations of this revelatory event- which nevertheless came as a total surprise to Israel and continues to function as a stumbling block for those who do not believe. Once the Scripture are grasped in light of this hermeneutical key, their pervasively eschatological character comes into focus.” [xvi]
Fifth, Paul reads the Scripture with the hermeneutic of trust. “He believes that Scripture discloses a God who loves us and can be trusted, in his righteousness, to his promises and to save us. Thus, he always comes to the reading of Israel’s Scripture with the expectation that what he will find there is a word of deep grace.” [xvi]
Apostle Paul’s interpretation of the Old Testament has been a challenge for the modern readers of his letters. I remember one of my profs making an off-hand comment while we were working through the Greek text of Paul’s letter to the Romans, “Kids, don’t do this at home. You will not get an A for this kind of exegesis.” Richard Hays has been one of leading voices trying to make sense of Paul as interpreter of Israel’s Scripture. I recently came to his book The Conversion of the Imagination which seeks to “come to grips with one of the most brilliant and provocative readers of Scripture that Israel’s tradition has ever produced”, namely Apostle Paul. Hays’ conceptual framework can be summed up in this following quotation, “to link two dimensions of Paul’s thought that are often set in artificial antithesis to one another: narrative continuity with Israel’s story and radical apocalyptic transformation. In 1 Corinthians both elements are grounded in Paul’s reading of Israel’s Scripture. I contend that Paul’s pastoral strategy for reshaping the consciousness of his pagan converts was to narrate them into Israel’s story through metaphorical appropriation of Scripture- and precisely by so doing to teach them to think apocalyptically.” [xi] Everything in Pauline hermeneutics seems to flow from this overarching framework.
[Note: stay tuned for some more nuggets from Hays as I work my way through this book.]
“To affirm the ‘the authority of scripture’ is precisely not to say, ‘We know what scripture means and don’t need to raise any more questions.’ It is always a way of saying that the church in each generation must make fresh and rejuvenated efforts to understand scripture more fully and live by it more thoroughly, even if that means cutting across cherished traditions.” [N.T. Wright, The Last Word: Beyond the Bible Wars to a New Understanding of the Authority of Scripture, 91]
“Let it therefore be held as fixed, that those who are inwardly taught by the Holy Spirit acquiesce implicitly in Scripture; that Scripture, carrying its own evidence along with it, deigns not to submit to proofs and arguments, but owes the full conviction with which we ought to receive it to the testimony of the Spirit. Enlightened by him, we no longer believe, either on our own judgment or that of others, that the Scriptures are from God; but, in a way superior to human judgment, feel perfectly assured—as much so as if we beheld the divine image visibly impressed on it—that it came to us, by the instrumentality of men, from the very mouth of God. We ask not for proofs or probabilities on which to rest our judgment, but we subject our intellect and judgment to it as too transcendent for us to estimate. This, however, we do, not in the manner in which some are wont to fasten on an unknown object, which, as soon as known, displeases, but because we have a thorough conviction that, in holding it, we hold unassailable truth; not like miserable men, whose minds are enslaved by superstition, but because we feel a divine energy living and breathing in it—an energy by which we are drawn and animated to obey it, willingly indeed, and knowingly, but more vividly and effectually than could be done by human will or knowledge.” [John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, book 1, chapter vii, section 5]
I just came across an interview with David Steinmetz, Amos Ragan Kearns professor of the history of Christianity at Duke Divinity School, about sola scriptura and the Reformers use of the early Church Fathers. Here is a snippet:
“The Reformation is an argument not just about the Bible but about the early Christian fathers, whom the Protestants wanted to claim. This is one of those things that is so obvious nobody has paid much attention to it—then you look and you see it everywhere. The Reformers use the Fathers all over the place. We know Calvin read Augustine, and we discovered recently that Luther read Jerome—he had copies annotated in his own hand. The index of Calvin’s Institutes is filled with an enormous number of quotations from the Fathers. And in the first preface to that work, addressed to Francis I, Calvin did his best to show his teachings were in complete harmony with the Fathers. The Protestants did this because they were keen to have ancestors. They knew that innovation was another word for heresy. ‘Ours is the ancient tradition,’ they said. ‘The innovations were introduced in the Middle Ages!’ They issued anthologies of the Fathers to show the Fathers had taught what the Reformers were teaching.
But they also turned to the Fathers because they found them important sources of insight into the text of Scripture. Calvin and Melanchthon both believed it was a very strong argument against a given theological position if you couldn’t find authorization for it in the Fathers. All the Reformers loved Augustine (Luther, remember, was an Augustinian friar). Calvin, though he loved Augustine for doctrine, preferred Chrysostom’s approach to biblical interpretation. Chrysostom is a verse-by-verse commentator in his sermons. Calvin doesn’t mimic Chrysostom, but he appreciates his model. Augustine flies a little too high above the text for Calvin—he is too quick to go to figures of speech, allegory, and so forth. Chrysostom flies at a lower level.
Finally, the Reformation was not an argument about everything, but about just some things. It was not, for example, about the Trinity or the two natures of Christ. The Protestants had their own slant on these doctrines, but they agreed basically with Roman Catholics. Both confessed the Trinity and the two natures of Christ. And if we ask where these accepted doctrines came from—they came from the Fathers’ reflections on the Bible!”
Here is a segment of Gordon Fee’s article titled “Why Christians Read their Bibles Poorly” that suggests three steps on better reading and understanding of Scripture:
1. People need to learn to read in meaningful sections; and in order to do this they must get rid of the numbers. As useful as those number are for finding things, they are absolute distractions when it comes to informed reading. Not only are they all too often put in the wrong place, but they give people the idea that God had something to do with giving us a Bible in “verses”! And as long as people have numbers, they will read “a chapter a day looking for a verse for the day,” which in turn will keep them basically illiterate about Scripture as a whole. Fortunately, there will soon be such a Bible on the market, published by the International Bible Society, which attempts to format the Bible so as to be in keeping with almost everything else people read. But whatever else, in order to read well, one must get rid of the numbers.
2. People need to learn to read Scripture aloud. Silent reading, which works well in libraries, thank you, does not work well if people are trying to read with understanding and memory. Silent reading is a modern invention, whose advantage is reading more quickly—and please continue to read the newspaper and Time silently! Everyone in antiquity read—and prayed—aloud; this was simply the norm. The advantages of reading aloud are two: First, it slows one down enough so as to catch all the words, and often the nuances; second, three of your senses are involved not just one, which makes for better memory.
3. Most people will need to read with some kind of guide, such as our How to Read the Bible Book by Book. Whatever else, the guide should be a guide, not a commentary or study Bible that explains too much and gives the reader someone else’s opinion as to the meaning of what is being read. The guide should guide the reading, not comment on the meaning.
“One of the most common mistakes in biblical interpretation is to confuse familiarity with understanding. The only way to avoid this mistake is to study familiar texts thoroughly and to raise consciously the question of meaning at each point in the process of study. If this sort of self-conscious reading of texts is carried out honestly, then the texts can be read with greater understanding. Stripped of all its mystery and jargon, exegesis is nothing but reading and rereading biblical texts and trying to answer the questions raised by the reading process. If we do this often enough, then we eventually become competent readers and perceptive intepreters, able to use the Bible in the service of the church.” [Robert R. Wilson, “The Community of the Second Isaiah”, in Reading and Preaching the Book of Isaiah, 54-55]