Monday, 13 June 2011

Is Reading the Bible Overrated?

I think Christians have largely missed the boat on the necessity of reading Scripture. I recently chatted to someone who felt almost as if they had sinned for not reading the Bible enough. Strange, as for the first 1400 years of the Church (perhaps longer), only the leaders and the elite few who could read had access to “bibles”. The rest of the Church had no Bible to read, and most could not read. Rather, Christians either waited until Sunday to hear the Scriptures read publicly (1 Tim. 4:13), or they memorised portions of Scripture. If a failure to read the Bible is tantamount to sinning, the early Christians up until the 15th century were doomed by necessity. So what’s up with our modern day drive to read the Bible?

Go back in time for a moment, to when Christianity had no collection of Scripture. Imagine we are one of the Christians who live in Philippi and all we have is Paul’s letter to the Philippians to tell us what being a Christian is all about. What kind of Christianity would that shape? (1:27-30) What vision and values would shape the community we inhabit? (2:1-4) What emphases would there be? (2:5-11) Now fast-forward to the present day and perhaps contemporary Christians are distracted by so many letters and books within the bible, that this has complicated matters. Imagine if we focussed, as must have been the case with the first Christians, on one or two letters, and shaped our Christian lives on the vision and ethos presented within those letters. What character and profile of Christianity would emerge from a concerted effort to live out the message of Philippians?

You see, for the first Christians reading the bible was not essential. Knowing the resurrected Lord Jesus, encountering the Spirit of God, obeying and implementing the teachings of Jesus and the first apostles, now that’s what was important. Christians confuse priorities when we spend more time trying to read the bible than obeying what we already know. The Scriptures are a means to an end, and that end is devotion to the triune God and faithfulness to His cause. Now of course, reading the Scriptures is an important part of equipping ourselves to engage in the Mission of God. But gaining information will not help us, we must actually understand what we’re reading and then begin to wrestle with the task of appropriating what we have learnt into our lives, communities and world.

For example: What was Paul trying to do in his letter to the Philippians? What’s it all about? How does he deal with the problems in Philippi? An inability to answer these basic questions suggests that our aim has usually been reading, instead of understanding. Reading the bible is useless if we don’t understand what we’ve read. And I’m not talking about a superficial understanding either, I’m talking about grappling with the theological and ethical vision that Paul is casting, not just knowing what happens chronologically through the letter of Philippians. Reading with understanding takes patience and perseverance. It takes attentiveness to the contours of Paul’s thoughts and arguments. It takes time, effort and help (Acts 8:30-31).

So should we stop reading our Bible’s? If the aim is to gain information, then yes. However, if the aim is to wrestle with God’s word until we hear God’s voice and understand what the true author is trying to say, then by all means, read, understand and most importantly, obey! As Origen, one of the early Church leaders has said:

If anyone ponders over [the scriptures] with all the attention and reverence they deserve, it is certain that in the very act of reading and diligently studying them their mind and feelings will be touched by a divine breath and they will recognise that the words they are reading are not utterances of people but the language of God.[1]

I have used Paul’s letter to the Philippians as an example, but this would equally apply to almost any letter, gospel or writing in the New Testament. These communities did not have access to all the writings of the New Testament, or even all the writings of the Old Testament. What they did have, they studied repeatedly until they could understand and obey. And when they didn’t understand and obey, they sought help by asking key people questions. And this is what led to the writings of the New Testament.

We are so privileged to have the entire canon. But we must not let that overwhelm us or make us lazy in wrestling with each contribution to the Scriptures. If more time was spent seeking to understand and appropriate one letter within the New Testament, rather than just reading the whole Bible, our devotion to the GOD of the Scriptures would be transformed. Faithfulness must take precedence over reading. Reading the Bible is merely a means to an end, to Know God and make Him Known.

Te totum applica ad textum. Rem totam applica ad te.
Apply yourself wholly to the text. Then apply it wholly to yourself
Johann Albrecht Bengel

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