Shaped by the Word: what should happen when we read the Bible?

I’ve been reflecting again on how to read the Christian scriptures and on how to open them in preaching. A range of conversations and experiences have fed this reflection: I had a fascinating conversation with Martin Horakovi about the prevalent preaching styles he has observed in the URC and in his native Czech church; I’ve been engaged in an interesting discussion about hermeneutics with some of my URC colleagues on their blog; I’ve followed a Facebook thread in the URC group about whether and how we can know Jesus; I had the fascinating experience of a week of Anglican morning and evening prayers, with their characteristic and initially disconcerting style of antiphonal recitation of the Psalms.

All of this has helped my crystallise my deeply felt but inadequately articulated approach to the Bible. I’ve posted on this here before (herehere, and here) and I also published an essay on it from my MTh on my other blog (here). None of this has felt to me like it quite said what I wanted it to, and I don’t suppose this post will either, but here goes.

My starting points are:

  • a strong sense of the distance between us and God related to our fallen sinfulness and God’s absolute perfection, leading to a scepticism about the possibility of full human knowledge of God or even of our understanding fully God’s communication with us (we find it hard enough to understand one another after all – says the fan of Samuel Beckett);
  •  an equally strong sense of God’s will to make known what we need to know and are capable of knowing;
  • a conviction that God stands beyond time, history, culture and language and that we are inextricably caught up and formed by them;
  • an orthodox belief that Jesus Christ mediates these two domains enabling us to enter into relationship with God;
  • that this work of his continues through his continuing living presence in word and sacrament made possible by the work of the Holy Spirit;
  • that we are given the Biblical record to enable us to understand properly what is revealed to us in this living encounter (and not vice versa);
  • that this record witnesses to God’s reaching out to the chosen people (Israel and then the Church, with Christ the centre) but is not itself that reaching out;
  • that the authors of the texts collected in the Bible were fallen, sinful human beings trying to do their best to capture what was given to them but liable to failure and fully involved in their history, culture and language, not transcending them;
  • that the work of interpretation goes on and will always do so until the full revelation of God at the end of historical time (the eschaton).

Given all this I see the text of the Bible as critical and central, as the supreme authority for our life as a Church, but I don’t see it as a single fixed revelation of God. Rather it is the site for a special kind of encounter with God that can only come fully alive in the community of the Church as the Body of Christ. That’s why preaching is so central in the Reformed tradition. It is the action which brings the text into the body and the opportunity for the Spirit to bring us into the presence of Christ (to use the Calvinist way of understanding this moment that I personally value very highly).

Talk of the Spirit’s action freed from the bounds of history and of the Bible (popular among a certain strand of quasi-charismatic liberalism) is no more attractive to me than talk of the Bible as revealing static truths or lessons that can be “applied” to the Church, as if from outside it. Neither of these capture the way the Spirit works dynamically with rather than against or outside history. The power and beauty of the Bible is that it links us to the 3000 continuous years of God’s relationship with “us” (by which I mean the people chosen to be the dwelling place of God’s presence on earth, to borrow language from Ephesians).

We are the bearers of a historical and temporal revelation of God which has Jesus at its centre. This centrality is not just in memory but continues in the life of the Church. To make the reading of the Bible separate from and outside this history does not do God’s continuing action justice, just as to try to move the Bible aside does not do justice to the continuity of that action across time.

The way the Spirit works, if we allow it to, is to use the Biblical text to shape us and to integrate us with the people of God across the dimensions of space and time. I got a really strong sense of this in the Anglican prayer I took part in. The text of the Psalms, encountered in that very particular way, transcends our historical and cultural differences. It is both rendered back into the liturgical poetry it was when written and freed from antiquarian curiosity of the kind often encountered in academic Biblical studies.

The language begins to shape one’s perceptions of one’s own place and role and its deep relationship with that of the priests of ancient Israel. This kind of shift of viewpoint is exactly what I think good preaching can do. We need to make people aware of who and what they are as the Church. This formation of our people as a genuine priesthood of all believers is the core task of ministry, as I currently see it, and is unthinkable without a deep and well formed relationship to the Scriptures.

As I prepare to become a minister to the two congregations I am to serve I pray that the Spirit may be with me and with them week by week as I open God’s Word.

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