(I’m going to sound grumpy, but I’m not, I’ve just been thinking a lot about the use of the Bible.)
It concerns me how badly the Bible is used by most evangelicals. Much of it stems from a failure to understand what sort of book(s) the Bible is.
When I was nine, an elder in my Baptist church gave me the tool I needed to become a preacher: a big brown leather copy of Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance. For those who don’t know it, it lists every occurrence of every word used in the King James Version.
The method of preaching I learned from listening to a lot of sermons as a kid was to get Strong’s out, look up the key word in question and find every occurrence of it – ‘hope’, for example. Once you’ve read all these verses – each verse being a unit of truth, a proposition about the topic – you would have gained a ‘biblical’ picture of the topic at hand.
If you wanted to be particularly clever, you threw in the ‘real meaning’ of the Greek or Hebrew word in question.
Billy Graham lends his approval to this form of Bible study in his book Billy Graham Talks To Teenagers; he urges them all to get a Naves Topical Bible; it’s much more convenient – it arranges the Bible by topic, instead of that pesky book by book arrangement that God saw fit to saddle us with. ‘The object of this book is to bring together in cyclopedic form and under familiar headings all that the Bible teaches on particular subjects.’ (p. 23)
The way I hear the Bible used often by evangelicals today isn’t too different from this in its assumptions. The basic failure is a failure to even attempt to understand context. (The main difference from when I was kid is that amongst non-fundamentalists and non-Sydney Anglicans, you don’t have to worry about being particuarly ‘biblical’; a few verses thrown in are often enough.)
First of all there’s the belief that each verse is a unit of truth. Each verse is read as if it can be plucked out of its context in a particular book, in a particular story or in a particular letter, addressed to a particular place and time, and read as if it is a timeless truth for today.
Alas not many verses work like this, so evangelicals keep going back to their favourite verses – Romans 8:28; John 3:16 – the ones that can be understood to work in this way.
Secondly, preachers too often move between the Old Testament and the New Testament, plucking out verses without putting those passages into the overall framework of God’s narrative of salvation. (The Bible is treated as a flat book, equally ‘inspired’; a verse from the Old Testament is just as valuable as a verse from the New Testament and is speaking in the same way to us.)
Thirdly, there is rarely any attempt to understand the social and historical context of passages. Looking at the work on Paul being done by the New Perspective scholars, including Reta Finger, I am more and more believing that without a good understanding of these contexts, readers will get the Bible terribly wrong despite the best of intentions.
Which brings me to one of my concerns with the house church movement, a movement I am associated with. In the push toward small, simple church, there is often an even greater disparaging of scholarship and of theology. In reacting against the travesty of the passive laity, the mistake is being made that anyone can do this, that we don’t need people who have studied theology to inform our learning. The result is shared ignorance, a failure to get past the misreadings of the Bible people already have, or the risk – present in every church – of going down a leader’s crazy path.
I don’t have an answer to some of the dilemmas posed here. If I’m sounding elitist, I guess I am. I long for the fruits of careful and sometimes brilliant scholarship to affect our church. But the timelag is long and sometimes the interface just isn’t there.
I’d really like it if an emphasis on reading the Bible contextually wasn’t confined to the Sydney Anglicans.