How do we read the Word?

Thoughts on Seeing the Word: Refocusing New Testament Study: Part 2.

*Before I begin, I want to acknowledge the fact that after reading this post, some might say, “I didn’t know there was problem.” One of the unfortunate consequences of the gap between the academy and the church is the fact that each camp is often unaware of the other camp’s “big issues.” The major discussions or points contention in the ecclesial world often aren’t even on the radar of the academic world – and vice versa. This is a problem for a number of reasons, but for the following discussion I think it is best to point out that often the church should be aware of discussions taking place in the academic world even though those discussion might not have sprung from the immediate needs of the church. In other words, it is a healthy exercise to be pointed toward the things which we don’t know that we don’t know. I have a feeling that this is one of those issues.

In the chapter entitled “The Wisdom of the Implied Exegete” Bockmuehl writes,

At a time when even to sympathetic outside observers it often seems that modern theology is primarily the study of modern theologians and New Testament studies is primarily preoccupied with rearranging the deck chairs of New Testament scholars, it could be a fruitful exercise to take time out and ponder what has gone amiss. We have lost sight of the real thing. We are accustomed and indeed trained to confuse text and commentary, the Word and the words, contentedly submerging the former under the deluge of the latter.(89)

Bockmuehl is exploring how we should read the text of the New Testament (and really, all of Scripture). The history of New Testament interpretation over the past 200 years has seen a wide divergence in interpretive methodology (hermeneutics) – a polyvalence of “ways of reading” – which greatly contrasts the methods in the 1800-ish years preceding. Much can be said in this regard, but suffice to say that the past 200 years of reading have been characterized a hermeneutic that privileges the autonomous rational subject. In other words, the individual seeks to understand the text basically through the power of rational/intellectual faculties. More recently, these readings have given way to a “deconstruction” of the text which has led to interpretive pluralism: “the text demands nothing but can yield anything under the proper caress.”

Bockmuehl suggests that what the academy has (sometimes intentionally) ignored is that the implied interpreter of Christian Scripture is a disciple. The text is best approach not with reason, but with wisdom. Scripture itself offers little in the direction of critical reason and inquiry. In fact, both the New and Old Testaments are quite skeptical about autonomous reason (See Ecclesiastes and Romans 1). That is not to say that interpreters are to be un-reasonable, but that our reason needs transformation (Romans 12), and it is only the transformed mind that can discern and embrace the text. In other words, it is wisdom of God (Christ-centered and Spirit-driven) that the interpreter needs. “Only reason thus renewed by the Spirit can behold the beauty of God.” And, importantly, interpretation should be a communal and ecclesial task.  Why do even Christian scholars refuse to exegete this way?

Maybe this all seems rather obvious. The discussion is trickier and more complicated than I make it sound in 500 words, but perhaps all the complicated details shroud the fact that, to Christians at least, this task should be far more simple than the academy has made it. The academy wasn’t always to blame – for 1800-ish years the greatest Christian minds bathed themselves in Scripture and depended on the Spirit for guidance. It is actually the testimony of those saints that has recently prompted scholars to reevaluate what biblical interpretation is all about – to move aside all the debris of the Enlightenment and get back to reading what is there and listening to what the Spirit says.

Where do you fall in the midst of all of this? Do you see a problem with the way that we read Scripture?

grace and peace,

Seth

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3 thoughts on “How do we read the Word?

  1. Sethera!!! You are quite the writer and I had to read this twice to understand what you were saying…some parts more than twice. But no matter how many times I had to read it, I was going to read it…because you wrote it and I always walk away conversations with you intrigued and enlightened. And this blog was no different.

    I think that this is something that I have been thinking about recently as I try to read through the Word without much inputs from others. I often find myself wanting to have someone explain what it is supposed to be communicating to me, venturing to google for answers and direction, rather than simply venturing to the one who wrote it for me.

    I’m in the midst of learning to read and waiting…waiting for guidance and direction about what I’ve read. Being patient and obedient are 2 very very hard things but I don’t really have much of a choice right now…I know I need to be in the word and though I don’t know what it is exactly trying to tell me its a little bit of a fresh of breath air to learn to figure it out without the inputs of scholars or fellow believers.

    How often to we venture to the Word looking for the answers we want to find rather than truly looking for what it is we are supposed to hear? I must confess I do too often.

    Just my thoughts. Miss ya friend!

  2. One problem I’ve recently realized I’ve succumbed to is to read the Bible as if it is written to me as an individual, rather than to the church as a community and to God’s people as a plural group. One day I just realized that my favorite verse, Jeremiah 29:11-13, was not written to a “you” singular. It’s not about God’s plan for me as individual, but rather about God’s plan for a group. I think the tendency to approach the bible as an individual seeking understanding through reason, like you said above, is pretty common in the church, at least in my experience, but it seems like most of the bible has an intended audience who is clearly plural. The promises aren’t necessarily to prosper us as individuals, or for our good as individuals, but are always about the good of the church as a whole.

  3. Thanks friends.
    It’s true that we have (in the West?) individualized interpretation (and discipleship) in a way that is not faithful to the communal life God calls us to. The cultures reflected in the Old and New Testament had far more of a sense of corporate identity than we do, and it is certainly true that the Bible is concerned with painting obedience in terms of being a part of Israel or being a part of the church, not just the plight of the individual.
    Can it not be both though? Can we not say that Scripture has an intended audience that is both plural and singular? There’s an interesting trajectory through Scripture that increasingly favors the faith and obedience of individuals, but not at the sake of community.
    So, I completely agree, but I don’t want to see the proverbial baby thrown out with the bathwater. I’m afraid that in a (needed) reaction to individualistic interpretive tendencies, some have swung the pendulum too far in the opposite direction – stressing community over against personal experience, instead of properly situating personal experience within community.
    – peace

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