Some time ago, Chalcedon produced a series on reading the Bible from a Catholic perspective (the role of the Magisterium, the combined counsel of the Fathers and nihil-obstat-certified commentaries, etc.). In this post I shall avoid using technical language as much as possible. Rather, I would like to bring to the fore questions we ask ourselves when we read the Bible, whether it is to learn/establish a formal doctrine or to find personal application for daily life.
“Among whom are you also the called of Jesus Christ”; the application context of this verse is the Christians in the city of Rome. However, when Christians throughout the centuries have read the Bible, they have made the assumption that the letters teach principles that are applicable in any age, not just for the people in the city to whom the epistle was addressed. When we as Christians today read this verse, if we are giving it any attention, on some level we will either ask ourselves if we are the “called of Jesus Christ” or affirm that we are indeed the “called of Jesus Christ”.
“For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believes; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek.” Reading this verse, one discovers that the “gospel of Christ” is the power of God for salvation to all who believe. The word “power” here is striking: it doesn’t say “means”. Verses like these, if read with an open, inquiring mind, can expose the kind of baggage we bring with us when we read the Bible. “Gospel” means “Good News”, and news is spoken, proclaimed, preached, announced. In a culture where words, writing, and speaking are undervalued in comparison to “action” (whatever that is…), it seems like foolishness that a “message” can have power to save people.
This is why it is so important to be honest with ourselves and with other people, and why it is so helpful to discuss the Bible with other people and consult commentaries etc. Getting a sense of externality, of objectivity for our problems and concerns is an important step in dealing with them: “in the multitude of counsellors there is safety” (Prov. 11:14). The benefit of discussion that we can obtain by attending a regular mid-week Bible study, home-group, or accountability group is invaluable. And I would encourage anyone who is seeking to delve deeper in the Bible to find someone they trust to have hard conversations with. This blog is a wonderful place for bringing up questions and resources that might be unknown or unpalatable to us, but it is not a substitute for face-to-face interaction with a minister or prayer-partner.
Something I have found invaluable over the years, and which has helped me to prepare sermons and Bible studies, is a Bible with cross-references or a concordance. These are, of course, limited resources: some verses may be paired up that shouldn’t be, and one can be quite subjective in looking for the links between things. Nevertheless, gathering the relevant material from all parts of the Bible for a particular topic can be very useful in helping one to understand the structure and limits of an idea. One of the problems a person can have when reading the Bible (or someone’s interpretation of it) is “rightly dividing” it, to use Paul’s terminology. Sometimes people think two concepts exist because two different words are used in the Greek or Hebrew, when really there is one concept and two words are being used to bring out different nuances. Conversely, there are times when people lump things together that really are fairly distinct and need to be read in their proper contexts.
Now context is a word that gets used a lot in Bible studies, and it is good that we pay more attention to it than previously. But there is also the danger of using “context” as an excuse for ignoring the universality and personal application of the principle behind a verse. It’s no good saying, “I’m not a Judahite afraid of the Assyrians”. You are still a follower of Christ, and all of God’s word is relevant for your life. As a charismatic, I have experienced times when a verse of God’s Word has spoken to me in a way that I would find difficult to justify to others, nevertheless I must follow in faith.
“Believe me that I am in the Father, and the Father in me: or else believe me for the very works’ sake. Truly, truly, I say to you, He that believes on me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do; because I go to my Father.” (Jn. 14:11-12) Our good works are evidence of our faith in Jesus the Messiah. The good works done by both parties should give us pause for thought when we criticise each other’s handling of the Bible – because our works flow from what we believe.
We need to be willing to let things go and to understand the unity of the Spirit that binds us together. Our perception of how things are is not always right: to one man there appears to be an abyss, a gaping void; another man feels as if, for the first time in his life, he can breathe free air.