It’s not your Bible.

“Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asked.
“How can I,” he said, “unless someone explains it to me?”

When I was watching the movie Luther a few months back, I was jarred by one scene in particular:

-Have you ever read the New Testament, Martin?
-No, Father.
-Not many have, but in Wittenberg you will.
-A doctorate in theology.
-You’re sending me away to study?
-I’m sending you to the source…the Scriptures.
Christ Himself.

What caught my attention is the fact that a priest would not have READ the New Testament. Since people started keeping up with such things, about 6 billion Bibles have been sold. That’s more than half of the current world population, so even trying to imagine a time when a priest would not have actually read the New Testament is nearly impossible.

We have many different versions, translations, and perversions of the Bible to choose from. If you haven’t read the New Testament by now, it’s because you haven’t chosen to, not because you haven’t had the opportunity.

But the church in Martin Luther’s day wasn’t interested in having everyone read the New Testament, or the Original Testament either. They could listen to it, be taught from it, and even carry the church’s copy in to worship, but it wasn’t something to be handed around and put into more popular formats.

Maybe the church was too protective, and Luther (as well as others such as the Waldensians) did the church a great service by helping put the Bible in our hands. The church, however has not been careful enough to instruct us in reading the Bible.

Now you can pick up a study edition, a for teens edition, even a YOU edition and jump right in. The iBible video on Youtube is a parody, but it’s not as effective considering how close it is to the reality of what’s available.

The idea that the Bible belongs to you because you purchased it in a store is dangerous. I heard a teen testify to literally turning through the Bible and opening it to a random page when needing advice on a decision. She admitted that she was confused by the passage she flipped to. Of course she was. No one had taught her to read scripture. No one had informed her that she didn’t own the word of God, that if used improperly, the Bible could end up being just another book, or worse, a means for our own self-gratification.
So how do we learn to read scripture? I teach an adult Sunday school class, and we’ve spent time talking about it, and I do think small group studies are necessary, but worship is the best place to learn. Scripture is the language of worship. We listen together. We pray that the words will do their work, that the pastor will speak truth, that the Spirit will move us. We sing scripture, we pray scripture, we are enculturated by it. Thanks be to God that we can receive such a gift.

3 thoughts on “It’s not your Bible.”

  1. Great post!

    The problem is complicated by the fact that much Protestant worship is no longer liturgical. Even in many semi-liturgical churches Scriptural language and imagery is abandoned for more “contemporary” or “modern” ways of speaking. I heard a children’s sermon the other day in which an egg was used to teach the doctrine of the Trinity. Now perhaps, such a thing could be done effectively by a really wise person steeped in Scripture and Christian theology (though I tend to doubt it) but I would think we would want to begin by using images drawn from Scripture itself (such as marriage and family).

    Biblical language and imagery is no longer woven into the fabric of much Protestant worship in the way it once was because Protestant worship has itself been shaped by the “me and my Bible” mentality, revivalism, etc.

    As you know, I teach SS too, but I would almost be willing to put a moratorium on “Bible study” and the whole business of “understanding” the Bible in a scholarly or intellectual sense for a period of simple Bible memorization and immersion. This approach would be similar to the difference between learning about a language and culture by going and living in a foreign country for a year or so instead of taking a foreign language class. Though I suppose it might be even better (and more realistic) to combine the two.

    Practically speaking, this would mean a much greater use of Scripture-soaked traditional liturgy and psalmody. It would mean having a significant reading from the OT, Gospel, and Epistles each week. It would mean having read prayers that incorporate Biblical language. It would also mean daily devotions consisting of the same. Once people begin to ooze it out their pores, then we can begin to tackle the questions of meaning, interpretation, etc.

    The great thing about the above approach is that it anyone can do it. You don’t have to be an intellectual or scholar, etc. It works great with kids of all ages.

    If we have to enter the kingdom as little children, then perhaps we need to think about how little children learn. They learn first and foremost, of course, by imitation. They learn to speak by being spoken to, not by being given grammar lessons.

  2. I don’t think memorization is the key, but rather we need to grasp large concepts and the story of the bible as a whole.

    As I understand the UMC, we are each allowed our own view on how to read the bible. In my own local congregation I’ve seen fundamentalists to so-called “liberals”.

    One of the best sermons out pastor ever had was to discuss how to read the bible, and he discussed the via media , the middle road approach.

    The greatest issue when reading the bible is to not become an atheist, especially when reading it without any preconceived theology. There are portions that are contradictory, and the attempts to try to rationalize it into a harmonious whole will lead you down the path of literalism or insanity.

  3. Dave, you’re right that memorization isn’t the answer. However, a lot of the people in the congregation (including me) aren’t as steeped in Biblical language as they need to be.

    There was a time when the most quoted passages in the English language came from the Bible, Shakespeare and Wordsworth. That time wasn’t all that long ago.

    But now, we have few people who have a thorough enough knowledge of the Bible to even tell you if the book of Hebrews is in the NT or the OT.

    It seems as if we rebelled so far away from the rote memorization of the fundamental, Bible-Bowl contest kind of methods that we completely passed up the “middle way” that allows us to read the Bible with a view of the whole of scripture and the body of Christ in mind.

    Thanks for your comments Seth and Dave.

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