Bible Basics series: Understand, live out the Bible’s message — be transformedcomment (0)
January 5, 2012
By Ken Roxburgh
Baptists are rooted in history and the Scriptures. When the early Anabaptists (spiritual ancestors of modern Baptists, Mennonites and Quakers) met in Zurich, Conrad Grebel wrote, “After we took Scripture in hand, too, and consulted it on many points, we have been instructed somewhat.” This typifies the Baptist way of giving Scripture authority whereby we understand it as revealing matters relating to “faith and practice” and seek to live according to its teachings. We also recognize that the study of Scripture is never final but involves us in an exciting adventure of fresh discovery every day of our lives.
The 400th anniversary of the Authorised Version (King James Version) of the Bible took place in 2011. King James was no lover of early Baptists, and his religious views led to the early Puritans (more spiritual ancestors of Baptists) leaving England to settle in New England in 1620. However, the new translation affirmed these early dissenters’ belief in having freedom of access to Scripture, as well as freedom of interpretation of Scripture. As English minister John Robinson told them, “God has yet more light and truth to break forth out of His Holy Word.”
The Bible has shaped the cultures of Western Europe and the Americas. Without knowledge of the Bible, our contemporary culture and church are impoverished. Although it is the most translated and widely circulated book of all time, fewer and fewer Christians read it thoroughly. Unless we read, understand and live out the Bible’s message, it fails to transform our lives. Richard Hays, dean and professor of New Testament at Duke Divinity School in Durham, N.C., commented, “Right reading of the [Bible] occurs only where the word is embodied. We learn what the text means only if we submit ourselves to its power in such a way that we are changed by it.”
As Baptists, we need to recover a vision of the Bible as a deeply subversive text that corrects and reproves, builds up and encourages, enabling believers to be equipped for service within society.
I first read through the Bible from beginning to end when I was a teenager. I heard somebody say if you read 12 chapters a day and 13 on a Sunday, then you would cover the whole Bible in three months. I then went on to use the Robert Murray McCheyne reading plan, which takes readers through the New Testament and Psalms twice a year and the rest of the Bible once each year. Along with the InterVarsity three-year Bible study book, I was better prepared for theological study when I went to the London School of Theology in 1977. My early experiences instilled in my mind and heart an intense desire to take the Bible seriously and approach it with humility and excitement. I determined to spare no effort in discovering its meaning “there and then” as well as “here and now.”
Alan Cole, an evangelical Anglican of Sydney, once made the comment that God sometimes blesses “a poor exegesis of a bad translation of a doubtful reading of an obscure verse of a minor prophet.” How can we approach the Bible, understand its meaning and grasp its essential message?
We often begin by seeking to understand the Bible in its original context, discerning what it meant in the “there and then” of Israel’s history and the early church. We recognize that the Bible, in part at least, is a book from the past about the past. We study the contexts in which it was written, seeking to appreciate what the original writers were seeking to convey to their first readers.
Although we declare, without any hesitation, that the Bible is inspired by the Holy Spirit, we also acknowledge that human writers were the means through which God’s revelation came to us. They bore a clear and consistent witness to Jesus Christ and God’s involvement in the world for the sake of our salvation. This means that we take care in knowing how best to translate the Bible and understanding the history, geography and social context of books such as Jeremiah, Luke’s Gospel and 1 Corinthians. We want to understand what the first readers would have understood when they heard it read in synagogue and church meetings.
We also recognize that the Bible tells a single basic story and has an internal unity. Despite containing works from different contexts and centuries, the Bible has a united message of God’s purposes as Creator and Redeemer. It speaks of the God of grace, who calls people to trust Him and live according to His direction. It is a book that points forward to the promised coming of Christ in the Old Testament and shows us how His Incarnation, death and resurrection impacts our lives in our contemporary contexts. It may seem that speaking of the Bible having a diversity of voices is a weakness, but it turns out to be a strength because it demonstrates the way in which the Bible can speak into the various situations in which we find ourselves in the 21st century. As readers who live in different settings, we each seek the word of the Lord for our lives today.
Two insights of the Protestant Reformation that brought about a return to Scripture were the emphasis on sola scriptura, “Scripture alone,” and the priesthood of all believers. The first principle emphasized Scripture’s authority over and above any church tradition. The latter stressed the importance not only of the individual who reads and tries to understand the Bible but also the community of faith as one of the best places where the text of Scripture was to be interpreted. In that community, each believer had something to contribute, out of his or her own experience, in discerning the mind of Christ.
One of the first things I discovered in reading the Bible from cover to cover was that it contained a variety of literary genres. More than half the Bible consists of historical narrative: stories of individuals such as Abraham, Joseph, David, Jesus and Paul. This is not unusual, because other cultures of the ancient world kept annals and wrote down their stories. However, nothing like the details of the narratives we have in Scripture is to be found in other cultures of that time. Even when we find creation stories in Babylon, we discover that their understanding of God is different from that of the God of the Bible, who is seen as Creator and Redeemer. God is not distant from humanity but loves His world and draws close to meet us in all our need.
Then we discover that the revelation of God’s grace toward humanity also is found in the poetry of the Psalms and prophetic and apocalyptic books, each of which has to be approached in its own terms in order to understand the original message it was seeking to convey. The Bible also contains various laws and regulations such as the Ten Commandments, as well as the Gospels’ directions and the epistles concerning the life of discipleship.
Studying the Bible is not something we do in our own strength. The same Holy Spirit who inspired David, Luke and Paul is still active in our lives through the gift of preachers, teachers and the conscientious use of our minds to understand its meaning. When I was ordained to Christian ministry in 1978, my father gave me a new Bible in which he inscribed 2 Timothy 2:14: “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by Him, rightly dividing the word of truth.”
Living in the 21st century, we have a plethora of resources to help us understand Scripture that former generations did not. We should not ignore the means by which God has helped people in the past and present to interpret the Bible correctly.
What we often lack, however, is a desire to discover and explore for ourselves the Bible’s riches, which are a source of endless delight.
As Thomas Oden, professor of theology and ethics at Drew University in Madison, N.J., suggested, we are “invited to the quiet joy of the study of God,” which, “over the centuries, has been the course not only of contemplative happiness but also of unparalleled intellectual fascination, spiritual sustenance and moral guidance.”
There is clarity within Scripture that encourages us to believe that it is not beyond our ability as Christians to both read and understand its content. That is why Protestant reformers such as Martin Luther and John Calvin believed that we should look for the biblical text’s natural and obvious meaning when we read it and not be diverted by seeking to spiritualize or allegorize the Bible.
As Charles Simeon, the evangelical Anglican preacher in Cambridge, England, once said, “My endeavor is to bring out of Scripture what is there and not to thrust in what I think might be there.” Even the Book of Revelation is not meant to be viewed as a complicated jigsaw puzzle of which only a few possess the key to unlock its mysteries.
At one level, we approach the Bible as we would any other book, paying attention to rules of vocabulary and grammar and understanding the different genres of literature it contains because God used human beings to convey the message in the language and literature of the times.
Yet we also approach it in humility and a prayerful attitude, seeking to open not only our minds but also our hearts to meditate on its meaning.
If we approach the Bible in such a manner, then we realize that we have not truly understood its meaning until we have applied it to our lives in the “here and now.”
Ken Roxburgh is chair of the religion department and S. Louis and Ann W. Armstrong professor of religion at Samford University in Birmingham. He earned his bachelor’s degree from the London School of Theology, master’s degree from Aberdeen University in Scotland and doctorate from Edinburgh University in Scotland. He has written numerous articles for scholarly journals and books, as well as a book, “Thomas Gillespie and the Origins of the Relief Church in 18th-century Scotland.”
Next week’s topic ...
The stories of the Bible, particularly the Old Testament