The sacred page is not meant to be the end, but only the means toward the end, which is knowing God himself.
Why Read Scripture?
It is said that you study the Bible to know God. But the truth is, you won't fully know God. Think of another mystery about knowing someone else: about how you never really, fully get to know your friends, your children, or your spouse. There's always the unexpected, the surprise, the seemingly out-of-character action, something new, or something that's been there all along but you didn't notice it or it hadn't come up before. A complete knowledge of anyone (including yourself) is a mystery that's out of human reach. Yet, you do in a sense, know them: you develop an understanding in which you have far more than enough trust to go by as you relate to them. The same is true of knowing God -- only, God is so complex it boggles the mind. God does not remove the mystery, but through Scripture you can develop that same kind of understanding, solidarity, and trust. Not just a 'basic' knowledge, either; you can understand God and divine purposes with awesome depth. You can learn enough to grasp who God is, what God's about, how a life of following Jesus can be lived out, and where it's headed. Enough to catch the virus of God's good news and have it lodge itself in every cell. Not a full comprehension of the relationship, but an apprehension of it that's more than enough for it to be not only God's way, but yours too. Through the Bible, far more than anywhere else, the Spirit reveals what God is up to so you can recognize when it's happening around you and within you, and then move forward.
What the Scriptures Are Not
There are lots of ways the Bible has been brought into our lives. Some of those are popular, but have little or nothing to do with its purpose.
- The Scriptures were not written, gathered, and kept over the years just to be a bin for holding grand truths and stories with morals that have good effects.
- Though anyone can be led by the Spirit to find in it answers to many great mysteries, and even find from it the right questions to ask, it's not a question book or an answer book, and only for brief moments does it use question-and-answer methods.
- It's not a moot court for hypothetical cases. It doesn't put a question out there to see what the thinkers of the day see in it, as is often true with the Talmud.
- The Bible's not firstly a book about mysteries or wisdom or morality or dogma; at heart, it's not even a book about religion.
- It's not enough to study Scripture well, or to be able to remember a scriptural section or verse at any given moment, or to have supposed mastery of scriptural subjects or of the text.
The Scriptures as a Library
You might develop strength of character from its examples, pattern your life according to the moral values in it, and even impact the world with something it taught you. That's worked for over a billion people over the years. But that's not why it's there. Scripture was written with a very different purpose in mind: the Spirit uses it to reveal the purpose, vision, and love of God, and to start, shape, and deepen faith in Christ. The Spirit made it to show how Christ recreated our relationship with God. When you read it without faith, you miss the whole point of having it. The Scriptures are great because of the Great One who stands behind it and that Great One's love for us, a love that came to us, suffered death, and overcame even death so that we might also overcome it. The medium (of print or speech or Web) is not the message; the God who Reveals is the message, and the medium is the messenger. Even more, the message is that of a love letter, not that of a rap sheet or a facts list. And like with a love letter, it's not so much how it's said than Who says it and why.
"Perhaps there will be many Christians to whom it would not occur to pose the question whether the process of secularization has anything to do with the biblical understanding of the goal of history. The Bible, for them, belongs to a religious world which is not admitted to belong to the world of secular events... But this is to read the Bible wrongly. Whatever else it may be, the Bible is a secular book dealing with the sort of events which a news editor accepts for publication in a daily newspaper; it is concerned with secular events, wars, revolutions, enslavements and liberations, migrants and refugees, famines and epidemics and all the rest... We miss this because we do not sufficiently treat the Bible as a whole. When we do this, we see at once that the Bible... is in its main design a universal history. It is an interpretation of human history as a whole, beginning with the saga of creation and ending with a vision of the gathering together of all the nations and the consummation of God's purpose for mankind."
Thirst to Know
To learn of God requires that you thirst to find out. It's the same thirst you have for learning your lover, or the field of work you most want to do. Knowing plenty is not good enough; there's always more, better, more robust and full. Keep reading, keep listening to others when they communicate about what Scripture says. One teacher will speak of its beauty, another of its plan, yet another of its usefulness, and still another about its ugly parts and puzzles. Maybe one Bible verse will teach Scripture's gospel heart, while another will overturn the tables on your misunderstandings or how you're being cowardly in applying it. Maybe someone will puncture your excess zeal, or show how you put off doing what God is calling you to do, or thank you for doing it right. But you have to thirst. You don't have to spend 24/7 on it -- that would seriously get in the way of why you're thirsting. But be intentional - be eager to learn. And be disciplined - many folks have taken on the discipline of daily scripture readings, not as a law, but as a good habit. Remember that 'consensus' is a somewhat-informed, commonly-held opinion that's begging to be challenged. Question, challenge, wrestle, and sometimes even insistently reject what you hear. Doubt your knowledge, doubt your doubts, and don't believe everything that you think. Trust instead that the Spirit is at work, and it is this same Spirit that communicates through the Bible beyond and above anything else. God wants you to know. The One you thirst to know is the One who loves you so much that you have been made a part of the coming party. What's not to love about that?
But how do you learn from the Bible? The very idea of learning important stuff about God can be intimidating. But you can do it. There are more details elsewhere on this site, but it boils down to this:
- study it yourself;
- study it with others;
- live how the Spirit leads you by it;
- live it out with others, especially (but not only) others who are living it out.
Your mind will change as you learn - if it doesn't, then you're not learning. You will live differently as you mature in your faith. You will make mistakes. Many mistakes. That's okay, you can make them, just don't hold on to them or fear them, for that's part of the learning process. You learn from your mistakes. You will also stir up nastier sides of yourself, perhaps even using what you read to bolster evils within you. But, don't fear that, either, because: (1) you can turn away from these sort of wrongs, and (2) God forgives, and provides a new start. The Spirit's guidance means you have no reason to fear the Scriptures.
The Scriptures Speak, and Stuff Happens
It's often said in mainline Protestant churches that the Bible is only the Word of God when it is read with faith. I myself would not put it quite that way. It seems to me that there is something inherent about the Scriptures that is the Spirit's own, in a way unlike anything else. Christians acknowledge this in saying that the Spirit inspired the actual writings and speeches (such as by the prophets, story-tellers and editors) that led to the writings. If so, much of the Spirit's greatness would have rubbed off on it. One way to see if it's so is to see if it bears a key mark of God's Word: it does not come back empty. Do the books of the Scriptures (the Bible canon) meet this standard even in non-believers' hands? Yes. For all of this modern culture's disbelief and cynical bitterness, it's not at all rare to see the Scripture's effect. Even in the hands on those who don't believe in Christ or even in a god, whether in art or literature, diplomacy or politics, family life or inner transcendent longings, and whenever people speak of peace or justice or morality or character or vision, something of the Word's words, meanings, ethics, and intents do in fact come through. Sometimes those doing it have no idea where it came from; sometimes they know full well and ignore or reject God but still learn from the truths God put into Scriptures. It does not come back empty.
Read It With Attitude
The Bible screams to be read with faith. But it really matters what faith one has. Case in point: Saul of Tarsus. He had read the Hebrew Scriptures all his life long. He was even trained in the school of thought and practice which was slowly developing what would eventually become the Talmud. He thoroughly believed in God -- not just any god, but the God of Abraham and Sarah, of Moses and of David -- and probably believed strongly enough to give up his life if need be (a very real possibility in Roman times). By all the standards of Scripture as revealed up to Jesus' time, he was following God as he should have. But those standards had been radically changed only a few years earlier, and God set about to break through all that Saul knew. God didn't use Scripture to make the breakthrough. There was no New Testament yet to bear the new Word, since people were still busy living the New Testament. So God created an experience that would open Saul up to the truth: Saul was blinded. When his blindness ended, he had new eyes for seeing what had already been revealed in a new light: a new Word from God, Jesus. Saul was no longer Saul, but Paul, an apostle. And Paul went on to live, and write, that new revelation, as the author of letters and as the foremost evangelist of all. The light that the Spirit shed through Paul's life and pen, in turn, now lights our way.
One part of a good attitude toward Scripture is to read it with passion. In 2010 in Capetown, the Third Lausanne Congress expressed it as loving Scripture like its pages were love letters from the one you love, "not for the paper they are, but for the person who speaks through them." They further expressed this love, for:
- The Person Scripture reveals, as "the primary witness to the Lord Jesus Christ".
- The story the Scriptures tell, which is "for all people on earth".
- The truth the Scriptures teach, which is "the foundation for exploring and understanding all dimensions of God's truth".
- The life its God calls for, for "nothing commends the gospel more eloquently than a transformed life".
The Scriptures are the floor we stand on,
the floor we worship on,
the floor we dance on.
And we can leap, and perchance even to fly.
But betides we come back to the floor,
for it is our home.
Free In Christ
A reader writes:
You wrote that "Experiences that are not found in Scripture can be Christian, so long as they adhere to the gospel as found in Scripture, and to Paul's concerns for order, and can be tested by all the means of discernment at our disposal." Where does Scripture say this?
Some people say, "if it's not in Scripture, it's not Christian". That would be to miss the whole point of Scripture. Scripture was not meant to be the bare limit of what we can do in the faith. If it were, we couldn't worship the way we do, we couldn't be organized in congregations (as we know them) or denominations, and we certainly couldn't use the Internet. Our work, play, art, romance, political systems, music recordings, and "nuclear family" would rarely be able to be put to use for God. The truth is, Scripture simply doesn't directly cover such things, and isn't meant to. Scripture is there to teach you about Christ and what it means to follow him. It gives you ways to sift and evaluate, and helps you develop a God-pleasing way of looking at the world within you and around you. Scripture shows you the way God works so you know it when you see it, or when you do it.
The apostle Paul speaks of Christian freedom, that we are not saved by following Law (Romans 8). All is permitted in Christ, but not all is good or right (1 Cor 6). Scripture teaches you what good and right are, what evil and wrong are, what the fruit are, what the commands are. But new things are happening all the time. Through the Scriptures, God gave us ways to discern how and where the Spirit is leading us, mostly by showing us what God is up to. We have to test our experiences: how does it reflect, or help us reflect, the gospel or the love of Christ, how does it help us become Christlike, how is God's will for the human race, or for you, furthered by this? If your experiences, or anything else, fall in line with the Gospel, and has the character of what Scripture teaches as the Spirit's fruit, God may well be at work in it, no matter how strange or contradictory it seems.
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"The truth is, of course, that the curtness of the Ten Commandments is an evidence, not of the gloom and narrowness of a religion, but, on the contrary, of its liberality and humanity. It is shorter to state the things forbidden than the things permitted: precisely because most things are permitted, and only a few things are forbidden."
"Faith is the master, and reason the maid-servant."
----- Martin Luther
"Consider that the first time someone spoke of God in the third person and therefore no longer with God but about God was that very moment when the question resounded, 'Did God really say?' (Genesis 3:1). This fact ought to make us think."
----- Helmut Thielicke
"The Bible is not a book of science. The Bible is a book of Redemption."
----- Billy Graham
"Through this experience I found that the Bible was not adequate. I needed God in a personal way -- not as an object of my study, but as friend, guide, comforter. I needed an existential experience of the Holy One. Quite frankly, I found that the Bible was not the answer. I found the Scriptures to be helpful -- even authoritatively helpful -- as a guide. But without my feeling God, the Bible gave me little solace.
In the midst of this 'summer from hell', I began to examine what had become of my faith. I found a longing to get closer to God, but found myself unable to do so through my normal means: exegesis, Scripture reading, more exegesis. I believe that I had depersonalized God so much that when I really needed him I didn't know how to relate."
----- Daniel Wallace, about what happened during his son's bout with rare cancer. In *Christianity Today*, 12 Sept 1994.