How to Read the Bible

THIRD SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10
Psalm 19
1 Corinthians 12:12-31a
Luke 4:14-21

Prayer of the Day: Blessed Lord God, you have caused the holy scriptures to be written for the nourishment of your people. Grant that we may hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that, comforted by your promises, we may embrace and forever hold fast to the hope of eternal life, through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

This Sunday’s lessons all deal in some fashion with the scriptures. Nehemiah brings his people together for reading and instruction in the Torah as they make their new beginning upon return to the promised land following decades of exile in Babylon. The psalmist sings of the Torah’s power to revive the soul. Jesus boldly proclaims the fulfillment of scripture in the synagogue at Nazareth. Though Paul is not discussing scripture or its interpretation in our reading from I Corinthians, he nevertheless offers us an insightful hermeneutic. He points out to the divided and fractured church at Corinth that the church is a body made up of many members. In a healthy body, these members all function together using their unique attributes for the common good of the whole. The absurdity of divisiveness within the church over spiritual gifts is graphically illustrated by Paul’s hilarious imaginary portrayal of a body whose eyes, hands and head all declare their independence from one another. Spiritual gifts belong not to the individual to whom they are given, but to the church they are intended to serve. All God’s people are uniquely gifted, but more important than the gift any individual might posses is the way it is put to use. If one’s gift is employed to serve the needs of the church, it is a blessing. On the other hand, when one’s gift is used to enhance one’s own standing, forward one’s own selfish interests or further one’s own personal or ideological agenda, it is destructive to the health of Christ’s Body.

How, then, does any of this apply to our interpretation of the Scriptures? In the first place, it is essential to understand that the scriptures, like the gifts of the Spirit, belong first and foremost to the church. They are to be used to encourage, admonish and instruct the members of Christ’s body to the end that “the mind of Christ” be formed within his church. Philippians 2:5. The Bible is not a personal self-help manual. It must never be read individually, but always communally. Thus, even when I read the Bible devotionally in the privacy of my home, I never read it alone. I always read the Bible in dialogue with Ignatius of Antioch, John of Damascus, Athanasius, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Soren Kierkegaard, Karl Barth, Paul Tillich, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, my pastor, every teacher I have ever had and the fellow members of my own faith community. Scriptural interpretation is too important a job to be left in the hands of any one individual.

Second, the Bible does need interpretation. It is not an easy read. The Bible is a complex, layered and nuanced collection of literary pieces consisting of narrative, poetry, drama, law and chronology. It is also a dangerous book. It contains stories, images and commands that are altogether fulsome. In seizing upon particular biblical passages and taking them out of their context, individuals and groups throughout history have cobbled together hate filled ideologies that, sadly, have too often wormed their way into mainstream Christianity.  While one does not need a seminary education to read and understand the scriptures, one does need instruction or, as the ancient church called it, “catechesis.” We need to be taught how to read the Bible. This teaching does not come chiefly through sitting in a class room. It comes through regular participation in the disciplines and practices of faith: baptism, eucharist, recitation of the creeds, regular worship famed by the rhythms of the church year, public witness, tithing and service. It is within this sacred communal context that the Holy Spirit employs the precepts of the Lord to rejoice the heart and enlighten the eyes. Psalm 19:8.

Finally, just as Paul’s “more excellent way” of love must drive the use of our spiritual gifts, so too love must guide our interpretation of the scriptures. God knows there are plenty of preachers using the scriptures in altogether loveless ways. The Bible has been cited in support of slavery, patriarchy, misogyny, racism, antisemitism, homophobia, nationalism and genocide. And let’s be perfectly honest here. You can find biblical passages that, shorn of their context and taken at face value, can be so construed. That is why Jesus tells us that not all biblical texts or teachings are equal. The greatest commandments, Jesus tells us, are to love God with all the heart and love one’s neighbor as oneself. Upon these commands hang the whole of scripture and a faithful Christian interpretation of the Bible is always and only made through this lens.

It is telling that when Jesus was handed the book of the prophet Isaiah, of all the passages in that sixty-six chapter book he could have chosen to address, he selected the following as reflecting his priorities: “good news to the poor” “release to the captives” “recovery of sight” “freedom for the oppressed” and “proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor.” Because Jesus is our hermeneutic, disciples of Jesus are able to interpret the scriptures in ways that liberate, enlighten and reconcile. In him, with him and through him the Bible proclaims the Lord’s favor to a world under the curse of sin. That is God’s word, God’s good news, our “great heritage.”

Below is a hymn by Nikolai F.S. Grundtvig celebrating the Holy Scriptures and the role it plays in the life of the church. It is taken from the Lutheran Hymnal, the book of worship that served churches of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod in which I grew up. Sadly, this hymn did not make the cut for subsequent hymnals now used in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

God’s Word is Our Great Heritage

God’s Word is our great heritage
And shall be ours forever;
To spread its light from age to age
Shall be our chief endeavor.
Through life it guides our way,
In death it is our stay.
Lord, grant, while worlds endure,
We keep its teachings pure
Throughout all generations. Amen.

Source: The Lutheran Hymnal (c. 1941 by Concordia Publishing House) # 283 Written by Nikolai F.S. Grundvig, Translated from the Danish by Ole G. Belsheim, 1909. Nikolai F.S. Grundtvig (1783-1872) was a Danish pastor, author, poet, philosopher, historian, teacher, politician and contemporary of Hans Christian Andersen and Soren Kierkegaard. He was a prolific writer of hymns that have become staples in the Lutheran Church throughout Europe and the United States. Grundvig’s philosophy gave rise to a new form of nationalism in the last half of the 19th century. In particular, he is credited with shaping Danish national consciousness. You can read more about Nikolai F.S. Gruntvig at The Lectionary, a site containing Lectionary resources for the Episcopal Church.

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