A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about how I’d been thinking about our/my overestimation of the value of knowledge about the Bible and its contents. Knowledge about the Bible’s contents, its historical context, the languages, exegesis, hermeneutics – these things are just not the big deal we tend to make them in the West. There are several things the Bible itself holds up as more valuable than knowledge and even has its fair share of warnings that knowledge carries a serious – nearly inevitable – danger of producing pride. Yes, pride: a top-tier sin in its own right that gives birth to innumerable others.
This has been an uncomfortable phase of my journey because I have a lot of identity, self-worth, and ego wrapped up in knowing and teaching stuff about the Bible. For most of my life, it’s the main asset I’ve had to offer the church. When I’d read Paul’s analogy of the church as a body, I’d think of myself as an eye or an ear, and I’d take care to make sure I wasn’t devaluing some “elbow” or “spleen” gift like encouragement or helping.
Well, joke’s on me. Turns out that Paul doesn’t stop thanking saints who were an encouragement or helpers, but he never includes in his letters, “And give my thanks to Argus, who shared so many insightful facts about the Old Testament to so many of you.” And if declaratory gifts are your thing, Paul holds out prophecy as a high gift to desire.
It turns out that doing the works the Father is doing is more important than knowing things about what the Father has done.
So, I’ve been thinking through this a lot, because knowing the Scriptures and being able to communicate that knowledge to others has value. It may not be the peak of the mountain we’ve sometimes made it out to be, but it’s still part of helping the Church accomplish her mission.
This meditation is not about the value of personal Bible study or sermons; that’s a different topic. Rather, I want to explore what it means for someone to be gifted in the study and teaching of the Bible and what benefits they can bring to the Church with that gift.
I should say at the outset that, like pretty much all of the Sunday Meditations (and probably everything on this blog), this is just me working through this issue. I hope it’s useful to you. You can probably think of things that I haven’t or even better things than I have, and I hope so. If you know how to get in touch with me, I’d like to hear them and learn from you.
Making the Bible Strange Again
You know how easy it is to “peg” someone, right?
Let’s say you have a co-worker at your job as a bank teller – we’ll call him Joe (sorry, Joe). You’ve worked in the booth next to Joe for a year, now, and the thing that stands out the most to you about Joe is that he has no patience with customers who aren’t ready to be helped. If they have to fumble around to find their checkbook (people still use their checkbooks for things, right? I feel like I’m losing control of this analogy) or don’t have their account number and ID ready when they get to his booth, he becomes very curt and snappy with them until they leave. That’s Joe – the guy who get’s all crabby with people who delay him.
Because Joe is the “crabby with slow customers” guy, that framework you have in place for perceiving Joe makes it almost impossible for him not to be that guy. Every time he’s crabby with a slow customer, you chalk that up as evidence that Joe is who you thought he was. Every time he just deals normally with a slow customer, you won’t even see it. It doesn’t register on your radar because it doesn’t get caught in your framework. Maybe Joe is only crabby with 60% of slow customers. Or 40%. Or 10%! But every instance where he is consistent with your expectations reinforces those expectations, and every instance where he is not tends to be dismissed.
If you are a Christian in the West, chances are you “knew” what the Bible “said” before you’d even read any of it. If you grew up in the faith, then you were passed down child-sized stories and teachings (maybe even with Flannelgraph). If you converted later in life, someone probably explained the Bible’s message to you. In both cases, you were probably exposed to actual Scripture, but you weren’t exposed to it outside of someone’s summary of its teachings, which they passed along to you. You had it pegged.
When you already know what the Bible says, it’s incredibly difficult to hear it. Things that fit the framework add to it, strengthen it, and flesh out the details, but things that don’t fit the framework tend to slide on by.
Note, I’m not talking about having the “right” framework. The issue of our interpretations being corrected is a different issue than what I’m talking about. What I’m talking about is the ability to even hear something the Scriptures have to say because our existing familiarity with the Scriptures screens out the other stuff as irrelevant.
Take, for example, the book of Romans and the infamous Romans Road to Salvation. You may notice that the Romans Road leaves out a passage or two from the book of Romans. In fact, it leaves out virtually all of the book of Romans, instead constructing a theology from a half dozen verses.
Granted, part of this is due to the time constraints envisioned by someone sharing the gospel. But I would also offer that part of this is that the vast majority of the book of Romans is irrelevant to a narrative about individual sin and reconciliation with God. It’s not that those things aren’t in there, but saying the book of Romans is about how an individual gets right with God is like saying a symphony orchestra is about the woodwinds. But, if you know what Romans is “about,” then Paul’s comments about Jews and Gentiles are just not relevant to anything really meaningful, and the examples involving Abraham are kind of weird, and so on.
I believe that Christians today have a hard time truly hearing God speak through the Scriptures because they already know what He has to say to them. The Scriptures are familiar. We don’t even have to crack a Bible open to tell you the gist.
People who know the Bible in-depth, though, know that this collection of writings is complex and strange. Such people are in a position to shake up the pre-existing narrative – not for the purposes of destruction or looking smart, but for the purpose of helping people read with fresh eyes and listen with fresh ears. You are in a position to gently, lovingly, cause people to second guess. There are even new translations of the Bible that are being specifically written to use uncommon words and turns of phrase to provoke people into engaging the reading instead of being on autopilot.
Maybe they don’t know what the Bible is saying, here, or at least shouldn’t assume that. Maybe the Greek doesn’t lend itself well to the standard way of reading a text. Maybe the historical circumstances around a text make it unlikely an author is talking about what we see when we read it. Maybe this obscure, weird little passage actually throws the whole chapter into a different light. When you take away the safety of the familiar (again, slowly with love and gentleness), people have to reengage these Scriptures and are actually in a position to hear them. It generally takes someone with a good degree of Bible knowledge to facilitate this.
Making the Bible Familiar Again
Being a Jew in the first century was no guarantee that you’d understand Jesus. We sometimes talk about knowledge of Second Temple Judaism as if it’s the Rosetta Stone for finally understanding Jesus rightly. But the narratives of the Gospels and Acts demonstrate for us that this is not the case. A listener had to approach Jesus in humble faith, and God would open their eyes and ears to understand. A fisherman might understand a great mystery about Jesus that eluded the Torah scholars of the day.
At the same time, it can’t be stressed enough how much foundational influence the historical context of a writing has on its contents. Jesus’ disciples spoke the same language, traveled together through the same towns, attended the same religious services, had the same day to day elements of life, lived under the same government, experienced the same newsworthy events, small talked about the same circumstantial and environmental kinds of things that we talk about with our co-workers, and generally shared all the same foundations for communication and understanding.
We, as an audience, are very distant from all of those things, but all those things form the basis for understanding the way people of a time talked to each other.
Consider the plays of William Shakespeare. When the audiences of his time saw his plays, they understood the turns of phrase. They understood the people and things he was parodying. While there may have been some wit or some particularly poetic expression that a common audience might have trouble with, everyone who saw one of Shakespeare’s plays wouldn’t have trouble for the most part knowing what was being said and what was going on. Why? Because that was the way they also talked. The people and institutions Shakespeare parodied were people and institutions they were familiar with. His way of communicating via drama was conditioned by and for 16th-17th century England.
By contrast, we often have trouble understanding Shakespeare’s plays without any help. If you just grabbed some random people and took them to see “Hamlet,” they might pick up the gist, but a lot of the communication would pass them by. The language seems arcane to us. The historical people and places back of Shakespeare’s critiques are not part of our day to day world. It would be like people in the year 2500 watching a “Saturday Night Live” skit about Sean Spicer; what meaning would such a thing have to them without any explanation?
Shakespeare’s plays are documents that were produced only four hundred years ago by an Englishman for England. I’m an American, and Americans, today, still need a lot of help understanding those texts. How much more so, then, do we need help understanding documents produced in the Near East millennia ago? How is it that Shakespeare or Sartre or Freud are difficult texts to work with, but the Bible is a straightfoward, simple collection of documents that can be understood just like reading the newspaper?
People with Bible knowledge can help bridge this communication gap. It doesn’t mean we can dictate that communication, but it does mean we can help communication be possible.
For example, in the first act of “Hamlet,” two guards meet each other. One of them challenges, “Who’s there?” and the other responds, “Nay, answer me. Stand and unfold yourself.”
If you didn’t know anything about older versions of English or Shakespeare’s world, the second guard’s response probably seems very weird. He makes the same sound a horse makes, and then he tells the other guard to “unfold” himself like a contortionist. If that’s all I had to go on, I’d probably come up with a very unique interpretation of that line.
But someone who was more familiar with the forms of communication in Shakespeare’s day could explain that “Nay” means “no” and “unfold yourself” was a phrase meaning “reveal yourself.” She might also explain that guards did not have walkie-talkies or IDs, so if visibility were poor, this sort of situation might easily take place where two guards did not recognize each other at first and had to figure out if there was a threat. And, sure enough, subsequent lines of text show that it’s late at night.
Now, that information does not dictate to me all the things I might glean out of that passage, but now communication is possible. Now I know what I need to know to be able to read those lines closer to the original audience and get a better grasp on what Shakespeare was trying to do, there.
I think Bible scholars are in a position to help the Church come further across that bridge. It’s not the same thing as telling someone what they can and can’t get out of a passage, and it’s not the same thing as telling someone their view is wrong, but it clarifies important contextual information and clues that can help an ancient passage communicate to us – information that is available through knowledge of the time. This is an obstacle the earliest believing communities only had to leap for Old Testament writings, and even then, they still had some cultural continuity with the original authors. We have to leap it for everything, and depending on who you are, you may have exactly zero cultural continuity with the original authors.
Bible scholars can help light the path for us. We still have to walk it ourselves and make it our own journey, and we may even decide to hack our way through some bushes instead of going down the paved road, but the illumination is helpful.
Bringing Knowledge of the Way
And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law. Then he said to them, “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” So the Levites stilled all the people, saying, “Be quiet, for this day is holy; do not be grieved.” And all the people went their way to eat and drink and to send portions and to make great rejoicing, because they had understood the words that were declared to them.
Nehemiah 8:9-12 (NRSV)
“Have you understood all this?” They answered, “Yes.” And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” When Jesus had finished these parables, he left that place.
Matthew 13:51-53 (NRSV)
Now you have observed my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my love, my steadfastness, my persecutions, and my suffering the things that happened to me in Antioch, Iconium, and Lystra. What persecutions I endured! Yet the Lord rescued me from all of them. Indeed, all who want to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted. But wicked people and impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving others and being deceived. But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.
2 Timothy 3:10-17 (NRSV)
I love that Nehemiah 8 passage. For all the times I’ve seen “the joy of the Lord is your strength,” quoted, I’ve never seen it quoted in reference to the grief or fear one feels when they realize how far short they fall of God’s requirements, which is exactly what happens in the original context.
Nehemiah and Ezra are helping Israel understand the Law. As a result, the Israelites are grieved at how disobedient they’ve been. These Torah scholars tell these people, in essence, “Hey, what are you upset about? Now you understand how to live in a way that pleases God! This is a day of celebration!” These scholars help the people understand, not just the content of the Scriptures, but also give them some healthy perspective. The people had interpreted the Law as simply pointing out how terrible they were, but Nehemiah and Ezra helped them see that this information was actually a reason to rejoice in what their lives could look like going forward instead of wallowing in the past.
The Scriptures say of themselves that they are useful for teaching and reproof and correction and training in righteousness for the end purpose that all the people of God would have what they need to do good works. In 2 Timothy, Timothy is the guy facilitating that.
Timothy is supposed to know and understand information about what Jesus has done so that he might guide his congregation into a proper way of life – a way of life that is defined and incarnated by Jesus our King.
On the one hand, Paul is very clear that the Spirit is who gets us where we need to go, ethically. This is the crux of Paul’s message to the Galatians – why would you turn to the Torah to keep its obligations that will only curse you when you have the Spirit who will lead you in the ways of the life of the ages to come?
On the other hand, Paul knows by practical experience that the Spirit doesn’t force someone into right behavior, and for all kinds of reasons, people will still pursue a way of life suited to their fleshly desires and even construct doctrine to help them do it.
People need the freedom to be led by the Spirit, but they also need help in being brought back to center when they start pursuing the paths of their desires and ego, and being brought back to center is really about bring them back to Jesus – the living Word. The Scriptures are a way to do this.
Does this mean Bible teaching is only about ethics? Well, no. If all of this was about the list of things we should do and the list of things we should avoid, that could have probably been done in a single writing. No, the biblical writings bring us the story of God’s relationship with His people through history, and this story is a fully-orbed, incarnate story that describes the creation and re-creation of worlds and worlds within worlds in which Jesus is a watershed moment. We don’t just figure out what we’re supposed to do, but we learn things about who God is and what His intentions are for the world and how we fit into that. We learn about what values are important, what our thoughts should be, the disposition of our heart, and, yes, our practice and how all of that is derived from and pointing to what God Himself is doing, displayed for us in widescreen surround-sound by Jesus Christ.
But the sticking point is that the goal of all this is not to possess and affirm correct information. Demons possess and affirm correct information. The goal of this information is to be useful in producing a people that God wants who is instrumental in bringing about the state of affairs that God wants – to wit, a divine and earthly family where the true God is known by all and our unity and love with one another is a reflection of the unity and love we enjoy with the Father.
This is action. This is being. You do not love if you are not doing loving things. The knowledge we acquire equips us for the purpose of doing the Father’s work in the world. There is a connection between knowing rightly and acting rightly, but the knowledge is in service to producing a people who are what God wants doing the things God wants done.
This knowledge that equips comes from our special stories of the past. Historically, the things that the Bible describes are, for the most part, events that have long gone by. But they are revelatory of the things we need to know and they form a trajectory that keeps us moving in the right direction – ultimately a trajectory that leads us to and is defined by Jesus Christ, who should be the point of exaltation of any spiritual pronouncement.
This is, perhaps, what it means for a scribe trained for the kingdom to bring new treasures out of old. Not that we are to slavishly confine ourselves to what has gone before in every jot and tittle, but that we use that knowledge to understand who we are, how we got here, and where we need to be going. The Scriptures should not blind us to what God is doing in our day, but rather help us understand it and take part in it. They should help us understand our world. Their events should become our events, and we should find ourselves in those stories even as we bring those stories forward into our present circumstances.
This sort of thing, I think, is a noble and valuable goal for those who have been gifted with knowledge of the Bible.