Monday, April 02, 2007

Row, row, row your boat gently down the stream.

While studying at Oxford I was a member of Pembroke College, following the footsteps of my hero, George Whitefield. Walking where Whitefield walked in the university where John Owen had been Vice-Chancellor was awesome.

(Need directions from Dallas to our old flat in Oxford? Note step #26.)

FYI, other Pembrokians beside Whitefield and mybadself include poet Samuel Johnson, James Smithson (Smithsonian Institute), Senator J. William Fulbright, Sir Roger Bannister (first to run the mile in under 4 minutes), William Blackstone, and J.R.R.R.R. Tolkein, and Michael Heseltine.

While there my college advisor was Bishop Kallistos (Timothy) Ware, author of The Orthodox Church and a very interesting fellow. He was/is apparently kind of a big deal in the Orthodox Church, having made his conversion in 1952. I learned that when I asked his secretary for an appointment with "Kallistos" (as he'd introduced himself to me). Aghast, she said she would try to get me an appointment with the "Most Holy Revd. Canon Bishop Ware" (or something to that effect).

I"m sure she was thinking, "Bloody Americans, they have no respect for proper decorum." Anyway, I enjoyed my discussions with him as he opened up to me a whole branch of the church of which I had been utterly ignorant.

Today I came across something he had written:
How to Read the Bible.

I will share and interact with a few excerpts, though I recommend the article in its entirety. There are somethings therein from which I would distance, but the main points did a little something for me.
We may distinguish four key qualities that mark an Orthodox reading of Scripture, namely
1 - our reading should be obedient,
2 - it should be ecclesial, within the Church,
3 - it should be Christ-centered,
4 - it should be personal.
As he does, I will deal with each in turn (comments in maroon are mine).
FIRST OF ALL, when reading Scripture, we are to listen in a spirit of obedience. The Orthodox Church believes in divine inspiration of the Bible. Scripture is a "letter" from God, where Christ Himself is speaking. The Scriptures are God's authoritative witness of Himself. They express the Word of God in our human language. Since God Himself is speaking to us in the Bible, our response is rightly one of obedience, of receptivity, and listening. As we read, we wait on the Spirit.
It occurs to me that often we come to the text wanting to do something with it, approaching it in a very utilitarian fashion rather than letting it (or Him through it) dictate to us what is to be done with us.

We are to feel toward the Bible with a sense of wonder, and sense of expectation and surprise. There are so many rooms in Scripture that we have yet to enter. There is so much depth and majesty for us to discover. If obedience means wonder, it also means listening.

We are better at talking than listening. We hear the sound of our own voice, but often we don't pause to hear the voice of the other person who is speaking to us. So the first requirement, as we read Scripture, is to stop talking and to listen—to listen with obedience.
I am reminded of the E.F. Hutton commercials. "When E.F. Hutton talks, people listen." There's a sense of expectation that there will be information communicated of great value to the listener. It's easy to lose the wonder and awe with regard to reading the Scriptures, unfortunately. It's not the fault of the Bible, but the failing of its readers, self included.

IN THE SECOND PLACE, we should receive and interpret Scripture through the Church and in the Church. Our approach to the Bible is not only obedient but ecclesial.

It is the Church that tells us what is Scripture. A book is not part of Scripture because of any particular theory about its dating and authorship. Even if it could be proved, for example, that the Fourth Gospel was not actually written by John the beloved disciple of Christ, this would not alter the fact that we Orthodox accept the Fourth Gospel as Holy Scripture. Why? Because the Gospel of John is accepted by the Church and in the Church.
Okay, being an adherent of Sola Scriptura, this part made me a bit uneasy. Being a Protestant I like the other side of the coin better, that the Bible gives birth to the church instead of the church giving birth to the Bible. Yet, in all fairness, what I think he's really saying is not so much that the church determined Scripture, but recognized it as such. I can live with that.

It is the Church that tells us what is Scripture, and it is also the Church that tells us how Scripture is to be understood. Coming upon the Ethiopian as he read the Old Testament in his chariot, Philip the Apostle asked him, "Understandest thou what thou readest?" And the Ethiopian answered, "How can I, unless some man should guide me?" (Acts 8:30-31). We are all in the position of the Ethiopian. The words of Scripture are not always self-explanatory. God speaks directly to the heart of each one of us as we read our Bible. Scripture reading is a personal dialogue between each one of us and Christ—but we also need guidance. And our guide is the Church. We make full use of our own personal understanding, assisted by the Spirit, we make full use of the findings of modern Biblical research, but always we submit private opinion—whether our own or that of the scholars—to the total experience of the Church throughout the ages.
Well, practically speaking I think that's true. In theory we Protestants like to think there are no guardrails on our interpretations, but that's just not so. No interpretation is in a vacuum, nor should it be. We have some giants of the faith the shoulders of whom we are able to stand to see things more clearly.

Also, try as we might the reality is that our experiences and tradition will have an influence on our understanding of Scripture. Try as we must to be objective, we must in all humility realize and confess our external influences that make coming to the text with a tabla rosa or "clean slate," which is a noble goal, but elusive in practice.

That doesn't mean we don't attempt to let Scripture trump tradition, but tradition can be helpful with regard to keeping us in the stream of orthodoxy. On a local church level, the congregation and its leadership help guard individual interpretation from error, especially such that could damage the church. Contrary to the bastardization of the Priesthood of the Believer run amuck where it's just be and my Bible, everyone else be anathema, the body plays a role in helping the individual read the Scriptures.

Reading the Old Testament in the light of the New, and the New in the light of the Old—as the Church's calendar encourages us to do—we discover the unity of Holy Scripture.
Amen. There are far to many half-cocked Christians who only "known" one testament (i.e., the New), but even that I would say they don't really know, for it cannot be fully known without knowing its preceding context (and vice versa with the New being necessarily to understand the fullness of the Old).

THE THIRD ELEMENT in our reading of Scripture is that it should be Christ-centered. The Scriptures constitute a coherent whole because they all are Christ-centered. Salvation through the Messiah is their central and unifying topic. He is as a "thread" that runs through all of Holy Scripture, from the first sentence to the last. We have already mentioned the way in which Christ may be seen foreshadowed on the pages of the Old Testament.
Jesus told those who searched the Scriptures that they testify of Him (John 5:39), but they didn't see it. We don't want to imagine things not there, but we need to ask and answer the question of each passage, "What does this tell us about the Triune God? What does this tell us about humanity in need of redemption through the Christ?" Christ is indeed the thread that weaves the garment of Scripture together.

Much modern critical study of Scripture in the West has adopted an analytical approach, breaking up each book into different sources. The connecting links are unraveled, and the Bible is reduced to a series of bare primary units. There is certainly value in this. But we need to see the unity as well as the diversity of Scripture, the all-embracing end as well as the scattered beginnings. Orthodoxy prefers on the whole a synthetic rather than an analytical approach, seeing Scripture as an integrated whole, with Christ everywhere as the bond of union.
By "modern" it appears he means essentially "contemporary." I would lay this approach of the "dissection" of Scripture at the doorstep of Modernism and its influence in the realm of theology, the "Queen of the Sciences."

You see such things in science in Modernism in the classification and the reductionistic nature of examination. But it oozes even into the study of God whereby God is "broken" down into His component parts, communicable and incommunicable attributes and son. While there may be some value to all of this, we are well on our way to having de-personalized God and made Him just another "object" of study.

A Biblical Christian is the one who, wherever he looks, on every page of Scripture, finds everywhere Christ.
As Orthodox Christianity is prone to typology at times where some (self included) would deem it questionable, I'm hesitant to agree without qualification. While there may not always be a direct reference, one can see an indirect reference either by allusion, or contrast, or need that only Christ satisfies. Yet, I would caution against taking too much license to where there's a great disparity between the intent of the original author/Author and what connections or allusions one can make to Christ.

The Bible as Personal

IN THE WORDS of an early ascetic writer in the Christian East, Saint Mark the Monk: "He who is humble in his thoughts and engaged in spiritual work, when he reads the Holy Scriptures, will apply everything to himself and not to his neighbor." As Orthodox Christians we are to look everywhere in Scripture for a personal application. We are to ask not just "What does it mean?" but "What does it mean to me?" Scripture is a personal dialogue between the Savior and myself—Christ speaking to me, and me answering. That is the fourth criterion in our Bible reading.
I struggled recently with John Piper's assertion that he heard the voice of God one morning. Christ is the Word (John 1:1, 14) who speaks through the Word of God. But, not only does God speak, He speaks to us. I cringe when I hear "God told me" and there isn't chapter and verse to support it. At the same time, it is possible for God to speak and us to misunderstand what He says in His Word, like claiming promises that are not ours.

For example, folks love to claim Jeremiah 29:11 ("For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for wholeness and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.") for themselves, but why not Deuteronomy 28:22 ("The LORD will strike you with wasting disease and with fever, inflammation and fiery heat, and with drought and with blight and with mildew. They shall pursue you until you perish.")?

Certainly God speaks to His people through His Word via His Spirit, but we must understand when we are directly addressed with promises (and/or threats) directed to us and when God is sharing with you what He has done in the lives of others for our edification.

I am to see all the stories in Scripture as part of my own personal story. Who is Adam? The name Adam means "man," "human," and so the Genesis account of Adam's fall is also a story about me. I am Adam. It is to me that God speaks when He says to Adam, "Where art thou?" (Genesis 3:9). "Where is God?" we often ask. But the real question is what God asks the Adam in each of us: "Where art thou?"
It is often helpful for us to identify when the characters in the story, especially since human nature is some universal in scope. But, better yet, what role does each story play in the development of my own? What can I learn from their lessons by learning them with the characters in the story? As we read these experiences, they become part of our experiences. As we read their stories, they become part of our stories.

In reading Scripture, we may take three steps. First, what we have in Scripture is sacred history: the history of the world from the Creation, the history of the chosen people, the history of God Incarnate in Palestine, and the "mighty works" after Pentecost. The Christianity that we find in the Bible is not an ideology, not a philosophical theory, but a historical faith.

Then we are to take a second step. The history presented in the Bible is a personal history. ...

Then we are to take a third step. Reliving Biblical history in all its particularity, we are to apply it directly to ourselves. We are to say to ourselves, "All these places and events are not just far away and long ago, but are also part of my own personal encounter with Christ. The stories include me."
The first two necessitate the third. We must realize that the story continues with us as characters/players as the Author continues to write the Drama of Redemption that Displays His Glory. Far too often Scripture is not applied to the reader, neither by a preacher/teacher nor by the individual reader to his or her self.

Reading Scripture in this way—in obedience, as a member of the Church, finding Christ everywhere, seeing everything as a part of my own personal story—we shall sense something of the variety and depth to be found in the Bible. Yet always we shall feel that in our Biblical exploration we are only at the very beginning. We are like someone launching out in a tiny boat across a limitless ocean.
Our finite minds can only handle so much knowlege of the Infinite One and His ways, but I think Kallistos has given us helpful suggestions to better experience the "variety and depth" the Bible has to offer. Through our apprehension be only a drop of water in an endless sea, still it is a drop that helps to quench our thirst for the Triune God that we might know Him better.

We are like someone launching out in a tiny boat across a limitless ocean.
So, let me encourage you to ...
Row, row, row your boat,
Gently down the stream.
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily,
Life is but a dream.



At 02 April, 2007 17:53, Blogger etoc said...

Great post!

On reading obediently, I'm reminded that James instructs us to "humbly accept the world planted in you, which can save you" (1:21). How often humility is NOT the manner in which we approach it, as we want to "know" it or "master" it, rather than letting us be known by it or mastered by it. As to how to read in this humble way, I recently read Eugene Peterson's "Eat This Book" which was excellent instruction in this regard (I'd also heartily endorse the first book-- "Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places." I can't recommend the third book yet since I'm still waiting for it, but I bet I will be able to! It's called "The Jesus Way").

For you pastors, one of the bonuses is the telling of how Peterson came to write The Message. It's humble beginning is a welcome antidote to the cult of Christian celebrity and mega-crap.

At 02 April, 2007 18:04, Blogger etoc said...

Oh, one more thing. Thanks for the honesty regarding Piper's recent comment, being a groupee and all. It made me cringe too. I'm not sure what makes the evangelical world's reaction different than it was to Jack Deere's book "Suprised By The Voice of God" that everyone decried scornfully while I was in seminary.

Though I appreciate the spirit and sincerity with which he shares, I am cautious given our religious devotion to the individual self to further encourage anyone to take themselves even more seriously! Google "God spoke to me" and you'll have to be at least a little hesitant as you scan the results. I don't know who said it, but I like it: if Jesus heard about half the things people are running around doing in His name, He'd be furious! Don't we have enough trouble with what He's already said?

At 02 April, 2007 19:19, Blogger GUNNY said...

Great points, CJC.

I wish I would have had your recommendation regarding Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places prior to this morning. I was *this* close to buying it at the SWBTS bookstore this morning.

I've REALLY enjoyed all of his pastoral slooge (e.g., Under the Predictable Plant, Working the Angles, The Contemplative Pastor, etc.).

Recently I got Eat This Book, but haven't had a chance to start in on it. If I'd have known that it was second in a series, I certainly would have got the book this morning. Of course, I should have bought it just on reputation since all of his other pastoral slooge has jazzed me. My bad.

Thanks for the put back on James 1:21. Teaching through James in Sunday school you'd think it would have been fresher on my mind. Grrr. Hey, it's tough to get old.

By the way, watch any hockey Friday night? Perhaps we might have to transfer the title of Hockeytown a bit further south, eh? That certainly was some interesting stuff at The Joe.

At 02 April, 2007 19:28, Blogger Lance said...

I have not read the entire blog yet, but I appreciated his use of the Ethiopian eunuch asking Philip to explain the text to him (on the role of the church in reading and understanding).
As many times as I've read and heard that story, that is one part I have missed.
We in the SBC are surrounded by the "priesthood of the believer" slooge that seemingly views this true priesthood as pushing individual interpretation that discounts the input and critique of others.
Philip did not ask the eunuch, "What does it mean to you?"
He explained the text.

At 02 April, 2007 19:42, Blogger GUNNY said...

So true, Lance. I also thought that was a good bit.

There are some (perhaps many) running around today who think it a sign of weakness to get any assistance from "man" with regard to understanding the Bible. They aren't gonna read what "some man" says in a book or a commentary and some even bristle at the notion of sitting under the preaching or teaching of another.

There's no substitute for one's own personal time in the Word, of course, but that "rugged individualism" with regard to Christianity really chaps my hide and gives me cause for great concern.


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