Before I pursue the application of my “three step hermeneutical method” to some common ecclesiological issues among Churches of Christ, I wanted to take a “time out” and stress the transformative and fuller meaning of “Bible reading.” This post begins a three post series to that end. In my next two posts I will offer examples of “transformative” Bible study through the contemplative reading of Scripture. My attention has been too much on “story” and “study” in my previous posts on “theological hermeneutics,” and so I wanted to make sure that we recognize “silence” as an essential element of living before God with Scripture in hand and heart.
The following selection is a slightly edited version of a section from Bobby Valentine and John Mark Hicks, Kingdom Come: Embracing the Spiritual Legacy of David Lipscomb and James Harding (Leafwood, 2006), pp. 85-90.
Or is it? The public reading of Scripture is relatively rare except as part of a sermon. Some question whether our Bible classes function more as supportive self-help groups rather than places of serious Bible study. Biblical illiteracy is on the rise and has reached alarming proportions. There is a tremendous need for a renewal of Bible reading, study and meditation among our people—both as individuals and as communities.
We suggest three approaches to the practice of Bible reading. Not all reading is the same. We do not read a newspaper the way we read a poem, nor do we read a novel the way we read a billboard. Below we suggest that every believer and the believing community as a whole read the Bible in three ways: as a story, as a rich source of meaning, and as a text for silent meditation. These are three ways to “listen to God” both individually and communally.
James A. Harding emphasized reading the Bible “consecutively” or, to put it in more contemporary terms, as a narrative or story (“Does God Work Miracles Now?” Gospel Advocate 26 [5 March 1884], 154). The Bible has a plot—it is the unfolding drama of God’s creative and redemptive work. It is the story of his restoration project—to restore the shalom of his original creation through redeeming the fallen world.
To read Scripture as narrative is to read it in the framework of its overarching plot. It is to expose ourselves to its language and values, to discern the world it communicates, and to embrace the story as our own. Through narrative reading we enter into the world of Scripture in such a way that it absorbs our own world. We begin to see our world in the light of God’s creation, redemptive intent, and ultimate restoration. We see what the world should be. Harding read the whole Bible [by 1914, the OT 60x and the NT 130x) so often because he wanted to live in that story—to participate in the drama of redemption. Constant, daily reading shapes the heart and mind with the language and values of the biblical story.
In our multi-media age, we are subtly shaped and formed by the images we see and read. Teens that grew up watching “Friends” on television were subtly shaped by the values of that sitcom. Such “stories” sink into our hearts in unconscious ways and before we realize it we are living out those stories. Our exposure to the varied stories of culture shape us.
Reading the Bible as a story, and reading it daily in large chunks (much like we read a novel) counteracts the narrative of fallen culture. Daily Bible reading is a counter-cultural act—it situates us over against fallen culture. Through it we imbibe a different story that has radically different values than the one in which we live as fallen human beings. The different texts of Scripture blend to form a symphony which finds its crescendo in the incarnation, ministry, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus—events which prefigure the fullness of the kingdom of God in the new heaven and new earth.
There is a great need to renew the reading of Scripture in our assemblies. We can only embrace the story as a community when we hear it read in large chunks as a community. Certainly, the Lord’s Supper, our praises and our prayers do this as well, but we need also to hear the word as a community.
Believers who do not know what the word “exegesis” means are discipled by their constant reading of the word as narrative. Such reading does not produce scholars in the academic sense, but it does produce disciples.
The church needs readers first, but it also needs serious students and scholars. Reading Scripture as a student focuses on the meaning of specific texts. It pursues what is known as the “historical-grammatical” method. This approach reads Scripture in the context of its own historical situation and pays close attention to the language of the text. It is the stuff of which academic commentaries are made, that is, exegesis—the discipline that draws out the meaning of a text.
This historical or critical reading of Scripture seeks to understand what the original author meant when he wrote the text. This involves an appreciation of the historical context of the document, the culture in which it was written, the meaning of the language in that context, and what problem/situation it was addressing. Such understanding guides us in applying biblical theology in the present. What the text meant to its original readers guides our understanding of what it means for us today.
Exegesis asks the questions who, what, where, when and why. The student analyzes, parses and dissects the text. What did Paul mean when he said that Christ “emptied himself” (Phil 2:7)? What does the word “empty” mean? Why was it important for him to use that language and how did he apply that point to the Philippians? What was happening in the church at Philippi? Such is the task of exegesis.
In the last two hundred years, and particularly in the last century, this kind of Bible reading has dominated the Christian world. It is, in part, the product of the Enlightenment. It has its value—it helps us understand the historical meaning of the text. But it also has its demerits—it often fails to recontextualize the text’s meaning for the contemporary church and restricts the meaning of the text to what is discernible by historical-critical methods. The scholar has her role within the church as one who exegetes the text in ways that are beyond the knowledge and expertise of most, but the scholar does not exhaust the meaning of Scripture for the church. Every believer reads Scripture and the church as a community reads Scripture in such a way that God illuminates the church’s way into the future. The church values her scholars, but she does not limit God’s illuminating work to them alone.
The danger of exegetical study is the tendency to reduce Bible reading to historical pieces of data. It produces information. This is necessary, but insufficient. It is not enough to know facts or process information. Rather, Bible reading must seek God and commune with his presence. Consequently, a third way of reading is as important as the first two.
In addition to a “critical” reading of the Bible, Campbell encouraged a “devotional or sanctifying reading.” Through this “means” disciples experience “communion with the Father, and with his Son,” in a way that “is not vouchsafed to mortals in any other way” (“Bible Reading,” Millennial Harbinger , 37). This kind of reading is reflective or contemplative as individuals or communities sit in the presence of God.
There are many methods and resources for contemplative Bible reading. One of the most classic and ancient is the Benedictine method of lectio divina (divine reading). It is a simple but profound approach to meditating on the word of God. It can be practiced individually or communally (in small groups, Bible classes or even in the assembly). It has four steps.
The first step is lectio (reading). Select a verse or small paragraph of Scripture. Read the text over and over; not just twice or three times, but ten times or more. Read it silently and aloud—read it with your inner voice, but also vocalize it. Read it with different intonations and experiment with different emphases and inflections. Repetition is critically important. Do not rush over the text. Savor it. But in a spirit of silence, read with a listening ear and heart. Listen to the text.
The second step is meditatio (meditation). What is God saying to you? What is the connection to your daily life? Is God calling for a response? Mull over the text, and internalize the words. What phrases stand out from the constant repetition? Do any take hold of your heart? Do any impress you with the confluence of your life and the text? This is where we ponder the text. We engage the text with our feelings, reactions, associations, and challenges. Meditation is not about what the text meant, but how God is encountering us in the present.
The third step is oratio (prayer). Whatever thoughts came to you in reading the text, offer these to God. This is not a time of petition but another way of listening in dialogue with God. Turn your meditation from dialogue with yourself to dialogue with God. Share with God your reflections—how you are thinking and what you are feeling. Listen for God’s response to your prayer. Embrace his promises in the word, and commit yourself to living out that word in your life. Invoke God to make it so in your life. Express your doubts, but take God at his word. Seek to trust him and pursue that trust in prayerful words.
The fourth step is contemplatio (contemplation). Be silent before God and quiet your soul. Rest in his presence. Let go of your mental activity. Practice the presence of God through silence, clearing your mind and trusting in the divine love. Allow a word or phrase from the text to fill your mind—one that has surfaced in the previous three steps. Repeat this word or phrase over and over; let it fill your mind. Let this be the word that guides you for the day and sustains God’s presence in your life.
St. John of the Cross summarized the lectio divina in a paraphrase of Luke 11:9: “Seek in reading and you will find in meditation; knock in prayer and it will be opened for you in contemplation.” Or, as Harding put it, “Read it; delight in it; meditate on it, memorizing striking passages, read them over and over and over again” (“How To Fall in Love with the Bible,” Gospel Herald 3 [20 May 1915], 1). Learning to experience God through Scripture by reading it, meditating on it, praying it and contemplating God in its light will open the doors of our hearts. It is where we may seek God and find him. Finding him, we experience the transforming power of his presence as we obey what what we hear.