THE PROJECT: I began writing these blog posts (after a long hiatus) as a critique of a certain way of reading of the Bible, a way of reading that seemed to me to bind rather than to free, that has often been used against people rather than for them, a reading represented recently by the approach to the Bible taken in a study committee report on human sexuality issued from my own denomination (“Report of the Committee to Articulate a Foundation-Laying Theology of Human Sexuality;” available at https://www.crcna.org/sites/default/files/human_sexuality_report_2021.pdf).
In these posts I’ll not repeat what I have said in those earlier posts by way of critique (available on the “Human Sexuality” page of my blog, here: https://peripateticpastor.com/the-quest-for-a-foundation-laying-theology-of-human-sexuality-posts/). But it’s not enough to leave it there. Critique all by itself does little in the way of helping people to hear the call of God in the pages of the Bible, to suggest how we should use the Bible. In these posts, I would like to work towards a constructive theology of the Bible, a way of approaching the Bible brings Christians together, a way of approaching the Bible that guides us into greater wisdom.
I have sketched out four posts for this project. I’m sure there will be more once I’m into the project, and these may change. But for now, the four, including this one, are:
- Why before How: How we read the Bible depends on why we read it (this post).
- Text and Trajectory: paying attention to both text and trajectory (and to ancient ways of reading the Bible).
- Joining the Conversation: Where we come, belatedly, into an ongoing conversation.
- Does the Bible Lean Left? Which way does the arrow point?
WHY BEFORE HOW: The first question is not how we read the Bible but why we read it
This is a deeply conservative project in the original sense of “conservative”: it seeks to conserve perspectives on the Bible that are both ancient and contemporary, “ancient future” in Robert Webber’s resonant phrase. The part of the church that has Reformation roots (I count myself as included) and that styles itself as true to the Bible has perhaps unintentionally backed itself into a corner. What it has claimed for the Bible is often not at all what the Bible has to offer. It puts the Bible on a pedestal, but on the wrong pedestal. As a result, we are losing the Bible. Many churches these days, including some of the largest and most influential congregations, scarcely read the Bible at all in their worship services. (Contrast this with churches that follow the lectionary, and each Sunday read four passages: one from the Old Testament, a psalm, one from the New Testament epistles, and one from the gospels.) Instead of actually reading the Bible, the preacher makes sporadic references to one text or another, often taking them out of context, in order to support the sermon. The sermon is no longer framed by the Bible but the Bible by the sermon.
As a result, many churches in this country and others have drifted from the gospel and the Bible into teachings foreign to the Bible, including lately Christian nationalism. (Nationalism it is, but scarcely Christian.) The gospel, the message of the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ and implications of both for the Christian life, has been lost to jingoism. And so has the Bible.
In the light of these and other developments, what needs to be conserved? First of all, the reading of the Bible in church and outside of it, and with the reading of the Bible, the rediscovery of what the church has always found there: the gospel, the good news of God for a lost world and for a church that itself too often seems lost. To misread the Bible is to miss the Word of God and instead impose the word and world of the interpreter. We need to get the Bible right so that we can get faith right.
Second, this project is about retrieving a way of reading the Bible that has deep and ancient roots. The church from the beginning has believed the Bible needs to be read in (at least) two ways: a plain sense reading (Greek historia) and readings that go beyond the plain sense (called by many names; I prefer the Greek theoria, “contemplative reading”). These two ways of reading are deeply insinuated into the Bible itself. It’s how the Bible reads the Bible. Look at how Paul, say, or the book of Hebrews uses the Old Testament. I’ll have more to say about this in the next post.
Third and my focus in this post, is to call us back to why we—the church—read the Bible. The study committee report I referenced above comes to grief in part because it’s not clear on why we read the Bible. It was assigned by the synod to “articulate a foundation-laying biblical theology of human sexuality.” The purpose of this exercise is to give biblical grounding (“foundation-laying) to a view of human sexuality that the denomination decided almost fifty years ago. Is this why we read the Bible? To back up what we already think?
So why do we read the Bible? One can read the Bible for many reasons, most of them good (and a few not so good). One can read the Bible as an ancient source for the history and culture of the Middle East. One can read it for its literary beauty. One can read it to establish how it came to be put together, and what the various texts meant in the context in which they were originally read. These and other are valid reasons to read the Bible, and they are often compelling.
For many years I attended the national meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL), most often held jointly with the American Academy of Religion (AAR). These events are huge, attracting pre-pandemic something on the order of 10,000 attendees. The SBL and AAR are professional societies for professors and students of biblical studies (SBL) and religion (AAR). They come from across the world. The people who attend the SBL sessions cover the spectrum of beliefs about the Bible, from those who regard every word as divinely inspired to those who do not believe in God, let alone that the Bible is inspired. But for these four days in late November, they are held together as if in thrall to a spell, a spell cast by the Bible itself. Even for those who do not believe the Bible to be the Word of God, it has an undeniable power.
There is much to be learned about the Bible at these conferences, about the text itself, about the cultures that produced the Bible, and about the cultures that have read and continue to read it. But here’s the strange thing: as Christians, that’s not why we read the Bible. We don’t read the Bible for the Bible; we read the Bible because through the Bible we meet Jesus, and through Jesus the Father, and through these Spirit-filled encounters to be shaped for the Christian life. As much as our readings are enriched by biblical scholarship, our primary reason for reading the Bible as Christians is not to become Bible scholars but to become followers of Jesus. The first question is not what or how but who? Who do we meet in our reading of the Bible?
John says exactly this at the end of his gospel (the end, that is, before an appendix, chapter 21, was added): “Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Anointed One, Son of God, and that in believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:30-31).
I think we can regard this as a statement not only about the why of John’s gospel but the why of the Bible for those who would read it faithfully as the people of God. In a much too modest statement, John says that he edited the accounts of Jesus. Some scholars believe that John, writing at the end of the 1st century, had before him the other gospels. His gospel is a reformulation of their gospels. If so, it is not only a selection of the signs, words, and actions of Jesus but a new and creative way of portraying who Jesus is, not just as a 1st century teacher but as Logos—the creative Word of God.
John says that he has selected (and reordered) the signs of Jesus, so “that you [the reader] may believe that Jesus is the Anointed One, the Son of God,” and “that in believing you may have life in his name.” Two things here: relationship and formation.
These two are the central goals of any disciple. The first, “that you may believe that Jesus is the Anointed One, the Son of God,” is to find a master you can trust (the heart of the Greek word for “believing” is trust) and from whom you can learn. The second is to learn from the master how to live: “That you may have life in his name.” Relationship and formation.
In this statement about why he has written his gospel, John echoes a testimony at the heart of his gospel. A long time ago, I discovered that in the Bible, as in other books, it’s often instructive to look at where a book begins, where it ends, and where it folds. Where it folds is where the action turns from initial development of the story to its conclusion. Where does the story hinge?
In Mark and Matthew, the story hinges on the confession of Peter. In the story, Jesus is asking how he is perceived by the people (as a prophet, it turns out) when he turns to his own disciples and bluntly asks: “So who do you say that I am?” Peter, as always, replies: “You are the Anointed One” (Mark 8:29, Matthew 16:16; christos, “Christ,” Hebrew “messiah,” retains here something of its original meaning, “one anointed for [God’s] purpose,” and I’ve so translated it). Once Peter has spoken, Jesus begins to explain that he must go to Jerusalem to die. The events leading to the cross and the resurrection are set in motion. It’s the fold, the hinge-point of these gospels.
In John the book folds between chapters 11 and 12, between the death and resurrection of Lazarus (11) and the recognition of Jesus by “some Greeks”(12:20)—people from outside of the community—which signals to Jesus that the hour for his death has come. Like Mark and Matthew, the action pivots on a confession of who Jesus is, but this time not the confession of Peter but of Martha of Bethany.
It’s significant, I think, that in John’s gospel women’s testimony is central to the story. Already in chapter 4, a Samaritan woman, stunned by her conversation with Jesus, broaches the idea that Jesus may be the messiah. “Could this be the Anointed One?” she asks her townspeople (4:29). In the climatic chapter, 20, Mary Magdalene is first among the disciples to encounter the risen Jesus. When she finally recognizes him, her confession is a single word, “Rabboni,” which means something like, “my dear teacher” (20:16).
Between these at the place where the book hinges is the confession of Martha. In the story, Lazarus has died and been buried as Jesus seems to dawdle. When Jesus at long last arrives at Bethany, Martha rushes out to meet him before he reaches the village. John artfully sets up the scene to evoke the circumstances of the early church. Martha says what many in the church in John’s time must have been thinking: “If you [Jesus] had been here, my brother [my mother, my father, my sister, my friend] would not have died” (11:21). Martha voices the despair and the hope of the church.
They, the early church, had expected the return of Jesus, but now he had apparently delayed his coming. Martha adds a kind of prayer: “But I know even now that whatever you ask of God, God will give to you.” Jesus responds to her prayer with “Your brother will rise from the dead,” by now a Jewish hope among some of the faithful (see 2 Maccabees), at least for heroes of the faith. Martha completes the theological thought with the conventional wisdom: “I know that he will rise in the resurrection at the last day.” Cold comfort, at the time.
It’s here that the Jesus of John’s gospel breaks conventional theological boundaries. He says, “I am the resurrection and the life.” The “I am,” the fifth of these in the gospel, evokes Exodus 3:14, the “I am who I am” passage. The “I am” of Jesus claims not just God’s name but God’s powers, resurrection and life. It’s these themes, the themes of the relationship between Jesus as human and Jesus as divine, between Jesus as teacher and Jesus as Word, that later are played out in the Last Discourse of Jesus (14-17). I’ll have more to say about that in the next post.
To all that—to that boundary-breaking declaration of Jesus as the divine Word, as the resurrection and life—Martha responds with the central confession of the gospel: “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Anointed One, the Son of God, the one who has come to the world.”
It’s the confession of Martha that John picks up at the end of chapter 20 in the original conclusion to the gospel: “These things have been written that you might believe that Jesus is the Anointed One, the Son of God, and that believing you might have life.” John’s purpose in writing is to make Marthas of us.
I’ve taken this rather long detour (although it could be much, much longer) to frame John’s answer to the question: why read the Bible? The answer John gives is that we read the Bible to meet the one in whom the mystery of God is found, our master, and in meeting him, to find life—transcendent life. In the gospel of John, this life is sometimes called “eternal life,” which includes not just the life to come but life now. “This is eternal life,” says Jesus in his great prayer in chapter 17, “that they may know you [the Father], the only true God, and the one you have sent, Jesus the Anointed One” (17:3).
What this life comes to is developed at much greater length in the Last Discourse (14-17). As I said, I’ll come to that in the next post, but in drawing this post to a conclusion, let me reference one more text from the gospel of John that comes near the beginning of the Last Discourse. In response to a question from the always searching Thomas, Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” Jesus, here, as in other “I am” sayings, speaks as the Logos—the divine, creative Word. He breaks down the Christian life into three parts: way, truth, and life.
The way is the discipline of the Christian life, what Jesus calls in this chapter and others, “keeping his commandments.” We read the Bible to learn this discipline. The commandment central to this discipline is love. The way of love is the way of the cross. It’s the way of self-giving. It’s the way Jesus himself lives. It’s the way he lives out in us. We read the Bible to come to know this way.
This, in turn, is the truth. The gospel is judged best not by the orthodoxy of its formulations but by the aspirations of its adherents. In this Martha with her confession is our model. Do those who profess to follow Jesus aspire to walk in his way? Or do they hope merely by naming his name to pass muster at the pearly gates (see Matthew 7:21-23)? Is our truth the truth of the way of Jesus? Or some other way? We read to discover the truth of Jesus.
And this in turn is the life. This life is always resurrection life. And resurrection is the work of the Spirit. As Paul has it in Romans, the Spirit who raised up Jesus from the dead will also raise us up, not just at the last day, but now (Romans 8:11). In living the way of Jesus, we taste a bit of the life which will be always ours.
This summary is, of course, all too brisk. Each of these topics requires much more in the way of exposition and contemplation. The gospel of John is a marvel. It’s not entirely hyperbole to say that the development of the doctrines of the Trinity and the two natures of Christ are mere footnotes to what John lays out in the Last Discourse. But what we are about here is not an articulation of the theology of the gospel of John but the approach to the Bible taught to us by John, an approach that grasps ancient wisdom for how to read the Bible.
This wisdom begins not with how but with whom. In two senses. The first is who one meets in the scriptures. If one reads the Bible and never truly meets Jesus and, in meeting Jesus, meets the Father, then one has read in vain. The second is who one becomes in the reading of scripture. If one reads scripture but never learns the way of Jesus or his truth—not the truth about him but the truth of his life—then you will not taste the life of the Spirit and the scriptures will be lost to you.
To read the Bible in John’s way is not simply an exercise in “historical-grammatical” exegesis. It is an encounter with the one who is both with us and forever beyond us.