Reading the Bible in Context and Community

Charlton Heston as Moses in the 1956 “The 10 Commandments.”

The Bible is a beautiful and mysterious gift to the Church but an admittedly hard book to read. In it are stories dating back as many as 3400 years about people and customs we don’t understand, and that we question the relevance of for our lives today. Moreover, carry a lot of baggage into our reading of the Bible. We should want to read the Bible, we tell ourselves. We should know why this is important for us, we say. If we were more faithful, reading the Bible would be easier, we think. Underneath all of this, I suspect, is a lot of confusion and maybe a little bit of guilt.

 

Here are a few things to keep in mind as you read the Bible:

Ned Flanders, beloved Fundamentalist of Simpsons fame.

The Bible was written by believers for believers. It’s a resource of faith for faithful people, not a blunt object to tell people what to do or to help us judge who’s good and who’s bad (in fact, the Bible tells us, specifically, not to do that in John 8:1-11). The original authors wrote their texts for communities who already believed, or at least wanted to believe, but who needed encouragement, understanding, and sometimes correction. The Bible makes more sense when we hear it with the ears of “faith seeking understanding,” (in Latin, fides quaerens intellectum, as the theologian and philosopher, St. Anselm, wrote). Thus, our reading should begin, first and foremost, with love for God. Sometimes this looks like the bereaved man who said to Jesus, “I believe, help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24).

Reading the Bible is a spiritual practice for Christians, and one that is best accompanied by other spiritual practices rather than done in isolation. All spiritual practices are meant to direct us to God and help us grow in our love for God (see #1). Thus, reading the Bible helps us see a pattern of God’s love and mercy in people’s lives, which helps us to better see it in our own life. In this regard, faith seeking understanding means “an active love of God seeking a deeper knowledge of God” and is best situated with other practices such as prayer, worship, and service to others.

The Bible was written for communities to be read within communities. We know that our Hebrew ancestors only heard the Torah read in the Temple or Synagogue as only the priests and scribes had access to the scrolls it was written on. In the Christian tradition, people didn’t have copies of the Bible for private use until after the Reformation (16th century), but most only heard scripture read aloud in church even well after that. Moreover, holy scripture was traditionally accompanied by a teaching about it by a rabbi/priest or minister. We should keep in mind both the context in which it was written (what was going on in the community it was written for that necessitated this particular message) and the context in which we hear it now (not just my individual life, but the common life of all faithful people, ie. ‘the church’) as we try to understand it.

In the Book of Nehemiah, the Jewish priest, Ezra, finds the Torah scroll and reads it for all the Israelites to hear.

The Bible is the inspired word of God, which contains “all things necessary for salvation,” but it is not the literal word of God. In the Episcopal Church we believe the Bible is one of three elements of faith that provides authority for the Church, the other two being reason and tradition. It is neither traditional nor reasonable to believe the Bible is the literal word of God, but it is also not necessary for it to nevertheless be sacred and true. Episcopalians believe the Bible is the source of God’s revelation, as it is inspired by God, and is therefore the source of all Christian teaching. So what is the truth of the Bible?

The Bible is fundamentally a story about God’s love. This is the truth of the Bible. Throughout both the Old and New Testament, God reaches out in love to care for and guide humanity. God made the world perfectly good but humans distorted that goodness by turning away from God, preferring our own perceptions of what’s good. But again and again God sent prophets to call us to repent of our sin and return to God’s goodness. Eventually God sent Jesus Christ to live among us, to proclaim God’s love, and to show us how to love one another. There are plenty of passages in the Bible that don’t sound very loving but we shouldn’t read those passages as though they were isolated from the many contexts in which they were written, intended, and heard by the first recipients.

All of the principles that I’ve articulated here have pointed to the fact that the Bible must always be situated–whether in the context of faith or in the midst of other spiritual practices, or within community or among other sources of authority. But the most important context in which to read the Bible is that of God’s love. Incarnation exists to be a community that reads the Bible together and that tried to live according to God’s love. We do this every Sunday at House Church where I am continually amazed at the depth and sincerity of both questioning and striving that everyone brings to our conversations. It’s a real joy to be a part of it.

What do you think is important to keep in mind as you read the Bible? In what communities and contexts do you read the Bible? Share your comments here. If you’re looking for a community to read the Bible with, give us a shout.

One thought on “Reading the Bible in Context and Community

  1. I was raised in the Catholic church and do not remember ever hearing scripture outside of Mass, not even in the educational part of that church, called CCD. So, I’ve only started studying the Bible. I do it as part of my daily prayer and meditation, part of practicing the Rule of Life we are discussing at Incarnation. Practicing the Rule of Life and reading daily scripture has helped deepen my connection to God.

    The historical perspective is very helpful here as is articulating the Episcopal belief that scripture is not the literal word, but must be taken in context with reason and tradition.

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