Bobby Grow recently put me on to a book by John Webster called Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch, and I’m much obliged to him for the lead. The book has many virtues. One I very much appreciate is Webster’s view that a person’s moral alignment with the Bible message is critical to being able to read it properly.
Webster writes, for instance, that “Reading Scripture is thus best understood as an aspect of mortification [i.e. of our dying to self] and vivification [of being raised to new life]: to read Scripture is to be slain and made alive” (p 88). My response is, “Yes!” that’s the drama of the Spirit at work within us as we read! Christ’s holy Spirit will not let us stay in our old ways of life if we read with open hearts as he offers us God’s own heart.
But it’s not as if this is a new insight. I remember an aphorism about Bible reading from my childhood that affirms what I’ve found in my own love of the Scriptures: “This book will keep you from sin, and sin will keep you from this book.” Amen: it’s true.
We all struggle with some measure of moral blindness. And, as Jesus made clear in John 9, to the degree that our blindness is unacknowledged it is impossible to see God’s point of view when he confront us. Only when I have Christ’s light, life, and love in me do I begin to listen honestly. So I pray for real openness and a tender heart whenever I read.
Let me highlight the point, and the problem it raises for many of us, by going back to a conversation I once had with a bright and well read Bible scholar who was about to publish a Bible study methods text. I asked him if he had included a chapter on the moral dimension of Bible study. He had not and I don’t think my concern made an impression on him.
In a way I could hardly blame him for being dismissive. Among the many books on Bible Study Methods I used in my academic career not one of them made the point that our moral blindness as sinners will impact our ability to read the Bible honestly and accurately. Prayers and repentance are not seen as gateways to effective study.
Why not? I can suggest at least one issue. If sin is a self-love that prospers in the matrix of personal ambition and cultivated ability, it’s all too easy for bright and diligent students to dismiss an active dependence on God’s presence in guiding our hearts. It’s easy, instead, to rely on methods of study and logic in our interpretation of the Bible—as if the process is free of any moral or spiritual biases.
So for an intellectually able and well read scholar to admit that he or she needs to hear God’s reading of our hearts before we can ever read the Bible accurately or present God as he really is . . . well . . . it’s humbling. And at least some bright scholars may not see humility as an enticing virtue.
All of which brings me back to Webster’s fine book: it invites humility and calls for a real devotion to God as our proper pathway to hearing what God offers us in the Scriptures. So if any of us are finding the Bible unappetizing, a little bit of humility might make it much more palatable!
Thanks, Bobby. I owe you one.