“What does it mean to … us?”
When our faculty seminar gathered in May 2015 to think about reading, we enjoyed learning community at its best: We became more aware of the world’s richness through others’ expertise, and we also grew more attuned to our own practices. As colleagues described diverse ways in which their disciplines “read,” and we encountered extraordinary artifacts that expanded our historical sense of the “book,” I marveled at the God-given cultural variety—and pondered the implications for reading the Bible.
Evangelical Bible Reading: Two Levels
Evangelical reading of the Bible has increasingly operated at two levels. The first level is popular, proliferating in personal devotions and small groups. Two approaches tend to guide this lay reading level. One is the question, “What does it mean to you?” We learn to ask that question both to enhance personal devotion and to contribute in the round-robin of the small group. A second, sometimes related, lay-reading approach is the three-step process of observation, interpretation, and application—taught in many Christian colleges, campus ministries, and bygone Sunday Schools.
Yet a second, scholarly level of evangelical Bible reading is devoted not only to providing resources for popular exploration but also to placing restraints upon our “What does it mean to you?” tendencies. The most common hermeneutics underlying evangelical biblical scholarship are expressed clearly in the three-part framework of the NIV Application Commentary series: “original meaning”; “bridging contexts”; “contemporary significance.” In this framework, the original meaning is single, tied to the author’s intention, while contemporary applications may be multiple, related to readers’ contexts. Broad parallelism with observation-interpretation-application is obvious: These approaches make an effort at “popular science,” translating basic conclusions and even processes of scholarly reading into a lay-level framework.
Historical awareness of books and reading practices helps us to realize how recent and distinctive this model is. In practice it sometimes assumes hermeneutical clarity that is out of step with other intellectual disciplines, including history. At worst it falls into naïveté, as if it were possible to “observe” without already beginning to interpret, or to “interpret” without already beginning to apply—while already reading a translation! Moreover, scholars and preachers provide a wealth of resources concerning the original meaning, and frequently wise accounts of contemporary significance; but the bridges they build across contexts often remain obscure. The many applications—and discernment about such possibilities—lack organic connections with the texts themselves. The sermon’s exposition of original meaning suddenly gives way to practical application steps that are little more than good Christian advice. Or the small group hears that the text means to me basically what I have already been taught to expect in particular contexts.
The Evangelical Two-Step and the Church’s History
In suggesting that this popular-science model—which I call the “evangelical two-step” because it essentially tries to move in a straight line from “theory” to “practice”—has its vices, I am not saying that we should simply dismiss it. For it also has virtues: At its best, it fosters the “priesthood of all believers.” I do not mean the isolated self-priesthood of every believer, as if alone with one’s Bible on an island. Instead, the two-step model ideally makes evangelical biblical scholarship accessible to pastors, and more accessible to laypersons, than otherwise—making it possible for all of God’s people to prayerfully engage the Scriptures more directly. Christian reading of the Bible assumes a doctrine of the church: for evangelical Protestants, eliciting the active participation of laypeople.
Where, however, has our evangelical doctrine of the church been weaker? In relation to the church’s historical context and teaching offices. As for historical context: Our two-step model tends to assume and emphasize historical distance between the original, ancient contexts of the Bible’s meaning and our modern contexts of reading. But we today—like the texts’ previous audiences—most fundamentally are those “on whom the culmination of the ages has come” (1 Cor. 10:11). In other words, it is more important that we recognize our salvation-historical identity in Christ—shared with God’s people across the ages—than our modern historical distance from previous contexts.
And as for teaching offices: Our two-step model tends to assume everyone’s right to read as long as they employ the right “method,” while emphasizing celebrities, rather than local pastors, as our authoritative teachers. But today’s unprecedented amounts and kinds of literacy, translations, and commentary—while potentially a great blessing—are not meant to replace churchly catechesis, public reading, and memorization of Scripture.
The history of the biblical texts themselves, their preservation, and their churchly use suggests recovering local, oral forms of engagement with Scripture to reform our practice of the two-step model—to put the popular science in a healthier context. Pre-modern oral reading was not just a matter of illiterate necessity: People need to hear the Bible as a community, not just read it individually in order to share personal experience in group settings. People need to encounter the Bible with a sense of connection to the created realities and salvation history of which God speaks there. Particular connections can be generically human and/or specifically Christian, initially arising almost automatically when hearing the “voices” of the text as God’s Word.
When we experience and make these participatory connections too naïvely and individualistically, the historical orientation of the two-step model can provide helpful correction. It raises challenging questions and offers important resources for contextually reforming and enriching our readings. But the evangelical two-step becomes unhelpful once we start to assume that modern historical distance essentially alienates us from the Bible’s message as heard in earlier contexts. When we experience such alienation, feeling as if we must somehow struggle constantly make the Bible “relevant” today, then we need a salvation-historical reorientation: We are first and foremost defined by membership in the people of God, not by our modernity.
For every misreading of Jeremiah 29:11 as a direct personal promise that could use a dose of historical nuance, there is the opposite and perhaps greater danger of relegating the Lord’s promises to an irrelevant past—ignoring believers’ intuitive sense that somehow our connection as God’s covenant people across the centuries authorizes hearing this text as God’s Word to us. God’s people should not be entirely at the mercy of careful scholars or clever communicators for building such bridges back to the Bible.
If we would hear God speaking in Scripture, then being “people of the Book” requires not just reading privately but also hearing publicly and learning communally—enhancing our sense of participation in the tradition of God’s covenant people. The history of the church’s reading helps us to realize how privileged—and responsible—we have now become through our popular science. And that history also helps us to realize that in our “life together” no simple and sure formula guarantees faithful hearing of the Word. Yet various ways of hearing the Word comprise a tried and true practice that our life together needs to recover—to help us realize who we really are.