There is a widespread view that the work of the Spirit and the work of critical study of the Bible are like oil and water—they simply don’t mix. This is reinforced from both directions. People who read the Bible devotionally often look distinctly nervous when the subject of ‘academic’ study of the Bible comes up. Where mosques and other places of worship have a rack by the entrance where you can take off your shoes and leave them outside, it feels as though for many churches there is a similar rack by the entrance where you can leave your brain as you come in. (It might be metaphorical, but it is there!) On the other hand, there are many in the academy who see ‘committed’ reading as polluting the ‘objectivity’ of the academic process.
The general nervousness about all this is sometimes expressed in relation to university courses. Christians shouldn’t study theology because it will undermine their faith. I have seen the (ironically) unthinking imposition of a liberal ‘fundamentalism’ imposed on Christian students in a very damaging way, but this is less likely today, not least because of the growth of evangelical critical thinking. In fact, it is vital that we connect head and heart in our articulation of faith, for our own wellbeing but also to be effective in an increasing sceptical and post-Christendom context—though there is still a question as to whether a university course is the right place to do this for everyone.
However, the most compelling reason for holding together the work of the Spirit and the task of critical judgement together is because this is just what the Bible does. The Spirit and judgement are brought together explicitly in John 16.8, where Jesus expounds the Spirit’s role in discerning the difference between what is holy and what is not through a process of critical discernment. (The Greek for ‘judgement’ is krisis from which we get the word ‘critical.’) We see the Spirit at work in explicit actions of judgement in Acts 5, in the (baffling to the modern ear) account of Ananias and Sapphira. And against the Corinthians’ superficial ease with judging each other, it is striking that Paul does not reject the notion of judgement as such, but reconfigures it through the lens of the work of the Spirit. Early on, in 1 Cor 2.15, Paul asserts that ‘The spiritual person makes judgements about all things’, and in context we should understand this as being ‘the person with the Spirit’ which is Paul’s definition of a follower of Jesus (1 Cor 12.3). In fact, discernment between people and the ‘spirit’ in which they are operating is one of the gifts of the Spirit (1 Cor 12.10), the word being again a compound of krineo ‘to judge’.
So why have we ended up ourselves with seeing a gulf between the ideas of judgement and discernment, a discriminating evaluation of different viewpoints on the one hand, and the work of the Spirit on the other? In part, the answer is rooted in the Enlightenment paradigm of rational enquiry that has shaped our intellectual life. Discernment is the work of the autonomous, sensing self who sits at the centre of his or her world, and needs no outside agency to help in this process. Indeed, any outside agency is just that—outside the individual, and therefore not to be trusted until sifted and evaluated by the individual.
But another reason is the way we have configured our expectations of the work of the Spirit as we read Scripture within our pietistic spirituality. As I reflect on the pattern of Bible reading I was (helpfully) inducted into, I see four strands to it:
1. Immediacy. We expect to open the Bible and immediately to hear God say something to us. Some years ago a joke was doing the rounds about someone who read the Bible by opening a page and sticking a pin in it. First he read Matt 27.5 ‘Judas went and hanged himself’ and thought that that couldn’t be right. So he did it again and read Luke 10.37 ‘Go thou and do likewise’, and was sure there was some mistake. So he did it a third time, only to read John 13.27 ‘What you are about to do, do quickly.’ The reason that this is funny is because it reflects a lot of people’s approach to how to read the Bible devotionally. We don’t expect to have to wait for an answer or to do any work in listening for it.
2. Clarity. We not only expect God to speak to us, we also expect God to speak clearly, without ambiguity. A popular Christian poster once depicted Abraham hearing God’s call and responding by asking a series of questions, each of which because a question mark that he then had to carry. At the end he has more to carry than he can cope with, and the final slogan was ‘It is hard to be a disciple with all these questions.’ The moral was clear: if you are uncertain about what God is saying, then you lack faith. A vicar of a church I used to attend had a motto: “If God asks you to jump, the only question you ask is ‘How high?”‘ I didn’t find it helpful.
3. Relevance. When God speaks, immediately and clearly, we often expect it to have a direct bearing on our world. One of the things dogging the debate about same-sex marriage is just this question: it is asserted that the Bible has nothing to say, because it does not directly address the context we are in and the questions we have. But the same is true on every issue! It is assumed that, if the Bible is not immediately relevant to our context, it has nothing to say.
4. Familiarity: For many of us, when we first came to faith and the Spirit of God breathed new life and understanding into our lives, it was a strange and wonderful thing that this God continued to speak to us through the pages of Scripture. But often an odd thing then happens. At some point or other, this becomes ‘our’ book, and we feel we know it. It is reassuring and familiar. We know what it says, and it no longer surprises us. I notice this most clearly when I am looking with people at familiar passages and pointing out that (as in the case of John 3.16) most people misunderstand what the text is actually saying.
There is a sense in which all these things are true; God does speak clearly to his people (note the plural!) and form them through the faithful reading of scripture. But I cannot help thinking that these expectations are formed as much by Romanticism (as a reaction against the aridity of rationalism) as they are by Scripture itself. And when we engage in critical study of some sort, there is a rude awakening, because we experience four quite different things:
1. Delay. Spending the best part of a decade in a theological college, where we read the Scriptures in chapel before studying them in class, was instructive. At the end of the reading, when the reader said solemnly, ‘This is the word of the Lord’ there was quite often a collective sense of wanting to respond ‘What is? In what way? And what does it even mean?’
2. Ambiguity. It is quite difficult to be confident in the clarity of God’s word to us when there are 18 possible interpretations of this particularly verse, with three main contenders who have a strong case but are mutually contradictory.
3. Distance: The more I read and study the Scriptures, the more I am clear that the biblical writers lived in a very different culture from ours, and so begin and continue with some very different assumptions about the way the world works. Of course, they share the same humanity and the same faith in God, but it is expressed in ways that are at a distance from our own world.
4. Strangeness. Richard Dawkins has got at least one thing right; the Bible is a strange book, and we should worry when we feel it is too familiar. When I was driving a lot a few years ago, I listened to a recording of John’s gospel read by David Suchet. When I had listened to chapter 6, 7 and 8 my overwhelming feeling was that this Jesus was a very strange person indeed. It might have been the context I was in, or my mood, or David Suchet’s voice—but I have a feeling that it was really something to do with John’s gospel and Jesus I found in it! There is a wonderful short essay at OnFaith explaining why it is best to categorise the Bible as fantasy literature, because it is so strange.
Before we try and resolve these things, we need to note one point of encouragement: these latter four have been the widespread experience of the people of God, and they are the things which prevent us domesticating God and making him in our own image. Think of Elijah on the mountainside in 1 Kings 19; if ever anyone should think that God was clear and unambiguous in what he was saying, it was Elijah, yet here he is baffled and bemused. Or think of Daniel wrestling with Jeremiah’s prophecy in Daniel 9. Or of John the Baptist trying to make sense of Jesus in Matt 11.3. Or the Council of Jerusalem wrestling with God’s new work in Acts 15. If we experience these four things in our reading of Scripture, we are in good company!
Nevertheless, there is a serious challenge in handling these pairs of tensions.
Immediacy — Delay
Clarity — Ambiguity
Relevance — Distance
Familiarity — Strangeness
There are two possible responses to this dilemma. A common one is to retreat from the right hand side, and take refuge in the left. There are multiple problems with this. For one, we deny that the dynamic on the right is present in Scripture. For another, we also have to deny that we find the dynamic on the right present in our own experience and in the experiences of others in our fellowship. To stick with the left means closing ourselves down culturally and relationally, and in the end refusing to grow and learn. We get stuck in a nostalgic moment that is frozen in time, some short while after we first came to faith.
But an equally popular response is to move to the right and abandon the left hand side. This can be found easily enough within academic theology, either amongst those of no faith or those who would have formerly described themselves as people of faith. And it is not uncommon to find this response amongst people who were told that, to be disciples, they had to remain on the left hand side, so when the dissonance became too much, they ‘popped’ over to the right. And this side, in its fullest form, is not hospitable to faith. As Paul Ricoeur highlights, criticism creates a desert, because putting the ‘self’ at the centre as the perceiving subject makes all other things the object of study, to be scrutinised and assessed rather than engaged with—to be treated with a ‘hermeneutic of suspicion’ rather than a ‘hermeneutic of retrieval’. Yet, Ricoeur goes on to say, those who wish to live authentic lives long to be ‘called again, beyond the desert of criticism.’
This kind of response is also found (it seems to me) amongst those who say ‘The evangelical/charismatic tradition was important to me in the past’ but cannot own it now. Very often the things on the left are the things that brought them to faith, but they feel that the things on the right are the ones that are bringing them maturity. This creates a real paradox, in that it appears that ‘mature’ faith does not have the power to bring others to new faith—which must be at odds with just about every thing that we read in the Bible itself.
It is, in fact, possible to live with and continue to inhabit both sides of this dilemma—but to do so requires the formation of a particular attitude, or (perhaps better) the formation of certain characteristics or qualities.
The first is patience. If ‘love is patient’ (1 Cor 13.4) and if we love God, shouldn’t we be patient with God? We usually think of an unanswered prayer as one that has not been answered instantly, rather than (for example, from ‘Heavenly Man’ Pastor Yun’s story) after five months of intense intercession. Are we prepared both to listen carefully, expecting to hear God, but also patiently, read to wait if we don’t hear immediately? Just such patient attentiveness is surely the mark of maturity here.
The second is discernment, which is perhaps the supreme gifting of the Spirit. I explored previously how ‘judgement’ was closely associated with the work of the Spirit; it must also surely be connected with the prophetic, which involves discerning what God is doing and saying, and this explains why they are linked together in 1 Cor 12.10. Discernment or judgement is only needed when there is ambiguity or a conflict of views; where there is clarity and unanimity, discernment has no function.
The third quality needed is the perhaps surprising one of discipline. In his Grove booklet Scripture and Authority Today, Richard Bauckham talks of the need for a ‘historically disciplined imagination’ in the process of constructing meaning as we read Scripture. Since there is a distance between the context we are in and the context of the text, there is a challenge to connect the two. Meaning cannot reside in the text alone, as this leaves it at a distance from us. Neither can meaning reside in ourselves as readers, since we then make the text mean what we want it to. No, meaning must reside in the disciplined interaction between modern reader and ancient text if we are going to be genuinely open to what God is saying to us through it.
Finally, in entering the strange and often unfamiliar world of Scripture, we need the quality of wisdom. Richard Briggs suggests (in Reading the Bible Wisely) that this is the key virtue we need. There is familiarity in Scripture—in the characters and their situations we often find our own situations mirrored. But we need to be wise in this, and deep familiarity is one that has to be learnt, as we recognise that Scripture’s logic and outlook is often very different from our own.
These four things then take their place in our experiences as follows:
Immediacy — Patience — Delay
Clarity — Discernment — Ambiguity
Relevance — Discipline — Distance
Familiarity — Wisdom — Strangeness
It is clear that the work of the Spirit in these four areas is essential for our reading. (If you are in doubt of that, consider a context of Bible reading where these four qualities are absent.) But it is also clear that the Spirit’s role is not to bring additional information, or to be part of a technique, or to supply a magic answer that we would not otherwise have had access to. The role of the Spirit in us as readers must be analogous to the role of the Spirit in the first writers of Scripture—forming them, giving insight and allowing discernment, rather than dictating words.
To hold on to both sides will involve both criticism of possible meanings of the text we are reading, but also a realist commitment to discern and to act on what we find. To do this, we need to emulate Paul’s approach in 1 Cor 14.15: I will (pray/study) with the Spirit but I will (pray/study) with my mind also. And if we do so, this will be very attractive to others. People do want answers but they don’t just want simplistic answers, and answers that have been sifted and thought through will be answers that have credibility.
(Previously published in a revised form as two separate posts in 2014, and before that as a lecture on spirituality and the critical study of Scripture.)