Who Can Read Scripture?

As you may already know, I have an interest in the issue of hermeneutics when it comes to scripture. In particular, the question of my interest is how should a local church read scripture in order to participate in the mission of God. A healthy reading of scripture will enable a local church to embody the gospel of Jesus Christ in a faithful yet contextual manner as the church navigates the various circumstances they encounter.

There is more to embodying the gospel than just reading scripture but how a church reads scripture is integral to this goal. Consequently, I read books related to this issue and recently finished reading Stephen E. Fowl, Engaging Scripture: A Model for Theological Interpretation, 1998. I don’t plan to offer a complete review here but if this is an issue that interests you, then I do recommend Fowl’s book.

One of the strengths of this book is the focus on the character of those who read scripture, what the author describes as a virtuous reader. Such readers recognize that they are sinners and are therefore engaged in the practices of forgiveness, repentance, and reconciliation (p. 84). Without recognition of God’s grace which not offers us forgiveness and calls us to a new life of holiness lived in in Christ with other disciples of Christ, the way we read scripture will certain be skewed.

“…for Christians, practical reasoning is Christ-Focused.”

Pressing further about the character of those who read scripture, attention is given to the letter of Philippians and the Christ-likeness that Paul calls the church to exhibit. Referring to Philippians 2:6-11, Fowl writes:

Philippians makes it particularly clear that, for Christians, practical reasoning is Christ-focused. The account of God’s activity in Christ rendered in 2:6-11 is the norm or rule from which Paul then moves analogically to account for his own situation, for the situation of those known to the Philippians, and for how the Philippians ought to live in light of their present struggles (pp. 196-197).

The concern is the reasoning that all Christians employ as they read scripture. Ironically, we never learn what the actual issue the Philippians are dealing with (though we can make some feasible deductions based on the letter itself) and that seems important here because there isn’t any particular issue that a Christ-focused practical reasoning is limited to. A local church must employ Christ-focused reasoning in all of its reading of scripture and with every issue it faces as it reads scripture. Such Christ-focused reason involves the humility of self-surrender or submission. That it, Christians do not read scripture to advance their own personal agenda and have their way but to submit to the work of the Spirit in leading the church to embody the gospel.

There are all sort of issues a local church must navigate through such as conflict like the Philippians were likely dealing with, theological issues involving a christology (doctrine of Christ) like the Colossians were dealing, or even pastoral issues like those that Peter was addressing to the churches of Asia Minor in 1 & 2 Peter. Or even some of the pressing issues of our own day such as…

  • How a church engages its Muslim neighbors
  • What are the sexual norms for Christian faithfulness.
  • How a church works out the question of gender and equality
  • What sort of practices will the worship and fellowship gatherings of a church involve
  • The role of the Holy Spirit in the life and witness of the local church
  • Whatever issue your church is currently wrestling with

Whatever the circumstances and issue, Christians must read scripture in a virtuous manner and that includes employing a Christ-focused reasoning. And to be clear as to why this is so important: in my experience as a minister, there are Christians who read scripture with a self-focus, whether it is to try conserving the status-quo or progressing their own self-interest. It begs the question of just who can really read scripture among the church and the answer to that question are those Christians with Christ-focused reasoning.

May the Spirit form in us the mindset of Jesus Christ so that as we read scripture, the churches we belong to will embody the gospel to the glory of the Father, Son, and Spirit!

5 responses to “Who Can Read Scripture?

  1. Good thoughts. If the New Testament writers read the Old Testament Christologically–and they obviously did–it makes sense for us to read their writings Christologically. We must still ask what it means to read the Bible Christologically. It would be easy to forget the full gospel story, including the cross and resurrection, and substitute a “Christ” principle or a subjective impression of Jesus or perhaps the spirit of the times and call that a Christological reading. A “What Would Jesus Do” hermeneutic is limited by how well we know Jesus.

    • Exactly! We can only follow Jesus to the extent that we know Jesus. And I would say that without knowing Jesus, we can read the Bible and still end up embodying a very different expression of the gospel that Jesus himself embodied.

      Thanks for your comment!

  2. Yes, ifaqtheology, “What Would Jesus Do” was actually very limited when it was widely used. It was usually thrown out to teens to keep them off alcohol, drugs and sex. But when it came to being merciful as Jesus was merciful…well, it never quite caught on.

    • Sadly, you are correct in your perception about the limitations of how “What Would Jesus Do?” actually shaped our formation as followers of Jesus. Too often, when showing mercy calls us into uncomfortable, dangerous, or even undesirable circumstances, “Be merciful…” is rebuffed with “That’s not realistic… we need to use a little common sense here!” And when that happens, our individual common sense replaces Jesus as the teacher and revelation of God’s will.

      Thanks for your comment!

  3. “He that hath clean hands, and a pure heart; who hath not lifted up his soul unto vanity, nor sworn deceitfully.

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