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Should Christians read the Bible?

By Peter Sellick - posted Friday, 11 August 2017


In Stanley Hauerwas' latest book "Unleashing the Scriptures: Freeing the Bible from Captivity to America" he begins by quoting Flannery O'Connor: "to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind, you draw large and starting pictures." You have to do this when your audience sees things very differently from you.

Hauerwas has made a reputation by shouting and drawing large and startling pictures because he is convinced that Christianity in America exists under a tutelage other than that of the gospel. In this book, he attacks the widespread assumption, particularly among Protestants, that the bible can be read without the tutelage of the Church i.e. that it is self-interpreting.

The idea that the bible could be read using common sense reasoning came from Francis Bacon (1561-1626) who championed the plain sense of things and laid the foundation for scientific rationalism. If this could be used to investigate God's world it could also be used in reading the word of God in the Bible.

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Thus, biblical fundamentalism found its origin in early scientific thought i.e. it is an outcome of modernity and it is a stranger to the Church. We think that we can read the Bible without the tutelage of the Church because we are all still enamoured by the idea of throwing off all external authority and thinking for ourselves. We are dominated by ideas of the sufficiency of the common man and of egalitarianism. It is enough, we think, for the common man to sit alone and read the Bible. Hauerwas tells us that this idea must be attacked.

In saying this he is attacking a core presupposition of Protestantism and also explains why Protestantism turned out to be so schismatic. If each person is his own authority, he is in effect his own church and this has spawned the multitude of denominations in our time and turned the name "Christian" into a byword for stupidity and arrogance.

It is usual, among theological circles, to oppose modern historical critical study of the bible to fundamentalist or literalist readings. Much to our surprise, Hauerwas tells us that they are but two sides of the same coin in that they both operate within the presupposition that the meaning of the bible may be obtained without reference to how the Church understands and uses Scripture.

The discovered meaning is largely determined by the unrecognised politics of the reader. In the case of fundamentalism, the politics of certifiable evidence is present. It is very important that we know, without doubt, what actually happened i.e. this is the politics of scientific enquiry.

In the case of academic historical literary criticism, the politics that are often at work are those of the research university. Hauerwas:

…fundamentalism and biblical criticism are Enlightenment ideologies in the service of the fictive agent of the Enlightenment – namely, the rational individual – who believes that truth in general (and particularly the truth of the Christian faith) can be known without initiation into a community that requires the transformation of the self.

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Neither approaches to the bible acknowledge that the bible can only be read within the politics of the Church and its theology. For example, if we acknowledge that reading Scripture is an encounter with God on God's terms and not on ours, then we must understand our reading in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit i.e. the Trinity.

Paul tells us in 1Cor. 12:2 that "no one can say "Jesus is Lord" except by the Holy Spirit", meaning that becoming a disciple of Jesus is not a personal project that we can adopt. Rather, we require an encounter with God before we can make such a statement. The medium of this encounter is the Spirit. We may likewise say something similar; "no one can read the Scriptures except by the Holy Spirit." Thus reading Scripture or professing that Jesus is Lord both require the intervention of the Holy Spirit and can never be a project that we may adopt for whatever reason.

I hope you are getting my drift. This is not an elitist clerical grab for power but an indication of the place and use of Scripture in the Church. While it is all very good to describe the bible as a great book of literature, if somewhat opaque in various books such as Leviticus, this is not the view of the Church. Rather, the Church mystifyingly regards it as being the word of God, and not just the bits we understand and agree with. That the Church does so bears witness that salvation comes from the Jews and that Christians believe that Jesus is the final and proper outcome of Israel's relationship with God.

This means that the bible is not a universal book that can be profitably read by anyone because they lack the discipline and do not recognise the theology and authority of the Church to do so.

The core mission of the Bible Society is shown to be vapid because the bible does not make any sense outside the polity of the Church. This is not to say that all biblical studies are worthless, I greatly value my copies of Claus Westermann's "Genesis 1-11" and Raymond Brown's "The Birth of the Messiah." However, I also realise that I have given away most of the commentaries I bought thinking that they would aid my preaching.

Now, as a listener to sermons rather than a preacher of them I often hear sermons that take only a short step from a biblical commentary and they tend to lack the piercing insight that troubles us and creates new things within us. It may be that biblical commentaries are in fact a distraction from the real work of preaching.

Hauerwas observes that it is useless giving a child a bible of whatever age because those children are already "in the possession of habits far too corrupt for them to be encouraged to read the Bible on their own." They are specifically corrupted in thinking that they can make any sense of the bible apart from the discipline taught them by a Christian congregation. Hauerwas explains:

The reformation doctrine of sola scriptura, joined to the invention of the printing press and underwritten by the democratic trust in the intelligence of the "common person" has created the situation that now makes people believe that they can read the bible "on their own". That presumption must be challenged, and that is why Scripture should be taken away from Christians in North America.

When the bible is read according to "common sense" it easily becomes "the ideology for a politics quite different from the politics of the Church." This explains a lot about the religious right in America. Evangelical Christianity can boast of following Jesus while supporting the right to bear arms, neglect and blame the poor for being poor and who think that universal health care, the sharing of a crucial resource, is the work of the devil. How else could so many American Christians vote for Trump, the epitome of narcissistic individualism.

The Church knows that the reading of Scripture should change us and make us a people set apart. But individualist reading often leads only to the confirmation of what we like to believe as well as to nurture all kinds of religious psychopathology.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences. He has a website called Coondle Art Presentations.

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