This post is not a cheap shot at the “please read your Bible more” brigade, but an exploration into the truly transformative effects the Bible brings to bear on an individual or community. Furthermore, this is not about bibliolatry either! When Thiselton, from whom much of what follows is derived, talks of Transformative Bible Reading, he is referring to the work of God in Christ by the Spirit at work via a proper hermeneutical use of the Bible.
P. T. Forsyth lamented, 110 years ago, about the “…the decay among our churches of the personal use of the Bible.”
And there is good reason for this.
Anthony Thiselton rightly talks of the “transforming effects of the Bible”:
“The Bible does not spoon feed us as if we were babies, but provokes us to do some adult thinking of our own.” And this is why the Scriptures lead to transformation after God’s purposes.
And this is precisely why I think the Bible is a mere dusty heirloom in many homes, including some Christian homes. I think we kind of intuitively know why, Martin Luther certainly did, “The Bible confronts us as our adversary, demanding response and transformation.”
So we know it is generationally neglected. We know it is powerful and transformative. We know it is God’s written Word-in-the-words-of-men to us. Yet we are beguiled into taming it so that it accords with our own prior wishes, concerns and expectations. And I am not alone in thinking a tamed Bible makes tame Christians.
A reason why the Bible is marginalized and attacked is suggested by Professor Anthony Thiselton, “The Bible can transform and enlarge our vision, so that we are no longer trapped within our own narcissistic selfhood or within our own limited tradition or limited community.” In other words, God uses the Bible to shatter our illusions about pretty much everything, which explains in part why it is attacked, marginalised and mocked. We human beings simply don’t like having our illusion bubble burst, but the Bible is the pin that pops it. In Flowers that Never Bend, Paul Simon sings,
“Through the corridors of sleep past the shadows dark and deep
my mind dances and leaps in confusion.
I don’t know what is real, I can’t touch what I feel
and hide behind the shield of my illusion;
So I continue to continue to pretend
that my life will never end
and the flowers never bend with the rainfall.
In other words: God will not allow us to “continue to pretend” forever! The Bible forces us beyond ourselves/communities into a truer vision of reality: GOD. Thiselton again, “The social reality of our everyday life is structured in terms of relevancies. Yet the truth of Romans 5:5 and God’s love being poured into our hearts “will constitute a new set of motives that redefine criteria of relevance for the believer.”
In other words: God’s loves changes us by changing what we think is relevant in our everyday life. Thiselton continues: “The goal of transformation into the image of Christ is to see the world through the eyes and interests of God’s purposes for the world.”
God’s love poured out does not give us personal fuzzy feelings of religious vagueness, but rather it turns kittens into lions, and babies into adults, and people, like David, after God’s own heart – a dangerous thing indeed!
So no wonder we struggle with it. We’re fallen, fallible and finite. And within church should be the exact place where we hear this challenge.
We need to man-up and woman-up so that our kids grow-up truly transformatively Bible-savvy.
Lest we join those in Mark 7:13 who “…nullify the word of God…”
We nullify the Bible in so many ways. Ludwig Wittgenstein says this is why struggle and judgment include “a battle against bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.”
And it is this “language” of the text that, according to Thiselton, “delivers us from self-preoccupation or self-centeredness, as we open ourselves to what is “Other”, “beyond”, or to the voice of God.” For when we are not “open” we prove our own “bewitchment of intelligence.” Another way to say we actually allow the bliss of ignorance to facilitate the theological-cognitive dissonance that maintains the social relevancy of our oh-so-busy everyday lives.
Yet the Bible is not an encyclopedia of information on all subjects, but “a source of transformation that then shapes readers in accord with God’s purposes for them”, for if it was merely an encyclopedia of information, devoid of a relational “I-Thou” reading, then the text becomes “merely a mirror of the self, which bounces back what the reader desires or expects to hear, [thus] it will hardly transform the reader” (Thiselton). For me, this chimes with Forsyth who wrote in his outstanding 1907 book Positive Preaching and the Modern Mind, the Bible is “…so much more than literature, because it is not merely powerful, it is power. It is action, history; it is not mere narrative, comment, embellishment or dilution. It makes history more than it is made by history….It is news to the world from foreign parts.”
Bonhoeffer offers a superb analysis of how our nature interacts with relating with God through the Bible, “Either I determine the place in which I will find God, or I allow God to determine the place where he will be found. If it is I who says where God will be, I will always find there a God who in some way corresponds to me, is agreeable to me, fits in with my nature. But if it is God who says where he will be, then that will truly be a place which at first is not agreeable to me at all, which does not fit so well with me. That place is the Cross of Christ. And whoever will find God there must draw near to the Cross in the manner which the Sermon on the Mount requires. This does not correspond to our nature at all.”
We are constantly in danger of reading the Bible as though prescribing medicines “in accordance with the patients whims” and this is to be first noticed or observed; then named and finally and decisively tackled in a deliberate intention towards what Bonhoeffer called “the cost of discipleship” which includes transformative Bible reading as a central aspect. Forsyth again, “The theology of the Bible is but the moral adequacy and virility of the word of the Cross, and the thews of a powerful Gospel.”
It is the Divine promise that shapes both the nature of reality and how the present is to be understood. T. S. Elliot may be right that “humankind cannot bear very much reality”, and this may explain the reason behind Forsyth’s lament that opened this post, and it also explains why the Bible is often maginalised within and attacked without the Church. But if Thiselton, Bonhoeffer, Wittgenstein and Forsyth are right (and they are), God somehow uses faithful interpretive reading-in-relationship of Scripture so as to transform, save and renew. It is dangerous; it is necessary and it is so very vital.