As a pastor trained in some of our best evangelical institutions–Moody Bible Institute, Dallas Theological Seminary and Fuller Theological Seminary–you can bet that I was taught emphatically about the Bible. My training was during the years that “expository preaching” was elbowing out all other forms of sermonizing. John Wesley and Jonathan Edwards, as two examples, would not have been called to any pulpits I was familiar with because they did not teach the Bible book by book, verse by verse.
One of the givens about the Bible is its alienness to us. I mean, first year Bible college students learn about the Bible’s formation: written over millennia in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek (with a Hittite and Persian term here and there), in Ancient Near Eastern cultures as foreign to USAmericans as Islamic jihadists, and by authors with both low and high literary skills. Yes, all of this formation was under the supervision of the Holy Spirit of God. For the Bible to be “yes, that’s the Book for me…,” one must cross massive language and culture chasms, geographical and temporal chasms, genre and thought-form chasms. I mean, who today names their kid Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz and why would a personal name like that even exist? What would be his nickname? Shallie or Hash or Baz?
What’s up with no mention whatsoever of Sadducees and Pharisees in the Old Testament, yet when you start the New Testament, they are like bees in a hive? Where did they come from?
I’ve discovered that there are many ways to approach the Bible–like scholarly, pastorally, devotionally, exegetically, historically, lectio divinally, geographically and stupidly. USAmerican evangelicalism’s penchant for dumbing down is nowhere more evident than the average believer’s knowledge of the Bible (and this with the best expository preaching in the world going on every Sunday). It makes you wonder.
Let’s sit in a circle and read a Bible passage. What does it mean to you, Susie? And how about you, Joey, what did you get out of it? Many Christians care more about the exegesis of the Bill of Rights and the U.S. Constitution than they do the Bible. What the Bible text “means” to Susie might be down-right heresy, but who’s to tell? And, Joey, bless his heart, can’t even pronounce “propitiation,” and even if he does get it out, he’s probably clueless to the wonder of the term. Joey? He got confusion out of the text. Ah, isn’t the Bible grand?
Somehow the fact of the Bible–it is here–and the presence of the Spirit–He is here–means for many that “the church” is free to sit in a circle and share downright meaninglessness. And, hey, with “the priesthood of all believers” at play, no authority exists to correct sheer stupidity being peddled as good Bible study. “But, John,” you reply, “We can find all good things biblical on-line. We don’t need scholars and pastors and leaders telling us what the biblical text means. We got laptops.” As if all the stuff on line just, presto!, appeared.
Even when the exiles returned to Jerusalem, when the Scriptures were read by Ezra, some chosen Levites interpreted the meaning of the Law so that the people could understand it (Nehemiah 8:8). The exiles had lost facility in Hebrew and needed help with the text. These are Jews and this is their Torah in their land. The only chasm to cross was language, but it had to be crossed. Think of us so far removed in time, space/geography, language, culture and thought-form sitting down with the Bible. It is not People magazine. “But, John, we have the Spirit to guide us into all truth.” True. But you can read the Gospels all day and not get Spirit-direction on where the heck Pharisees and Sadducees came from…generally and historically speaking. (Unless, of course, you received a miraculous revelation, but I doubt that’s going to happen.) And the minute you turn to a Bible study tool to help you, you reach for an authority, a human authority. Oops.
Read the excerpt from Justin Martyr, written about 150 AD, describing an early church service (before the Constantinian revolution). It is chapter 67 of his “First Apology” and is one of the earliest descriptions of a Christian worship service.
And we afterwards continually remind each other of these things. And the wealthy among us help the needy; and we always keep together; and for all things wherewith we are supplied, we bless the Maker of all through His Son Jesus Christ, and through the Holy Ghost. And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place [no, this can’t be!] and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read [the Scriptures], as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president [the one who stands before] verbally instructs [just who does he think he is?], and exhorts [!] to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president [sounds clearly pastor-like]in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons. And they who are well to do, and willing, give what each thinks fit; and what is collected is deposited with the president [who is this guy?], who succours the orphans and widows and those who, through sickness or any other cause, are in want, and those who are in bonds and the strangers sojourning among us, and in a word takes care of all who are in need. But Sunday is the day on which we all hold our common assembly, because it is the first day on which God, having wrought a change in the darkness and matter, made the world; and Jesus Christ our Saviour on the same day rose from the dead. For He was crucified on the day before that of Saturn (Saturday); and on the day after that of Saturn, which is the day of the Sun, having appeared to His apostles and disciples, He taught them these things, which we have submitted to you also for your consideration.
Instruction (from the Word), exhortation and succour/comfort, collection. A leader. 150 AD. No pooling of ignorance. Well, well.
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