What's Tony Thinking

On Bible Study, Part Two


I was surprised how many of you read, commented on and shared my last post on bible study. Who knew?

Given your response I want to go a little deeper to suggest how we got to this place of church without Scripture and suggest a non-quick-fix.

In doing so I will draw more on a new book from which quoted in the previous post. It is A Concise Guide to Reading the New Testament: A Canonical Approach by David R. Nienhuis who teaches at Seattle Pacific University. Dave’s work is really shaped by the pioneering work of his mentor Robert W. Wall, also of SPU. Rob and I have enjoyed a long friendship. We have authored two books together.

Let me quote at some length from Nienhuis.

“For centuries now, biblical scholarship has privileged the reconstruction of the ‘original context’ for biblical texts, using historical criteria as a means to regulate contemporary interpretive possibilities. One of the results of this project has been the dismantling of the Bible’s final form.

“When it comes to the New Testament, students learn that they should actually read Mark first, not Matthew, since the former is the earlier text. They learn that Luke and Acts should be rearranged to be read alongside each others as two parts of the authorial whole; that John’s Gospel should be read alongside the Letters of John; that Paul’s letters should be rearranged to begin with I Thessalonians; and that there are a number of letters attributed to Paul that are not actually written by him at all.

“The inevitable result is the suspicion that there is something wrong with the Bible as we have received it. Whoever put it together must have arranged it incorrectly! Worse, they left out all the important historical information we need in order to make sense of it.

“Once students start thinking this way, a final realization creeps in. They discover that the quest to the read the Bible ‘correctly’ requires them to take it out of the hands of Christians, and out of the context of the church . . . and place it in the hands of the scholarly expert, to be studied in the context of the university classroom.”

This is the way I and countless other pastors were taught to think about Scripture in seminary. While some of my teachers were deeply inspiring actual believers (others not), I nevertheless came out of seminary with a Bible that had been cut and pasted so to speak, had no resemblance to the Bible itself and with the Humpty-Dumpty problem. How in the world do you put the thing back together again?

And how, given these assumptions, do you avoid an approach of suspicion? You were always trying to get behind the text, to get back to the original author and context. You were inherently suspicious of the received text and form of the Bible.

Let me interject at this point that The Jesus Seminar, led by Robert Funk, took all of these trajectories to their logical conclusion. Their cleverly promoted work became, alas, extremely popular in the mainline churches in the 90’s. They confirmed people in their suspicion of the Bible and the view that you needed to have a PhD to make any sense of it. We’re still trying to recover.

Wall, Nienhuis and others argue for taking seriously the Biblical text as we have received it. And — this is crucial — for approaching the Bible as a collection that has rhyme and reason. This is what is meant in Nienhuis’s subtitle A Canonical Introduction. 

The “canon” is the ordered whole of the Bible. Reading it “canonically” means there a reason Matthew precedes Mark and a reason that John follows Matthew, Mark and Luke and precedes Acts. Instead of starting with the assumption that “whoever put it together arranged it incorrectly” you exercise a bit of humility and respect the wisdom of Scripture’s final form.

One can go into much greater depth in making the case, as Nienhuis does, for taking seriously and respecting the canonical order of Scripture.

There are several profound implications of this approach. One is the Bible regains its integrity, its wholeness. Humpty-Dumpty, so to speak, has been put back together again. Second, instead of starting out in a mode of suspicion of the text, you begin from a place of trust and gratitude. And third, the true home of Scripture is not the university classroom but the church, a community of believers.

Maybe I can demonstrate this a bit by referring back to the previous post and my experience of the bible study at Quest. We had read the books of Judges and Ruth.

One of the persistent themes in Judges is the challenge posed to the Hebrew people (now in the land of Canaan) by the presence of other peoples and tribes, i.e. “foreigners” (Canannites, Philistines, Moabites, Jebusites) and their belief systems, aka gods. While that may sound really old and weird and irrelevant, it’s not. We are easily seduced by other belief systems, say nationalism or capitalism, New-Age spiritualities or the Prosperity Gospel. And if you don’t think they have their own gods, you haven’t been paying attention.

But then what’s the next book in the canon after Judges? Ruth. Who’s Ruth? A foreigner, a Moabite. Who just happens to be a model of faithfulness, who through many a strange twist and turn becomes the grandmother of King David.

Do you see the wonderful interpretive tension created by the canonical arrangement of the Bible? Judges: be cautious about the seductions of others cultures, aka foreigners and their gods. Ruth: careful there, don’t take that too far or into xenophobia because here’s Ruth the Moabite spliced into the genealogy of David, into God’s unfolding and often mysterious purposes. The whole enterprise hinges on a “foreigner.”

This post may seem a bit of “inside baseball,” but it really isn’t. We need to find ways to return the bible to the church and to rediscover with respect to Scripture what Paul Ricoeur called “a second naivete.” This is what I meant in the previous post about the standing beneath the text, reading Scripture to encounter God and as an act of worship.



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