Tuesday, December 19, 2006

2. Where does the Bible fit?

Many Christians have made Bible reading a daily discipline. Perhaps they will follow a guide to get them through the whole Bible every year. Others move through more slowly and methodically. Courses in the Bible at Christian colleges and seminaries tend to follow this type of book by book, passage by passage approach. Still others may move at random from place to place as new passages catch their attention or as they meet in Bible study groups. These are all what we might call "text to life" approaches to the biblical text. You come to the Bible without a pre-set agenda for what you are looking for and try to listen to whatever the Bible might happen to say.

Yet there is another approach to the biblical text that is driven by life, by need, by exigency. You are facing a crisis or a decision. You are trying to give comfort to someone in distress. A church is divided over an issue or science has brought up a subject that the biblical authors could never have dreamed of. This "life to text" approach is the approach of urgency, of greatest need. One scarcely has time to pursue a rigorous Bible study method in the throes of these sorts of crises. One needs a word from God now!

Bible scholars over the years have developed a fairly straightforward, although involved, method for moving from text to life. Much of this short book moves through the various steps you might take to do it. You might call this method "inductive Bible study" because it tries to draw meaning out of the Bible. First you observe what the text says. Then you interpret the text and figure out what it means. For Christians who believe the Bible holds some sort of authority over them, the task of application or appropriation is the final step in the process. You make the jump from the text to life. Skills of observation and interpretation are very significant skills for any reader of the Bible to have. But knowing how to make the final jump to life is the most crucial skill of all, because it is the one that determines how the Bible will impact your life.

Some would add another skill to this mix: the skill of integration, knowing how to move from one biblical text to what you would say the Bible as a whole teaches. Sometimes individual texts of the Bible seem to point in different directions from other biblical texts. So some forms of inductive Bible study have a step in between the interpretation and appropriation of Scripture in which a person connects the various individual teachings of the Bible's books together before making the jump to today. Certainly the ability to integrate the Bible's teaching--either with itself or with you--is a crucial skill for the Christian who believes God speaks to us through the biblical text.

But what skills are most crucial for the person who comes from life to text? Certainly the same skills we have just mentioned are still in play, but the emphasis and method of approach is surely different. For one, this person really needs to know what passages relate most directly to the situation they need to address. They need to know how to locate the relevant texts. If you are facing a failed marriage and need a word from God, you need to know where the relevant texts on marriage, divorce, and remarriage are located in the Bible.

Secondly, they especially need know how those individual texts fit with each other. Should they place an emphasis on Old Testament passages or New Testament ones? Should they place an emphasis on the words of Jesus or the words of Paul? Are there broader principles in Scripture that do not even address the topic of marriage directly but that need to be brought into the discussion?

Finally, they particularly need to know how to jump from the text to their own life. This most crucial step in the process is usually the one most neglected in the typical "text to life" approach. In some cases it is neglected because a person thinks you always apply the words of a passage directly to your life without any other step in the process. But, as we will see, sometimes God emphatically does not want us to do this--like when you are reading the passage in Deuteronomy about stoning a rebellious son (Deut. 21:21).

When we are following a rigorous method from text to life, the appropriation stage can become very complex indeed. We might look at points of continuity and discontinuity between the world of the Bible and our world so that we can map a course from one to another. We might look at the trajectory of heaven or the new covenant in Christ and drawing a line to ourselves by this path.

But in practice, as we move more typically from life to text, the process is often much simpler. The Holy Spirit jumps out at us from the words of the Bible, or we bring a hefty dose of Christian understanding that shapes what we take from the text without us even knowing it most of the time. We should not disdain these latter ways of approaching the text, as so many Bible scholars do. After all, these seem to be the primary ways that God has spoken and continues to speak through Scripture, even though just as many have misheard God's voice in similar ways.

The rest of the book proceeds in two movements. The bulk of the book will run through the normal "text to life" process: observation, interpretation, integration and appropriation. But once we have introduced these key skills we will come back at the question of appropriating the Bible from the perspective of moving from life to text. In reality, these movements are complementary and should form a lifelong circle, a "hermeneutical circle." We engage in lifelong study of the Bible from text to life and build up over our lifetime an ever more integrated sense of what the Bible teaches. But we are also at the same time moving to the text with the needs and concerns of our real lives. More than anything else, these experiences determine the questions we ask of the text and are the main reason we come to the text in the first place.