Friday, August 31, 2012

Through the Bible, General Introduction

Rules for Reading........

The best way to read the Bible is to begin reading it with other Christians, living and dead (thus we are inviting Brother John into our conversation).  Reading the Bible with the Church - both militant and triumphant - is one of the best ways I know to practice the Communion of Saints and to acquire the mind of Christ.  But only if the conversation leads to further conversion and transformed conduct.  Reading simply for information or to win arguments is dangerous.  This blog class on the Bible will encourage a life & death, close to the bone, holy conversation around the Word of God to guide our walk ("your word is lamp to my feet and a light to my path" Psalm 119:105).  As we are led into the light, the word of God should turn vicious lives into virtuous lives.  The only thing worse than a vicious person is a vicious religious person.  And what kind of religious person you become largely depends on how you learn to read and live this holy book.

As we read the Bible I encourage to us learn new ways of thinking, to have our minds transformed.  We will engage concepts, even literature, that is foreign to most of us.  Barth called the Bible "that strange new world."  And it is.  There is a constant temptation to domesticate the word of God into  "concepts and ideas" which we then defend as if our constructions are God's instructions. There is nothing wrong with describing a kiss, unless of course, you think you have been kissed once you've described it.  I will encourage us to let the word of God be sovereign in our thinking, even by giving us the rules by which it is to be read.  There should be an encounter and not merely an essay as a result of our reading.  Close textual and allusive reading (comparing scripture to scripture across the entire grand pageant of redemption) will assist us in such an encounter of the living God.

John Stott was one of the great modern teachers of the Bible.  And this guide book, which he wrote in the last decade of his life, is one of my Stott favorites.  It represents the fruit of a life-time of Bible reading and study.  His mind was shaped by the grammar of scripture.  This becomes apparent in his treatement of the first 11 chapters of Genesis, which functions as a theological introduction to the whole Bible.  Stott spends the first four weeks of the guide discussing these 11 chapters, a disportionate amount of attention to such few chapters given the size of scripture.  I believe he does so because he understands these chapters are foundational to all that follows.  You will note he skirts the misguided creationist debates (a classic category mistake for NA Christians); his instincts are wise.  

I think of Genesis 1-11 as the grammar for reading the poem which is the Bible, a theological storied primer for all that follows.  I will introduce just three rules for reading which these chapters introduce, and in some measure, begin to develop.

#1 - Type scenes - repeat events across scattered intervals in the biblical narrative.  These doubling and tripling of events is seen in modern times as bad editing of source material, but in the ancient ways of reading these scenes were known as "the deeds of the father are a sign for the sons".    We see this rule in Cain repeating Adam's avoidance of responsibility to the other ("am I my brother's keeper").  We will see this in the way Abraham's sons repeat their father's marital infidelities.  The various nuptial type scenes are crucial for understanding the message of scripture.  By the time we reach the New Testament, we will be ready for a righteous husband.  This is just one of several type scenes we will encounter as we read.  However, I think nuptial type scenes to be one of the most important.

#2 - Character Types - usually contrast characters within a narrative such as Cain (farmer) and Abel (shepherd), or Cain (older brother) and Abel (younger brother).  Much of the tension and energy in the biblical narrative sparks off of these particular contrasts: younger vs. older brother, shepherd vs. farmer.  Pay attention to which of these pairs tend to be favored by God.  Hint:  Abraham, Moses and David were all shepherds or became shepherds.  But not all were younger brothers.......Jesus was the good shepherd, but was not a younger brother.  Yet he went to the far country to find us younger brothers, in contrast to most of the older brothers of scripture.  Jesus is establishing a different sibling relationship for his new family...  Keep your eye on that dynamic as we read the Bible through the year.  

#3 - Key words/phrase repetition - usually create a kind of technical language for the expression of precise generalized concepts.  There are two basic words and word phrases which are introduced in Genesis 1-2 and are crucial to understand correctly.  The word God in our English translations renders the hebrew plural noun "Elohim."  Since it is accompanied by a singular verb, we translated the word "God" rather than "gods".  Grammarians call this a plural of plentitude (a foreshadowing of the Trinity).   But another important (and often overlooked) feature of this word is that in the polytheistic culture out of which the word arose (and the world out of which the biblical characters are being converted), it often signified the "high" or "ultimate" God that a people would imagine to be beyond reach or to be reached through intermediaries, like lesser, tribal gods.   The other important word for deity in the OT is "YHWH" which is rendered LORD (in all capitals to differentiate it from "Lord" which is yet another word in Hebrew) in English.  LORD is not a generic word or title but is the personal name for God, his name given to those with whom God enters into a covenant relationship.  If "God" is the ultimate deity, then "YHWH" is the personal, intimate deity. 

Part of the tension of the biblical narrative derives from the characters' lack of recognition that these two are the same God (Jacob reveals this misunderstanding at Bethel, Genesis 28:21).  The monotheism of the Bible is hard-earned and does not come all of a sudden nor is it easily kept once it is achieved.  The pull of polytheism is constant in the story of Israel, as is the pull of sectarianism (Israel often forgets it was blessed to be a blessing not just to recieve a blessing).    The Biblical God is both ultimate and intimate, both high and low, both transcendent and immanent.   Today we are not tempted by polytheism as OT believers were, but the pull of idolatry remains strong and the lure of false gods abides as does the false assurances of sectarianism.  Pay particular attention to the phrase "the LORD God" or the two words in close proximate, when it appears.  Note the context and try to understand what is happening in the imagination of the OT believer.  The phrase, fully understood, represents a transformation of the imagination and a conversion of the heart - indeed, as Paul said of those in Christ - "a new creation."  The narrator uses it often, but he knows what it means.  As do the psalmists.  Usually.  

Future post won't nearly be this long.   Tomorrow I will write a brief blog with some discussion questions.


  1. Tory
    Thank you for this blog and for your sharing your study.
    The "bible in one year" is one I am not attracted to - it feels a bit like "losing those 10 pounds - 1-2-3 start".
    I will jump in once the book arrives and let you know.
    In Peace - Karen Williams

  2. Karen, I sympathize. The Bible is a book to be lived in not "gotten through." This is my regular practice (to dig deep into particular books or passages), but I think there are good reasons to read through the sweep of the biblical drama over a year. I will name a couple:
    1) The Bible is an allusive anthology inspired by the Holy Spirit and can only be understood deeply when the "parts" are seen in terms of the "whole." This is a class that focuses on the whole, though it will occasionally take dips into the parts.
    2) Reading the Bible straight through gives one a sense of how the Bible tells an overarching story of God's creation and re-creation (reclamation) of the world from the same motive and nature for which He created it --- love and communion.
    3) When we learn to lay our individual stories over the BIG story, we begin to learn what kind of story we are actually living, the story we find ourselves in. I have found that people don't know how to live well until they know the story they find themselves in.

    To the degree these reasons strike you as relevant at this point in your life, you may find this more relevant than you realize.

    Whatever you decide, I hope you pop in time to time and ask your usually good questions.