I have, since I was quite young, spent significant time among many different traditions of Christian faith: first Lutheran, then Methodist, then several Anabaptist varieties from Mennonite to Baptist to Christian Church/Churches of Christ, to Assemblies of God, to several independent churches, to Presbyterian. I’ve spent some time exposed to and working with the Roman Catholic church, and have worshipped with, at some time or another, nearly every variety of protestant faith, including some in which, as a caucasian, I was a very small minority ethnically and culturally. I’ve even worshiped with a Russian Orthodox congregation, twice attended a synagogue, and had significant dialogue with communions that would be considered cultic by most Christians, and with those from other faiths like Jews and Muslims.
All of them seek and claim to be anchored in the word of God written—for Christians, the scriptures of the Hebrew Bible and New Testament.
In virtually every variety of Christian faith, we are taught to revere the word of God written, as the only inspired, authoritative witness to what the Gospel of John calls the Word (Logos) of God, Jesus Christ. And ever since the Protestant Reformation, our own individual responsibility and privilege to read, study, and know it has been emphasized, taught, and vigorously defended.
So, what is our calling and responsibility in relation to our scriptures?
Throughout most of the history of our faith, only a minority of us could even read at all. But as that changed with the enlightenment, and good translations were more and more readily accessible, studying and memorizing the scriptures for ourselves became a high value among protestant faith traditions. Yet reading does not equate to understanding. Our scriptures are ancient documents, written in now dead languages, in cultural contexts utterly alien to us, and removed from us by thousands of years. Some, like Paul’s and others’ letters, are only one half of a “telephone” conversation.
They require study. They require time. And they require the Holy Spirit speaking to us: individually, and collectively.
As a result, a dichotomy has arisen between the “average Joe/Josephine” and the “clergy,” “scholars,” or “intelligentsia.” And with it, a dichotomy between types of reading: “devotional” and “study.”
While there certainly are many ways to read scripture profitably according to our personality, knowledge, and learning style, I believe this is a false dichotomy—one that can let either “side,” off the hook when it comes to God’s word, whether professor or mystic, scholar or expert mechanic, book smart or street smart.
On one extreme of the continuum are those that characterize their reading as “devotional,” or at least “simple, common sense.” What does it say on the page? That’s what it says! Just do it. Or just be inspired by it. Whatever hits my brain, it must be from God.
God does often speak in unexpected ways, and we should read expectantly. Nor are our scriptures supposed to be accessible to only a few “elite, learned” persons. Yet, we must be humble, test what we read against other parts of scripture, consult resources and people who do know a lot more, who have studied it very deeply. When reading an ancient, translated text, meaning may not be as plain as it seems. We all bring our own context to the scriptures we read. We all make assumptions that we often aren’t even aware of. To disparage “deep study” (as many unfortunately do) is much more about our own insecurities and unwillingness to do the real work it takes to hear God than it is some noble, pure dependance on the Holy Spirit.
But the reverse error is no better. Just like the arrogance of over-simplicity is the arrogance of elitist over-complexity. There is great value in digging into the cultural context of the time, knowing the biblical languages, understanding how important socio-political and socio-economic context of the time in which a text was written are. It is a great gift to the church to understand the richer word meanings and literary devices used in composing our scriptures, which are often lost or “flattened” in translation. Understanding these things can even reveal that true intended meaning is opposite of what the “plain sense” might seem to us, such as in Paul’s remarks to slaves and masters in Ephesians 6. But that does not mean reading at this level is the only legit way to read, or has all the right answers. To imply that such is the case is arrogant, discouraging, and unjustified.
There is a story of one of the greatest New Testament scholars of our time, the late F F. Bruce. Periodically, if he received a question in class he was unsure about answering well, he would tell his students he would look into it and get back to them. They of course assumed he was doing “deep study” on the matter in the interim, and would then return with a thoughtful and sound response next class. And perhaps he was doing that too. But what no one knew, until it came out at his funeral, is that he was consulting a janitor. This was a man of deep and simple faith, whom Bruce had learned to trust. He would bounce ideas off of him and get his thoughts, and often he would see the wisdom and inspiration behind them and bring that answer back to his class. F. F. Bruce got it: he joyfully exercised his gift, but he knew there was more to hearing God through His word written than study alone could give him.
What does all this add up to? The dichotomy between “devotions”and “deep study” is a false, unnecessary one. There is certainly a range of ways to come to scripture profitably. But good devotionals have great study underlying them, and call for deeper reading, study, and rumination. They are not to make us merely “feel good,” nor be swallowed whole, unchallenged. Likewise, the deepest and most rigorous study and research can still lead scholar and reader alike astray if not anchored in the pure simplicity of the gospel. And no matter where one is on the continuum, we all need to read scripture in dialog with others.
Those of us wired more toward the “devotional” side of reading scripture need to be humble: appreciate and respect those teachers among us that can challenge our presuppositions, help us understand scripture better, provide knowledge and observation we could not on our own easily access. Social context, linguistic peculiarities, literary devices are also part of the inspired record God has left us. And those of us with that knowledge, a certain type of intellect, and means to study in ways most cannot, must be just as humble. It is just as arrogant and misguided to say “no one can understand it unless…” as it is to say “it’s right there on the page, that’s all we need.”
Wherever we find ourselves on the study of scripture, we all need foundational reading principles. Believing “if it hits me, it must be the Holy Spirit” is false, unfaithful, and dangerous. Likewise is a hyper cynicism that excludes the Holy Spirit from the process altogether, based on supposed knowledge and skill.
Either extreme is “the easy way out.” But encountering, and communicating, God’s word never goes through the easy way of confirming our own preconceptions, or uncritically validating our methods.
The point is to hear God speak.
If we truly want that, we will work to remove barriers to hearing Him, and allow the community of faith to challenge, confirm, and enrich what we hear. If we don’t, no amount of deep study or mystical experience will open our ears, and scripture will become just another tool in service of deceiving ourselves.
There is no “one size fits all” to the life and practice of walking with God. We all need to encounter God’s word written—in both study and devotion at the same time. We all need to discover things anew through God’s word, and be taught or challenged by others who encounter it differently than we do. We all need to cultivate a love and a hunger for it.
We all need to encounter anew the Living Word, Jesus Christ.
Let us do so humbly. Let us do so together.