Reading the Bible as a Christian

My last opinion piece for Bible and Interpretation is out. Even before I woke up to read the email that it had been published Jim West had already posted a response (whose title I am too modest to trumpet, and which is accompanied by a flattering portrait ;) and Tom Verenna a longer piece: Tim Bulkeley on Reading the Scriptures. I do hope these signs of interest prove out, I’d love to see more reflection and argument about the issues I raise, because I think the gulf between seminary and church is dangerous to both, and most contemporary attempts to address the issue seem to miss the point…

Julia O’Brien’s piece in 2009 addressed some similar issues.

PS: Clayboy has written a fine post in response Training the schizophrenic scripture student that raises interesting and important questions for thinking the issues through further:

Firstly, I’m not quite content to leave methodological materialism to the atheists

With which I most thoroughly and heartily agree! My only discomfort with such an approach is when it becomes totalitarian, and excludes other approaches.His second point is fascinating and requires more thought :)

Second, I note that the emphasis on reading the texts of Scripture only with a literal hermeneutic owes a significant amount to the Reformation. In various ways sola scriptura reified the text as an object of investigation. It was the religious who separated the text in significant ways from the reading, listening and interpreting community. The Reformation initiated the divorce proceedings, modernity made them very messy.

Anabaptist styles of reading, and submitting to, Scripture might manage to avoid such a reification, treating the text more as a conversation partner, or perhaps better “authority” in the sense that we mean when we speak of a person having authority as “an authority”.

14 comments on “Reading the Bible as a Christian

  1. Tom Verenna

    Hi Tim! Loved the piece. I do have a few remarks forthcoming in a blog piece on a subject quite similar to yours, dealing with how we label ourselves and how others label us. A good example is the use of terms like ‘atheism’ and ‘theism’–these terms are outmoded, as far as I am concerned, and as a colleague and friend of mine once said, “died in the trenches of WWI.” I wouldn’t want to pick up a book and believe it simply on the merit that I believe an atheist or a theist could give better exegetical treatises. I think this sort of belief is dangerous to the field as a whole. However I feel that your approach is very near the path we ought to be taking. I look forward to your comments on it once it is up on my blog.


    1. tim

      Labels are horrid oversimplifications, but they are awefully convenient. My wife pointing out through the window: “There’s a cat!” shed more information than she retained from the experience of seeing the off white stray slinking through the long grass towards our chicks. But it energised me into rushing out the front door and barking like a dog!

      I agree with you that labels are dangerous. I agree with you that labelling some sort of Bible reading neither makes it useful, nor reduces its helpfulness. My point is that constricting “biblical studies” to only reading the Bible with the attitude I have labeled “practical atheism” (by which I mean the sort of everyday materialism in which most Westerners live) is not helpful in seminaries.

  2. Doug Chaplin

    Thanks for the interaction, Tim. From a position of admitted ignorance I’d be fascinated to see you develop what you say about Anabaptist styles of reading.

  3. tim

    If things quieten down more round here (we are down from 10 to 5 at present, but also busy removing weeds like thistles from the paddocks) I’ll have a go :)

  4. tim

    …from a position of often unadmitted ignorance ;)

  5. Michael

    Where is the Reference?

    Bible Christians, believers in Sola Scriptura, teach that the Bible is complete and that it is all that is needed. They teach that all answers are given by Scripture.

    I wish to refute that thinking by showing that there are a lot of questions brought up in Scripture that are not answered therein. So where do we go to find those answers so that we have the fullness of truth and not just some of it?

    Matthew 11:21, “Woe to thee, Corozain…For if in Tyre and Sidon had been worked the miracles that have been worked in you, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.”

    What are these miracles in Corozain? Where is the reference?

    Matthew 23:2, “The Scribes and the Pharisees have sat on the chair of Moses.”

    Where is this ‘chair of Moses’ referenced in Scripture?

    Acts 20:35, “In all things I have shown you that by so toiling you ought to help the weak and REMEMBER the Word of the Lord Jesus, that He Himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.'”

    Show me the verse where Jesus said these words.

    Matthew 2:23, “And He went and settled in a town called Nazareth; that there might be fulfilled what was spoken through the prophets, He shall be called a Nazarene.”

    In what verse did the prophets say this?

    James 4:5, “Or do you think that the Scripture says in vain, “The Spirit which dwells in you covets unto jealousy.””

    Where does Scripture reference this?

    2Timothy 3:8, “Just as Jannes and Jambres resisted Moses, so these men also resist the truth…”

    Who are Jannes and Jambres? Where is the reference? If you know, by what means did you find it?

    Hebrews 11:35, “Women had their dead restored to them by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, that they might find a better resurrection.”

    Who are these ‘others’, the ones searching for a better resurrection? Where is the Bible reference?

    Jude 1:9, “Yet when Michael the Archangel was fiercely disputing with the devil about the body of Moses…”

    Where can this ‘dispute’ be found in Holy Scripture?

    Jude 1:14, “Now of these also Enoch, the seventh from Adam, prophesied, saying, ‘Behold, the Lord has come with thousands of His holy ones.'”

    Where is this prophecy in Scripture? Where is the reference?

    Since non-Catholics are bound to Scripture and Scripture only (Sola Scriptura), the purpose of this post is to show that everything is not in the Bible.

    Answers to some of the questions asked here can be found through Tradition, and others through the seven books that non-Catholics do not have in their Bibles.

    Some can be found in the multitude of apocryphal writings, and in the very large library of writings by the Church Fathers.

    Others simply cannot be found anywhere but have been lost forever for various reasons. It is thought that about 400,000 priceless historical writings alone were lost due to the great fire in the library of Alexandria Egypt in 48 B.C. (the actual date is debatable).

    Others have been lost simply by the deterioration of the scroll media used by the various authors of antiquity.

    Catholics have the fullness of truth since they can draw on so many resources outside of Scripture as mentioned above.

    Protestantism has many pieces missing to their puzzle of GOD’s salvation history unless they are willing to search the Catholic sources listed.

    As long as they cling to the false doctrine of sola scriptura, they will never see the full picture. They will never have the fullness of truth.

  6. tim

    Mishael, Thank you for your contribution.

    The fact that you seem troubled by the “missing pieces” suggests that you, like many Protestant Christians also, have bought into the sort of reduction of the Bible to a textbook or manual that is “about” providing information. That seems to me to be just the mistake that moderns make that the historic readers of Scripture (among them the greats of the Patristic period) avoided.

  7. Heather

    I’m intrigued by your article, but also have very little idea of what are these historical readings to which you refer!

    I am concerned by the ‘practical atheism’ I see in much of my own practise and those of my contemporaries. I am repelled by the hate and judgementalism and divisiveness of those I label as fundamentalists. I am distressed by the way many self-identified ‘Bible believing Christians’ seem to simply ignore bits of scripture that don’t lend themselves to literalist readings but tell me that I am not ‘Bible-believing’ if I reject this approach. (e.g. I can’t see any way to make the timelines expressed respectively in Genesis 1 and 2 match up into a single timeline, yet ‘creationists’ seems to me to get around this by mostly ignoring the existence of Genesis 2.)

    However, I have few models for alternatives. Do you know of any resources that could give me examples of the approaches you prefer, or give me some kind of introduction to such approaches?


    –Heather :-)

  8. Tim Bulkeley

    Hi, Heather, what you really need is to do “Understanding and Interpreting the Bible” at Carey (or borrow the textbook from your parents (who audited the course I think ;) That little book is close to what I’d do and suggest others do to read the Bible.

    Like you I hate the way people who claim to base their faith and life on Scripture cherry pick the bits they like, and use fragments of the Bible (often single verses) to undo the thrust of the whole. I think our Anabaptist forebears were correct Scripture (as a whole) is perspicuous. It’s core messages like:
    Love God, love each other, be humble not proud, do not oppress but be kind, etc… are quite clear and obvious, you have to be deliberately blind and deaf to miss them. But people are good at warping and twisting God’s good gifts, even the Bible…

  9. Heather

    Oh well. Being mostly bedbound, going to a course at Carey isn’t likely, and being too weak to hold most books then reading a textbook doesn’t sound too workable either. But I’ll ask my parents about what they remember from your course!

    –Heather :-)

  10. Tim Bulkeley

    The textbook is available in electronic format from the Carey library…

  11. Heather

    cool, thanks!