To be a born again Christian (I use this phrase primarily to indicate becoming a follower of Jesus in one’s adult years) in America during the turn of the century, as I was, means to have a conflicted relationship with the Bible. This is the case because the church in America during this time (and continuing today) has a conflicted relationship with the Bible. What this has taught me is that the Bible is always and forever a reflection of the community that gives us the Bible.
I should be clear here: I’m not renouncing my affirmation of the ordination/installation question that asks, “Do you accept the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be, by the Holy Spirit, the unique and authoritative witness to Jesus Christ in the Church universal, and God’s Word to you?” I do. I do accept this. I publicly affirmed this as recently as my installation service on August 20.
What I am contending, however, is that what “God’s Word to you” means is always mediated by and through a community. It is informed by that community’s virtues and habits, its practices of holiness and its practices of unholiness. The Old and New Testaments are “unique and authoritative,” but they are not primary – in the literal sense of that word, meaning coming first. A community always precedes the Scriptures.
That Christians bring personal biases and limitations to their reading of Scripture is not, of course, earth-shattering news. The body of Christ (at least its more academic organs) even has a fancy word for this: “eisegesis” (pronounced “I-so-Jesus”… there’s a pun in there somewhere). And as every first-year seminarian knows, there is no greater sin than to eisegetically read Scripture. I am not, however, contending that all interpretation of Scripture is eisegetical. Instead, I mean that there is no reading of Scripture that isn’t inherently and necessarily informed by an interpretive tradition and community.
Yet this is not where I began. Where I began was in a more conservative, evangelical setting in which Scripture was presented to me as an almost magical book. Don’t get me wrong. I still appreciate aspects of this. If it is right for Harry Potter to show such reverence before the Sorting Hat, I think Christians can at least muster a little awe when opening their Bibles. The problem was that the Scriptures were presented to me as almost too magical. They held the answers to questions that the original authors would’ve never – and could’ve never – thought to ask. They were presented as an autonomous, living being. And in this, they became an idol.
There is a Word of God who is an autonomous, living being: Jesus. My early biblicist (another fancy Christianese word meaning the over-esteeming and elevation of the Bible) teachings were formed by being part of a community of biblicists. Undoubtedly my current position on the Bible – one that eschews a name – is a result of my being part of a different community. So any conversation about Scripture is always and inevitably a conversation about Christian community.
This is why I like being Reformed/Presbyterian. Central to our understanding of the Bible is the symbolically-rich, complex “Word of God.” Again, as any first-year seminarian is taught, God’s “Word” is a person (Jesus), a book (the Bible) and an event (preaching/proclamation). I deeply appreciate that we sandwich the Bible between the living, active, risen Lord Jesus and the local, liturgical, communal act of preaching. It is not so much that these three meanings act as checks-and-balances (like the three branches of government) on one another – though I’m sure there is some element of this – as it is that each must seek a harmonizing with the other two.
The early church was great at just this. There are wonderful, inspiring sermons throughout Acts of the Apostles that demonstrates just this sort of harmony. These early Christians, of course, didn’t have a New Testament, so any of their references to Scripture (see: 1 Timothy 3:16) were to the Old Testament. Yet even these Scriptures had to be read in light of who Jesus was and what he accomplished. At the same time, none of this reading of Scripture in light of Christ happened outside of a community that formed its members via its habits and practices.
No better example exists than gentile inclusion. Many of these gentiles would’ve been unfamiliar with the Hebrew texts (see: the Ethiopian eunuch, who clearly got himself in real deep trying to read Isaiah… also very much like any first-year seminarian). As such, they weren’t going to become Christians and formed in ever-increasing Christ-like ways by a foreign book. No, they needed a community for that. It was the community that proclaimed Christ and the community that taught these Gentiles how to live like Christ. The Bible – be that the Old Testament or the authoritative writings of then-current church leaders like Paul and Peter – were important, holy compliments to both the living Christ and the Body of Christ, the church. As it was then, so it is today.
There are so many reasons for Christians today to have a conflicted relationship with the Bible – scientific advancements, Modernist philosophy, fragmenting Christian communions, global interpretations – and it is just these reasons that cause me such comfort in situating my Bible between my real Lord and my real community.
Left anywhere else, the Bible becomes unreal.
JEFFREY A. SCHOOLEY is the pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Marysville, Ohio. He is grateful to every member of his community who has taught him how to read the Bible (even those with whom he now disagrees). You can share your approach to reading Scripture and/or reflections on your community at [email protected]