Wednesday, September 8, 2010

How (Not?) To Read And Teach The Bible – Part II

The idea of teaching Biblical principles as opposed to teaching the Bible as it is written; as narrative, wisdom literature, prophetic, apocalyptic, didactic, poetry; leads to manipulation and selective application – as opposed to submission and obedience. It also turns what should be exegesis into eisegesis. 

Let me try to explain by beginning with obedience  versus application. The term application has been used a lot in the past 20 or so years in the context of preaching and teaching. We’re told to make sure our preaching and teaching contains application. How are we to apply the text to our lives? Preaching without application has been criticized with statements like, “That could have been a great sermon if only there’d been application. What does the text look like in my life today? How can I apply it today?”

Now while I think the question, “What does the text look like in my life today"?”, is a good question; I’m not sure about the other questions.

When I apply something I am the applicator and the substance applied is under my control. I am using something, be it a substance or a tool or an idea. But should this be the first tier  or first order of my encounter with the Word of the Living God? If I am looking for principles to extract from a text and apply to various contexts of life then fair enough, application is a good word for the process. But if I come as one created to Creator, as a son to Father, as one redeemed to my Redeemer, as bondservant to Master; then I come not to extract and apply, but to hear and obey. Obedience is not the same as application.

Application speaks of utility, obedience speaks of Lordship. Application gives me control, obedience sees me as a servant, a disciple, one who is called to surrender his will. Application is the use of a principle, obedience is acknowledgment of my Lord.

It isn’t that we intend to be selective and manipulative when we teach principles – and I am speaking about a primary mindset here, I am not saying that there aren’t Biblical principles that should be taught – but when we elect to by-pass the Biblical narrative, the Biblical storyline from Genesis to Revelation, we cannot but be selective and having become selective we cannot help but be manipulative…with all good intentions. 

If a high view of Scripture means that we believe God has orchestrated the content of Genesis through Revelation, and if sound textual understanding acknowledges that words derive their meaning from context, paragraphs from context, and longer passages from context, then how can we fail to lead our people into the entire Biblical narrative and call them to obedience within that narrative?

The Scriptures are not a supermarket with aisles stocked chock full of principles for us to put in our shopping carts as needs arise. There are not 66 aisles in God’s supermarket with numerous products in each aisle. And (to return to my previous post) if I should take a box of Martha and Mary down from Luke Chapter 10 I have no warrant to go to the aisle marked, The Epistle of James, and throw in a few boxes labeled, “Faith Without Works Is Dead”, because I happen to think that my dinner guests will find Luke Chapter 10 distasteful.

We have too often substituted our own parochial narratives for God’s eternal immutable narrative.

Can you find me a church living in a Biblical narrative? Can you find me a people who see themselves in Colossians, or Exodus, or Mark, or Isaiah? Can you find me a people on pilgrimage whose identity is not tethered to denomination, or ethnicity, or nationality, or education, or money, or yes…even principles? I’m certain they exist, and I’m certain they come in many flavors; but I also suspect there aren’t many of them.

But I am truly digressing here, and I apologize somewhat for the digression; I want to challenge us to read the Bible as it is written and to experience it as it is written, and to obey it as it is written; not to apply it, not to force our images on it, and certainly not to apologize for it or for Jesus. If Jesus chided Martha and commended Mary then I want to feel the full force of what Jesus said, whether I like it or not and whether I think it will cause others problems or not – I have no warrant to do anything other than that – to hear the Word of Christ and to obey it. 


  1. Does seeing yourself as living in Corinth count?

  2. Nothing like a narrative Biblical paradigm to give us a framework for life and ministry. The NT writers constantly evoked OT motifs to communicate with their readers - so why not evoke both OT and NT motifs? And now that I've written that, I ask myself, "Is there a Biblical narrative that does not include challenge, suffering, pain, rejection?" I am thankful our Father sees the end from the beginning.