“How should we read the Holy Scriptures?...it will make all the difference between a right and a wrong way of reading Scripture if I do not confuse myself with, but rather quite simply serve, God. Otherwise I become rhetorical, over-emotional, sentimental, or coercive; that is to say, I divert the reader’s [listener’s? – is this a translation error?] attention to myself instead of the Word.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, Fortress Press, 2015 (Reader’s Edition), page 37.
Bonhoeffer concludes his section on the place of the Bible in life together with a focus on reading Scripture aloud in the community of believers. Listening to someone read the Bible in public can be painful, including listening to those who spend a good amount of time in front of congregations, such as elders and deacons. My experience has been that (among non-vocational ministers, among God’s people) I am more likely to hear Scripture read well in liturgical churches where there is typically more Scripture reading in worship services than in churches which do not incorporate a Gospel, Epistle, and Old Testament reading into regular worship. This simply means that the more we read aloud the more we learn to read aloud, and the more we listen to someone read aloud the better able we are to read aloud.
If we read aloud when we individually read Scripture the better able we are to read aloud in public. If we read aloud to our families and others the better able we are to read aloud in congregational settings. When reading the Bible aloud becomes a way of life it permeates our lives and the lives of our congregations. The Bible becomes the Word we mediate upon, the Word we ponder, the Word that guides us, the Word that we speak to one another, the Word that we speak to the world, and the Word that we naturally read aloud.
Bonhoeffer counsels that we should not confuse ourselves with God when reading – we are not actors who “go into character” as if we are playing a part – for these are not our words but God’s Word. To be sure there is an incarnational element as we receive the “engrafted Word which is able to save our souls” – but also to be sure we are not God. We are not called to be dramatic, we are called to be faithful and not to get in the way of the Word. Notice that Bonhoeffer also points out that Scripture can be read coercively as well as sentimentally – both are a danger. The Bible is not a rod we use to bludgeon others and beat them into submission, it is not a cattle prod by which we force people to move in the direction we want – such use of the Word is arrogant and profane and is an attempted usurpation of the authority of God and His Word – it is desecration and an attempt to enslave others by the Word that God sent to set people free in Jesus Christ.
Bonhoeffer continues (pages 37 – 38), “If we could illustrate this with an example from everyday life…when I read to another person a letter from a friend. I would not read the letter as though I had written it myself. The distance between us would be clearly noticeable as it was read. And yet I would also not be able to read my friend’s letter as if it were of no concern to me. On the contrary, because of our close relationship, I would read it with personal interest. Proper reading of Scripture is not a technical exercise that can be learned; it is something that grows or diminishes according to my own spiritual condition.”
Another example that we can use is that of an ambassador, when an ambassador reads aloud a statement sent to him by his government it is not his statement he is reading, it is that of the government that sent him. He is not reading his words and he is not reading them on his own authority and his action of reading is not his own.
So we have the element of friendship, of personal relationship; but we also have the element that what we are reading has an authority inherent in it that is not ours, an authority under which we serve and under which we read. We are reading the Word of God. There is a reason we used to call Scripture, The Holy Bible.
Have we lost the recognition that the Bible is holy?
Shall we strive to regain it?
Shall we read it as if our lives and the lives of others depended on it? (1 Timothy 4:16).