Reading the Bible Together

A few years ago I had the honor of contributing an essay to a collection of essays in honor of my teacher and friend. That collection was published as a book called Theology in the Present Age: Essays in Honor of John D. Castelein. My essay, “Reading Scripture Together: How it is that Acknowledging Ignorance Can Restore us to Community” was an application of Peter Candler’s book Theology, Rhetoric, and Manuduction, in which Candler argues against the notion that has been prevalent in so much of Western Protestant tradition, that it is each person’s mandate to “read the Bible for themselves at home, apart from the clergy and other Christians.”

Consequently, “Reading the Bible in Community” is the title of one of the learning modules which Forging Ploughshares will be offering in the next several months!  I am very excited to be a part of that.  In anticipation of that module, I wanted to share what I take that to be and what I take it not to be.

Presumably, the reasoning behind a sentiment about “reading the Bible on your own” is that “reading the Bible on your own” is a way to protect oneself from the corruption and agendas that church structures have often displayed—and this is a sentiment that is foundational to Protestantism, to its credit and, most likely, its detriment as well.  “Don’t just trust me, go home and read it for yourself” is a mantra I have heard in nearly every evangelical church I’ve attended, and Protestants get it honest.  And, I suppose there is something to the Protestant suspicion of outside influences: there are plenty of reasons not to blindly trust a specific leader or group.

That said, the sentiment is also predicated on the modern assumption of objectivity: namely that all of us reading the same text ought, objectively, to draw the same conclusions from that text.  In other words, “If we all read it honestly individually, that will correct all error.”  This is echoed in the 2003 film about Martin Luther simply titled Luther, in which the protagonist responds when asked about what would happen if the common people were all able to read the Bible for themselves by saying, “Well, then I suppose we’d have more Christians.”  This seems also to have been Wycliffe’s motive: to allow people to read the Bible for themselves apart from the Church.  One wonders if the Reformers wouldn’t worry that the experiment hasn’t gone too far.

What modernity (and therefore modern Protestantism) has neglected to recognize is that not only should we be suspicious of possibly corrupt structures and leaders, we ought also each be suspicious of ourselves.  As is the case with almost every theological reaction: in reacting to Roman Catholic “control” of the text (i.e.: the Church, meaning: clergy, read it for you), modern Protestantism went too far the other direction (i.e.: the individual reads it entirely for herself) without acknowledging that we, each of us, has the same predisposition for manipulation, corruption, and fooling ourselves as any human structure.

The whole thing has led to an assumption which has been expressed and defended by Jacques Derrida as deconstructionism.  For Derrida, because the writer can never truly be known by the reader, we must give up on the notion that there is any sort of meaning in the text for the reader to discover.  Instead, it is the reader who gives the text its meaning.  Again, the text is deconstructed by the individual reader such that the reader supplies the text with its meaning, and not the writer.

As modernity has given way to postmodernity, the prevailing evangelical cry for “reading the Bible for ourselves” has given way to a quagmire of subjectivity.  In my experience, the typical evangelical “Bible study” has boiled down to tearing a passage out of its context, reading it aloud and asking, “So, what does this mean to you?,”  often followed up by “keep in mind, there are no wrong answers.”  I want to ask, “If there is no wrong way to read the text, what is the point in reading it at all?”  The assumption that it is up to the individual to read the text and provide meaning for herself is so dominant that about the only opinion which is intolerable in such situations is one which brings with it any actual information, one which is classically educated.  At one such Bible study my wife (who has an MA in Christian theology and whose education included an upper level course in Critical Hermeneutics, i.e.: “how to read the Bible”) attended, the leader of the study casually remarked, “I want everyone to tell me their reflection on this passage…but (she added for my wife’s benefit), I’m specifically not looking for a ‘theological’ perspective.” In some Christian traditions, this has even taken the form of being sensitive to the Holy Spirit, such that each person just assumes that whatever they think the text says has been revealed to them by the “Holy Spirit.”

What is the solution?  I perceive Candler to be arguing that it is a return to reading the Bible as the community of God, rather than as individuals.  This is not a return to having the clergy read it for us, nor is this the same thing as everyone’s opinion being equally legitimate as they share their individualistic first impressions about a passage torn from its surrounding context and without consideration to its genre and purpose.  Instead, it is reading it together with an eye toward tradition (what has been handed down), scholarship, in messy dialogue with one another, and with a seriousness that comes from a disciplined effort to understand what the author intended his audience to know, think, or do.  It is different from the current trend in that it seeks not to do violence to the text, but to be shaped by it. Candler uses the term manuduction, which he takes to be a “holding of the hand.” His claim is that the ancient theologians saw themselves as offering a hand as they tread a path toward God rather than prescribing rigid theological systems.

This will require a few predispositions:

  1. The acknowledgement that none of us has all the answers and that we are all, in fact,ignorant of some things and prone to read the text incorrectly and that, therefore, we need to read it “together.” This “togetherness” is not just getting individuals together to affirm individual perspectives, but taking seriously the contributions of Christians in the past and present, the scholarship of people who have studied the text, and talking about the text in true, open dialogue which desires to understand, not simply express.
  2. Acknowledgement that all of us carry baggage and assumptions to the text that affect our understanding of the text, and a willingness to reflect on that.
  3. The assumption that the reader had an intended meaning for a specific audience and that to ignore that for an individualistic or deconstructionist approach is arrogant. Therefore it requires, also:
  4. The humility to acknowledge that, since the text was written to someone else before it was written to “us,” it has a purpose. So we owe it to the writer of the text, to the Church, and to God to be disciplined enough to take issues of context, purpose, audience, and genre seriously and honestly.
Within the next several months, The Ploughshares Bible Institute (a ministry of Forging Ploughshares) will be producing a learning module which will focus on just that.  The description is: “A basic course in hermeneutics which provides skills and tools for biblical interpretation.  The module focuses on coming to the text humbly within the Christian community.”  The module will be a guided discussion about the assumptions we come to the text with, how to read the Bible as part of the community of God (the Kingdom of God)—which implies being in dialogue with others about what we read, and tools and skills for proper biblical interpretation.
I am looking forward to it, and I hope you are, too!

Author: Jason Rodenbeck

Jason Rodenbeck has several years experience as an academic director, directing online, hybrid, and non-traditional higher education programs at the university level and teaching theology, biblical studies, critical thinking, and biblical interpretation in those programs. He currently works full time in faculty development and course design at a private university. Jason has a passion for peace which is reflected in all that he does. Jason directs the curriculum, design, and delivery of PBI courses.

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