Scripture Demands More
Why the only way to understand the Bible is to put it down
By C. John Weborg | September 5, 2016
When I was a student at North Park Theological Seminary from 1958 to 1961, Eric Hawkinson was the dean. He told us a story of his student days when David Nyvall—the first president of North Park—was dean and a professor at the seminary. He recalled coming to class and seeing Nyvall tenderly holding his Greek New Testament as if he had just received a letter from Paul that morning.
Dean Hawkinson’s story was not about a scholar’s detached appreciation of a text retrieved from an archive or even a manuscript of supposed archeological value. Through this beloved text Professor Nyvall was in the presence of Paul. And in Nyvall’s actions something significant was being said and heard. He was communicating to his students an unbroken thread of meaning from classical Pietism: the word of God is a living communication that is meant to be embraced with deep affection and engaged with rigorous inquiry, just as friends who trust each other would do.
Philipp Jakob Spener, the father of Pietism, learned from Martin Luther that Christians are not to look at and read Scripture as spectators. Scripture demands more. “The Scripture is a book which is not given over solely to reading, but also to the proper exegete and revealer, namely the Holy Spirit,” Luther wrote. “Where the Spirit does not open the Scripture, the Scripture is not even understood even though it is read.”
In a 1694 essay “The Necessary and Useful Reading of the Holy Scriptures” Spener explains that Scripture “is a word of the Spirit and if we could separate the Holy Spirit from the Word (which we cannot do) the Scripture would no longer work.”
According to Spener, reading Scripture must begin with prayer and a heart ready to do the divine will. One comes to the reading of Scripture full of repentance, empty especially of the desire to simply come to know many things. The pursuit of information for its own sake easily leads to boasting of knowledge—to no significant purpose except evaluating oneself.
Readers of the Bible often have an idea that the fruit of reading Scripture is a teaching or a “truth.” What Spener says is that the one thing needful in approaching Scripture is to come to know the divine will. In his relatively brief treatise, Spener addresses this theme at least eight times. This is a significant contribution. We don’t come to Scripture to add to our knowledge; we come to learn how we are to live, and then to put that into practice in our service to others.
Readers of the Bible often have an idea that the fruit of reading Scripture is a teaching or “truth.” But we don’t come to Scripture to add to our knowledge; we come to learn how to live.
Now the danger in what I’m writing is the seeming wedge I put between that which is “learned intellectually” and that which is “lived practically.” Let us allow the early Pietists to help us read our way into the Jesus way of life.
Knowledge of God and God’s will doesn’t exist in just knowing the word but must come forth in action. Christians must have a continuous intention to put into practice what they read. When the word is practiced in service to others, two things will happen: there will be an inner sense of the divine truth, and the heart will be enlightened—that is, more and more of Scripture will be comprehended. The more we practice the word, the more we will understand the word. It is not enough to be readers of the word. We must be doers of the word, which then, in turn, deepens our understanding of the word. The doing of the word is a form of interpretation.
To quote Frederick Robertson (1816-1853), Anglican cleric and noted preacher, “Obedience is an organ of knowledge.” The Greek word for “obedience” is rooted in the Greek word for hearing, so that in doing the will of God one is also hearing the word of God and growing in the understanding of it.
Pietists understood obedience as an actual means of knowledge and understanding, and they found proof of this in John 7. Jesus was the object of quizzical looks and queries regarding the sources of his knowledge. He answered in verse 17, “Anyone who resolves to do the will of God will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own.”
Our ancestral readers were dead serious about this. They were serious enough to say that if the life of obedience continually grows, the power to grasp more of the things of God will increase. But if obedience wanes and Christians try to keep their accumulated treasury of faith to themselves, that treasury of faith will be taken away. The text used in support of this is the solemn ending of the parable of the talents, when the slothful servant hears these words: “For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away” (Matthew 25:29).
This theme is not confined to Spener. Early Pietist theologian and educator August Hermann Francke said, “Remember that you may know no truth within Scripture for which you will not have to give an account (1 Timothy 6:14), of whether you have transformed it into life as one transforms food and drink into flesh and blood.”
In keeping with that line of reasoning, Francke’s proposal for Bible study bears the marks of wisdom. He said that when Christians read Scripture in conventicle—in small group study—they should discuss three questions about the text: 1) What does it teach? 2) What does it command? 3) What does it promise? And the three questions will lead implicitly or explicitly to three conclusions. What does it teach? Faith. What does it command? Love. What does it promise? Hope.
Taken together, faith, love, and hope constitute the three fundamental virtues of the Christian life (1 Corinthians 13:13; 1 Thessalonians 1:3). Virtues are practices that have outcomes in righteous living, and act to preserve body, mind, and spirit. Every text of Scripture, Francke said, leads one to those three virtues. It may be implicit or explicit, but with the Holy Spirit at work in the group as they read the text, these things begin to become clear. What goes on in the text becomes part of one’s life and it informs and forms one’s living and one’s doing.
As these Pietists taught, this is the will of God that comes about only by being practiced. Faith is acting in love in the service of the gospel to others. If God’s word—both command and promise—is not met with obedient service then the word does not have an outcome in one’s life. It remains just an empty reading if it fails to integrate mind, heart, and service. If, however, God’s word is met with obedient service, the wisdom of the word grows and God’s will is vindicated and the worthiness of its intent begins to be revealed.
Some things are never known until they are put into practice. Consider the biblical teachings of loving our neighbors as ourselves, caring for the poor and dispossessed, praying for our enemies, renouncing revenge even when we think revenge is justified. How often do we act as if the teachings of God’s will are unwise, pointless, or impossible? How often do we doubt the wisdom of God’s grace and love? Yet, when even in our doubt we practice the virtues, we then will begin to hear God, we will come to understand the wisdom of God who gave us his word, and the vindication of God’s will becomes clear.
For Covenant people, reading the word without doing the word is a waste. We remain ignorant, not knowing anything of the fidelity of God to bring the word to life. The servant of the word does not keep a distance from those served. Jesus didn’t. When, however, we read the word and under the guidance of the Spirit do it, then the word will become the treasure to us that it was to Professor Nyvall.
Blessed be God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and blessed be God’s kingdom forever.