Thursday 16 June 2011

Living By the Book

[This has just been published as an article in EG 29 (June 2011), by the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity. I was asked to write a 1,500-word piece on Scripture as a disciple-forming text...]

‘Teach me, Lord, the way of your decrees,

that I may follow it to the end.

Give me understanding, so that I may keep your law

and obey it with all my heart.

Direct me in the path of your commands,

for there I find delight.’

Psalm 119:33-35

Christians are a people of the book – God’s word – and we want to live by the book. But how do we we do so, particularly when some parts of it seem obscure or irrelevant? How does Scripture speak to my life right now: with the annoying colleague at work or the needy child at home, in the checkout queue or on the sports field?

Alas, the greatest problem to be overcome might be ourselves. In Eat This Book, Eugene Peterson writes about the temptation to replace the triune God who reveals himself in Scripture with the unholy trinity of ‘my Holy Wants, my Holy Needs, and my Holy Feelings’. The potential danger in a desire to make Scripture ‘relevant’ is to make ourselves the centre around which it must spin; we become the primary focus rather than the God who speaks through it, the Spirit who inspired and illumines it, and the Christ to whom it witnesses.

As it happens, then, the most appropriate starting point for thinking about how Scripture ‘disciples’ us is not to look at ourselves but to begin with God himself.

Founded on Scripture

In the first place, Scripture is God’s word of the covenant. As the designations ‘Old Testament’ and ‘New Testament’ suggest, Scripture itself functions as a covenant document – that which ratifies the promises made by God and which regulates the faith and practice of the people of God. More than a mere vehicle for ‘information’ or ‘answers’, Scripture is bound up with God’s work of salvation in which the Spirit joins us together in one body, and through which God shapes us into the image of Christ. The Bible is not only a sign and seal of God’s commitment to us and to all creation, but that through which the covenant Lord speaks and acts – in word and in deed – as he makes promises, blesses, rebukes, commands, warns, and encourages us.

Secondly, Scripture is God’s word about Christ. God’s covenantal promises and acts come to their climax in Jesus. Jesus himself was clear that the Scriptures testify about him (John 5:39, 46-47); he expounds Scripture to the travellers on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35) in such a way to show he cannot be understood apart from the Old Testament and the Old Testament cannot be understood apart from him. Hence, a goal of our reading is to be a people whose lives are focused on the promises of God now fulfilled in Christ, the one who stands at the heart of the gospel. Scripture as the authoritative witness to Jesus is the authoritative word for the church’s life.

Third, then, Scripture is God’s word to the church. When we engage with Scripture, we don’t do so as isolated individuals but from the perspective of the believing community. The Protestant emphasis on the priesthood of all believers and the right of all to read Scripture for themselves was never intended to detract from the significance of the church or its tradition.

Belonging to the body of Christ has implications for how we read and appropriate Scripture today – locally (in our home churches), globally (with brothers and sisters in Christ around the world) and historically (in the light of those who have gone before us). It is in the community of faith that Scripture is preached and practised. Being discipled through Scripture, then, is bound up with prayer and worship, baptism and communion, as God works through his Spirit to build up the body of Christ.

Jonathan Leeman writes of God’s words ‘reverberating’ in the church – in preaching, prayers, music, conversations – and then beyond:

‘The church building doors should open and God’s words should echo out the doors, down the street, and into the members’ homes and workplaces. The reverberations of sound that began in the pulpit should eventually be bouncing off the walls in dining rooms, kitchens, and children’s bedrooms; off gymnasium walls, cubicle dividers, and the insides of city bus windows; through e-mails, text messages, and Internet pages.’

A covenant-focused, Christ-centred reading of Scripture forms the gathered community that is then sent into the world in his name. Dispersed during the week we testify, in word and deed, to the presence of God’s reign in the world, bearing witness to what God has done in Christ.

Formed by Scripture

So, the Bible is not merely a witness to how God has acted in the past, through Christ and for his people, but the means by which he relates to his people today, and through which he calls us to follow his way.

We see this clearly in Psalm 119, an extended payer. Like Psalm 1, Psalm 119 opens with the word ‘blessed’. As there, so here, the way of blessing is to ‘walk according to the law of the Lord... to walk in his ways’ (119:1). To walk with the Lord is to walk in step with his word. We don’t merely watch God from a distance; we follow in his way, the way of blessing.

But, lest we think this comes about by our achievement, the way of blessing is also a way of grace. The word ‘covenant’ isn’t used in Psalm 119, but it doesn’t need to be: the idea lies behind every verse. The key terms used for God’s word – laws, statutes, precepts, promises, etc. – all presuppose the covenant relationship made by God with his people. Life comes from the ‘unfailing love’ of the covenant Lord (119:41, 88, 149, 156, 159). Only because of his grace do we walk in his ways.

But the relationship founded on God’s covenant word is maintained through that same word. Line by line, he praises the Lord, makes requests, describes his trouble, confesses his sin, makes vows, asserts his trust – but always with the word of the Lord as the means by which the relationship is sustained and nurtured. Moments of lament, moments of struggle, moments of asking for leading, moments of love and commitment are worked out through the word, addressed to the Lord of the word.

Psalm 119 shows how the Psalmist seeks to become holy not merely by understanding Scripture, but by learning to walk a path, to have his affections and desires redirected, and to find delight in doing so. It’s not that isolated verses from the Torah are ‘applied’ or ‘made relevant’ to particular situations, but that the Psalmist is shaped by God’s word – in such a way that what is emphasised is the transformed character of the one reading.

As such, then, Psalm 119 – and the Psalms more generally – affect not only how we pray, but how we live. As we immerse ourselves in the atmosphere of the Psalms, and adopt to their climate, we familiarise ourselves with how God communicates through Scripture, and how Scripture ‘schools’ the lives of those who read it appropriately.

What is true of the Psalms is the case with other biblical genres too. Scripture ‘disciples’ us in how to think and feel and live: laws disclose his will for how we should relate to him and to each other, and how our life together should be ordered; narrative tells of his gracious plan being worked out through the ages and our part in it; wisdom shows what it is to fear him in all areas of life; prophecy challenges us to fulfil our responsibilities as his covenant people; gospels proclaim the centrality of Christ in his plan of redemption, providing a kingdom-and-cross-shaped pattern for living in the process of doing so; letters instruct those who are ‘in Christ’ to grow up in him as we serve each other and live in the world; apocalyptic trains us in how to hope as we look forward to the renewal of all things.

In all these ways and more, God himself – through Scripture – nurtures Christian identity and discipleship as we follow his word in faith and obedience. Reading Scripture as disciples, and being discipled by Scripture, is not about mastering a blueprint for life, let alone picking and choosing passages according to felt needs. What’s required is not merely competence in reading and handling biblical texts but the acquisition of virtuous habits that lie at the heart of good relationships sustained over time – trust of the other, careful listening, openness to challenge, willingness to change. In short, for disciples, reading Scripture is an act of love.

Further Reading

Christopher Ash, Bible Delight: Heartbeat of the Word of God (Fearn: Christian Focus, 2008).

Jonathan Leeman, Reverberation: How God’s Word Brings Light, Freedom, and Action to His People (Chicago: Moody, 2011).

Eugene H. Peterson, Eat This Book: The Art of Spiritual Reading (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2006).

Timothy Ward, Words of Life: Scripture as the Living and Active Word of God (Nottingham: IVP, 2009).

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