Saturday, 8 October 2011

J. Todd Billings on How to Read the Bible

J. Todd Billings, ‘How to Read the Bible’, Christianity Today (7 October 2011).

J. Todd Billings has a long but helpful article in Christianity Today, making the point that ‘new strategies for interpreting Scripture turn out to be not so new – and deepen our life in Christ’.

The article essentially offers a convenient summary way in to some of what’s being said on the theological interpretation of Scripture and echoes Billings’ earlier book on this topic. He has also published a book on the notion of being ‘incorporated into Christ’ in Calvin’s theology, and I’ve enjoyed his work on both these areas. He has a wider treatment of the latter topic – union with Christ – forthcoming with Baker Books, which I suspect will be very good.

Here, he begins with treatments which effectively communicate that the Bible ‘is the authoritative answer book to felt needs and problems’, offering a message that centres on ‘the individual and his or her preferences, and does not interpret the Bible in a way that calls felt needs into question or looks beyond them’.

He draws attention to the resurgence of interest in the ‘theological interpretation of Scripture’, with its encouragement to read the Bible ‘as God’s instrument of self-revelation and saving fellowship’, noting that ‘this school of interpretation includes a wide range of practices, but all of them move us toward knowing the triune God and being formed as Christ’s disciples through Scripture’.

Instead of providing a detailed blueprint for life or a mere smorgasbord from which we pick and choose whatever is relevant for our lives, ‘a theological reading brings a map for a journey’, and ‘our reading sends us on a journey in which God in Scripture encounters us again and again, both with comforting signs of his presence and surprises that confound us, yet may open new vistas’.

He says a few things about reading from the perspective of the ‘rule of faith’, the significance of Spirit-illumination, and the role of the Christian community.

‘The indwelling of the Spirit in the Christian community, as one located “in Christ,” uniquely equips the Christian community to interpret the Bible as God’s Word.’

He concludes with some reflections on reading the Old Testament from the perspective of Christ, and reading with confidence and humility.

‘[We] can read the Bible confidently, knowing that God acts powerfully through Scripture – in corporate worship, through prayer and memorization, through teaching and witness. We do not have to master Scripture and then make it relevant to our lives; through Scripture, God opens up a new place for us to dwell, a place of fellowship with Christ on a path leading to love of God and neighbor.’

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