There’s something terribly déjà-vu about polls
that claim to reveal a decline in personal Bible reading amongst God’s people, not least those who claim to be card-carrying evangelicals. There’s nothing new in this phenomenon. We may claim to have a high view of Scripture but as so often happens with Christians, the reality does not always mirror the theology.
And unfortunately focusing on this one, simplistic truth can tempt us to ignore some other major problems too. Derek Tidball highlighted one of these when he wrote “Realism compels one to observe, however, that there is a distinction to be made between the work of evangelical scholars and leaders and the use of the Bible at a more popular level. There, pre-enlightenment attitudes and pious illumination (by which one’s predetermined inner convictions are read into Scripture rather than Scripture being wisely interpreted and its meaning being read out of the text) often reigns” ("The Bible in Pastoral Practice”, Darton Longman and Todd edited by Paul Ballard and Stephen R Homes).
Personal Bible study can also become little more than a “lucky-dip, pick and mix exercise” tempting us to opt for passages that comfort us rather than challenge. Just as sadly, much of our time can be spent thinking about someone else’s commentary (or nice story) rather than meditating on the Biblical text itself. And when this happens we run the danger of absorbing human insights rather than enjoying an encounter with the divine.
We need scholarship of course because we need to appreciate the historical and theological contexts of any passage we want to understand. It is for this reason we ought to thank the Lord for academics such as Bishop Tom Wright who constantly seeks to focus our attention on the context before we seek to hear the voice of God.
Having said that though, I sometimes worry that, in spite of our evangelical credentials, we allow others to become mediators between us and God. It is all-too-tempting to expect God to speak to us through others rather than directly through His Word.
I became acutely aware of this on two, very different occasions. I sensed it first when a good friend asked me to pray for him because, as a pastor, it was obvious to him that I was 'closer to God'. It impacted me most significantly some years later though when I heard a Jesuit scholar state that he was taking a Bible study because he wanted nothing to come between the text and those who wanted to hear God speak. He made me question which of us had the greater respect for God's word.
We should never forget that, just before He died, Jesus told His disciples that losing Him was not going to be the disaster they feared. In fact he assured them that they would be better off when He had gone.
'But I tell you the truth,” He said, “it is for your good that I am going away ... But when He the Spirit of Truth comes he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on His own; He will speak only what He hears and He will tell you what is to come. He will bring glory to me by taking from what is mine and making it known to you."
Now in the first instance this promise clearly referred to the writing of New Testament, but it surely contains a wonderful promise for believers of every generation too. It means that we would have been no better off even if we had been one of the first disciples for when we engage with the Scriptures in the presence of the Spirit we are, mysteriously but marvellously, in the presence of Jesus Himself.
And we certainly need His help if we are to understand our world and present a persuasive Christian worldview in our increasingly post-Christian culture. If we want to be missional churches we need to be Biblically informed churches too. The late Chuck Colson summed it up nicely when he said: “Our faith is intended to encompass every part of life, every sphere of work, every aspect of the world. In short, our faith must be a complete worldview, the basic set of beliefs that function as a grid or glasses determining how we see all reality. If God is creator and sovereign over everything, as we confess He is, then
everything finds its identity and meaning in relationship to Him - not only our spiritual life but also our work, politics, science, education, and the arts.”