On the Dangers of Using Scripture

Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning, grant that we may, in a way consistent with this great gift, hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of your holy Word, we may embrace, and ever hold fast, the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Open Bible with Candle

One of the hallmarks of Evangelical Christianity is our insistence on the magisterial authority of Scripture. While we gladly acknowledge other “authorities,” most notably the authority of the tradition of Biblical interpretation in the Church, the use of reason in interpretation, and the spiritual insight of Christian women and men over the centuries of Church History, all of these norms are themselves normed by the text of Holy Scripture, carefully, rightly, and prayerfully interpreted. Scripture is a class of its own, norma non normata, the un-normed norm for faithful disciples of the Lord Jesus. And when pressed to defend this angular and not infrequently misused conviction, we turn to the Master, who himself bowed consistently to the written Word of God.[1]

 

This talk of “using the Bible” often arises among leaders, who are eager to persuade others of the rightness of their proposed programs and mission. They turn to Scripture as a powerful, God-given tool for spiritual influence. Where better to find our marching orders as the servant of Jesus than in the written Word? The whole focus is upon how others should agree with us and follow our plans.

Further, Scripture is given, we say, to guide us into God’s way, to tell us what we should do. That is its proper “use.” So we read the Bible to find the answers to our questions. And when we read it, we think of the real goal of Bible reading and study as determining what we should do about the God-given text. Biblical reading and teaching without definitive, quite specific application strikes many of us as disappointing or even sadly deficient. So our preoccupation is with application to ourselves and our families and our churches.

Now, there is something precisely right about this concern for the use of God’s written word. The law of God has been written on our hearts under the new covenant of grace. We should be zealous to do what pleases the Lord, and Holy Scripture is indeed given to disclose to us what pleases Him. Further, Scripture is given as a means of grace in the church, so that together we may be led into God’s way for building a community of disciples, for seeking to worship our God in Spirit and truth, and for working together to serve the world around us in Jesus’ name. Our leaders should point us to the Bible’s teaching on these matters as perhaps their most powerful tool for guidance and influence. When they do not direct us to Scripture we should be careful, lest we are led astray. And when they do direct us according to the teaching of the Bible we may anticipate God’s smile of approval and delight on our life and mission together.

So what is not to like about “using the Bible?” I am not writing “AGAINST THE USE OF SCRIPTURE,” nor do I mean to suggest that we should dispense with the use of Scripture. But I am persuaded that there is a real danger lurking here. It was first suggested to me in the following, very challenging statement by D. A. Carson, “To our shame, we have hungered to be masters of the Word much more than we have hungered to be mastered by it.”[2]

Whenever we read or hear Scripture taught or expounded we are immediately confronted with the challenge of this question, “Who is the master, whose agenda is being served in this engagement?” The frequency of we and us and ourselves should at least give us pause. And so should a use of Scripture that most frequently calls on others to join our program. Often our concern to use Scripture betrays us at exactly these points.

We need to be reminded that all too often “to use is to manipulate for one’s own satisfactions. It is an act of domination.”[3] We cannot utilize Scripture in accordance with what we are and what we are not, with what we like and what we do not like. We must be willing to silence our own agendas and preferences, and listen to the agenda of the Word of God. Karl Barth, who experienced much agenda driven and highly destructive use of the Bible in early 20th Century Germany, offers this powerful conclusion:

 

If the Church is the assembly of those who hear the Word of God, in the last resort this necessarily means the assembly of those who make use of it. But this, too, can mean only the assembly of those who are ready and willing that the Word of God on its part should make use of them… instead of our making use of Scripture at every stage, it is Scripture itself which uses us – the usus scripturae in which scriptura is not object but subject, and the hearer and reader is not subject but object.[4]

 

Exactly this point is made in Hebrews 4:12–13. In the original language of the Hebrews it is one sentence, very carefully and artistically crafted for maximum impact on the reader. It is one of the most graciously powerful assertions in all of Holy Scripture about God’s ways and purpose in giving us his Word.

For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.

Notice carefully, the word of God in its penetrating power discerns and humbles readers before the omniscient judgment of the living and active God. This is its most profound purpose and mission. When we use it to turn its’ life and force on others without first facing that power for ourselves, we run the risk of being misled and misleading others. Using Scripture becomes an act of domination at the core of our lives.

And now let us come back to the lovely prayer for the second Sunday in Advent. Notice what it says about the use of the holy Scriptures, “… hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them …” What is advocated by these words is a thoughtful, meditative, inward encounter and embrace of all holy Scriptures as God’s address to all of us. And notice further that this kind of encounter is requested from the Lord (“grant that we …”). Therefore, more than anything, this kind of reading requires time and humility, resources in short supply in the bustle of our weekly work and the life of our busy churches, to say nothing of the frenzy that attends our keeping of Christmas.

 

One new resource for reading Scripture thoughtfully and profoundly has just come to my attention. It is the current edition of Comment, the print and electronic journal of Cardus, a Christian (mostly Dutch Reformed) “think tank dedicated to the renewal of North American social architecture.” The entire issue is devoted to enabling its readers to read Scripture more deeply, thoughtfully, and transformatively, under the guest editorial leadership of Peter Leithart. The web address of this edition of Comment is http://www.cardus.ca/comment/print_issues/3684/.

You will notice that several of the articles are publicly available. Start with Liethart’s introduction and dip into the others if it whets your appetite. Or subscribe so you can read it all. I found the articles by Makoto Fujimura and Matthew Millener on visual interpretation particularly stimulating.

These thoughts challenge and invite me, and I hope you as well, to find some quiet and peace in which to read Holy Scripture this Christmas season, to “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” its gracious words, to not think for this time what others might do with it or what use I might put it to in the Kingdom, but to ponder the way it might prostrate my heart and draw me into communion with our mighty Savior God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God who reigns now and forever more.

May our great and gracious God “rest you merry”” this Christmastide.

1 For a classical articulation and defense of this view see John Wenham, Christ and the Bible (Wipf and Stock, third edition, 2009)

2 Carson, “Recent Developments in the Doctrine of Scripture,” Hermeneutics, Authority, and Canon, ed. D. A. Carson and J. D. Woodbridge (Zondervan, 1986), p. 47.

3 Graham Ward, “A Christian Act: Politics and Liturgical Practices,” in Rashkover, Randi and C. C. Pecknold (eds.), Liturgy, Time, and the Politics of Redemption (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006) p.44.

4 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I/2, trans. C. T. Thomson and Harold Knight (London: T & T Clark, 2004), pp. 737-738.

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Thomas Trevethan is one of InterVarsity’s most gifted Bible expositors. He has also authored the books The Beauty of God’s Holiness (InterVarsity Press) and Our Joyful Confidence: The Lordship of Jesus in Colossians (DILL Press). Tom holds an MA from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He and his wife Barb live in Ann Arbor where we are sure he continues to affect all he encounters as he enjoys retirement from InterVarsity after many years as the staff worker for the University of Michigan.

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