Part one of this essay introduced the notion of reading Scripture well and identified the first characteristic of good Bible reading: taking us further into, rather than out of the Scriptures. This essay continues to identify the marks of good reading.
Good reading takes us all around the Scriptures, and does not leave us in one place.
The call to stay within Scripture is meant to lead us to an indwelling, hence to a discovery and learning of what Scripture is (and hence who God is, and what the world is). Ultimately, this means moving about the Scriptures, and following the connections that—as in any integrated personality—holds all aspects of Scripture and its God together. With God, this lateral exploration of the biblical text is an inexhaustible affair. If, as with the philosopher Leibniz’s monads, each of the 31,000 verses of Scripture reflected all the others (a presupposition appropriate to the divine mind), one-to-one connections would number almost a million. Multiply these by the correlation of variously combined texts, and the realm of scriptural connectivity would prove humanly “intractable.” There would be no end of meaning. Thus, for the limited human reader one can say at least, “the more Scripture, the better.”
There are different ways this can be pursued.
The recently revived interest in the figural reading of Scripture is tied to this reality. Texts mean things, but these things are connected to other texts and their meanings, and on and on. Typology, allegory, spiritual exegesis, and more is a natural way of reading Scripture, given the comprehensive reach of Scripture’s divine self-declaration. Part of the resistance to these forms of reading in the modern era lies in a suspicion of their pretended value to decipher the text. But deciphering the text is not really the point of figural reading, which is explication and implication, not decoding. In the broadest sense, figural reading is a long-term visa and a rail-pass rolled up into one, that opens up pathways across the extraordinary terrain of the Bible, in a way that includes all reality.
I am not a great fan of “thematic” readings of Scripture: “holiness in the Bible,” “what the Bible tells us about trees.” Such studies rely on a conceptual lens that imposes external frameworks from the start, rather than searching about and uncovering emergent patterns of meaning that must, by the nature of the case, be malleable in the shadow of God’s own intricate patterning. Still, a guided tour is better than no tour at all, and thematic reading gets one out of the house. It’s worth trying.
Obviously, the Lectionary has also always proven a key means for reading Scripture laterally, presenting to us the breadth of Scripture in a regular and regulated fashion. But using the Lectionary well requires time, willing and patient preaching and listening, steady and regular encounter, and patience in the face of the experienced ennui of in-course reading that refuses to skip over the “boring” or “offensive” parts as they run up against other texts the lectionary assigns. None of these requirements constitute cultural or ecclesial virtues in our day. But a fully articulated lectionary at least provides the basis for traversing an open field. We should stick to lectionaries, whatever their current practical limitations, and keep them honest by insisting on their comprehensive reach.
Lateral reading of Scripture, I admit, has raised important concerns. It seems, for instance, to assume a kind of textual commonality across the whole Bible, as if scriptural writers, contexts, and outlooks existed on some flattened hermeneutical plane. Is not Job or Judges to be read “on its own terms,” and not in conjunction with Malachi, let alone Hebrews? Is not the Old Testament, theologically, of a different “kind” than the New? It is possible, however, in a straightforward way, to note these differences between the texts that one travels between; this is, in fact, both a duty and consequence of the traveling itself. But when it comes to answering the question “how does each text distinctively declare to us this Person—the one Word, eternally spoken by God, through whom all things were made—such that each can speak of the same Person?,” there is no single method to provide a sure response. Neither simple commonality nor literary or historical distinction will come close to fulfilling the task. Is there “tension” among texts? “Contradiction”? Combustion? Excellent! Stick within them; be unmade and remade. The demonstration of the One God who declares himself in Scripture is itself the consummating work of God, whose power is given in the texts themselves. The only way to prepare for such a divine work is to know them all!
Going in, not out; ranging around, not staying put: these are two practical criteria for reading the Scriptures well. But there are some subjective benchmarks also. Thus, one can test the quality of one’s reading of the Bible if one can observe:
Good reading involves constant astonishment in the face of what one reads.
This is not a matter of always going after novelty (“No one has ever read Esther as a figure of Mary Magdalene as I have!”). It is rather the case that reading the Scripture well will always result in amazement, wonder, surprise, and in the humility of learning. This may, after all, derive from some rich and prolonged reflection on a very traditional trope, like the “tongue” as a preeminent source of evil (James 3, that simply grows out of Proverbs and Psalms, among other texts). But simply because the Lord is of mysterious depths and riches of wisdom (Rom.11:33-36), inhabiting and exploring the Scriptures will be ever astonishing. That is just a given.
Astonishment, in any case, will come in the face of many realities unveiled in reading. There will be astonishment at the text itself, as particular words, connections, and resonances emerge. Were one, for example, to discover—and only a focused and wide-ranging reading can do this—that the “division” Jesus brings (Lk 12:51) is linked somehow to the providential decisions (the “division by lot”) that God makes among the tribes of Israel (Ezek. 48:29), both perplexity and amazement would surely issue.
There will also be astonishment at the God who declares himself in this or that text. If the Lord is First and Last, and Jesus the same, yesterday, today, and tomorrow, we will be inevitably amazed at the one God who speaks of himself in Genesis 3, Leviticus 13, Obadiah, and Luke, and Jude, all as the one Word. He is always “other” to our expectations; he is always creative of our minds and lives.
As we read the Scriptures well, we will also, it seems likely, be ever astonished at our own selves. I am not who I thought I was; I was not; I will not be! Finding ourselves with Jephtha and his daughter, we run to Simeon pronouncing to Mary her destiny as a mother, and we realize that our families are not what they appeared to us as being. With every verse, with every movement between them, in the wake of every sojourn among their words, we will, with Isaiah (6:5), cry out in astonishment, “Woe is me”, even as we eagerly announce, as on the mount of Transfiguration, “it is good to be here” (Mk. 9:5).
Astonishment is a fruit of reading the Scripture well. And “you will know them by their fruits” (Mt 7:20). Perhaps we can do something “useful” with these fruits. But that is another matter.
More pointedly, good reading of the Bible will yield a constant conversion.
We should never preach on a text of Scripture unless we have been converted by it. At the least that means that every preacher is converted anew every week. But this is only because no Word from God can leave us unchanged, if we have heard it. Staying within and traveling around the Scriptures, comprehensively and without let up, has as its greatest fruit the “daily conversion” or “renewal” of our minds and hearts (the anakainosis of Rom. 12:2 and elsewhere). Because these Scriptures are the declarative word of God, we are exposed, destroyed, and recreated in every hearing. This is who God is, in action, and who we are as creatures in relation to him. “Behold, I make all things new; the former things are passed away…” (Is. 65:7; 2 Cor. 5:17). As the declared whole of reality, the Scriptures are just this creative and recreative proclamation, in which God speaks, and so it is (Ps. 33:9).
We cannot, of course, manipulate our conversions. But we can order our reading and restrain our responses until the change we know must come takes hold of us. Should not teachers first teach themselves (Rom. 2:12)? Otherwise preachers will simply be their own condemning judges (Lk. 19:22). We should perhaps remain silent more than we dare admit! Fewer explanations, fewer articles, books, and conferences. What then? More reading of the Scriptures. More reading well. And reading well is, in the end, not figuring out what the Scriptures are “about,” but reading more and more of them, deeper and deeper, wider and wider.
The Rev. Dr. Ephraim Radner is professor of historical theology at Wycliffe College in Toronto.