By David Barr

In my second year of graduate school, I had the opportunity to take a course called “What Is Scripture?” with the prominent Jewish philosopher and theologian Peter Ochs. Ochs, deeply concerned with the way actual practitioners of religious traditions think and believe, made the course into a kind of phenomenologically driven research effort to discern the way Scripture moved through communities and how it was described by those who called it sacred. Much in the course was over my head, but at the very end, one of our base-level descriptions of Scripture was something I will never forget: Scripture is that which cannot be erased. It was so simple and clear, and yet profoundly descriptive. It cannot be replaced or removed. It “endureth forever” (Isa. 40:8). Scripture continues on its path, even as those of us who hold it and read it eventually fall away and pass it on to others.

But I  have recently wondered: what if Scripture could functionally be erased right in front of our eyes? Perhaps not erased on some deeper metaphysical level — how could it? — but erased in that we look beyond its words, let it pass through our ears, and fail to keep it in our heads and hearts, erasing it by ignoring it. As historians well know, many cultures have carried and extended Scripture’s words even in contexts where literacy was minimal. But what if the words are forgotten, and then the cultural space in which Scripture has lived loses the capacity to carry it as well?[1] What if, even in our richest communities of faith, Scripture simply passes us by? We may well worry about decline in religious affiliation or the moral failures of our Christian communities, but what if there is an additional, more intimate problem in the life of the church — a failure in our adherence and attention to the sacred page?

In the past several decades, the interest in traditional, pre-modern, or so-called spiritual exegesis has grown into something far more than a subdiscipline within the esoterica of academic discourse. There are steady numbers of publications on patristic interpretation, popular writings on lectio divina, and we have whole commentaries devoted to ancient approaches to biblical exegesis. And yet even as this fascinating groundswell in scriptural retrieval and experimentation builds, it is unclear to me how much this interest has infiltrated lay reading habits within the life of the church.


Some Christians are certainly more aware of the different ways that the Christian tradition has made sense of the Bible over the centuries. Some likely feel a deeper confidence in Scripture’s ability to speak and shape, bringing us into God’s formative presence. But many, I believe, still approach the Bible exclusively within a predominately historicist hermeneutic that ends up drawing them away from the words on the page and deeper into speculative historical reconstruction. And so, while priests, researchers, and authors might write endlessly about the value of the quadriga or failures in critical methods, many of our parishioners are stuck in reading patterns that force them to ask the same questions over and over: did the flood actually happen? What were Paul’s actual attitudes about gender? Is the Old Testament truly applicable in light of the New Testament? Lay readers want to know exactly what a biblical author may have meant, if an event in Scripture actually occurred, and how a passage’s cultural context might direct its meaning.

These concerns are, of course, deeply important, but not if they are our only questions. And when these questions of authorial intent and context govern all others, even within communities that attend to more dynamic reading approaches, there is still the grip of historicism that ultimately relativizes large portions of Scripture. Much of the Old Testament becomes relegated to a position of hermeneutic unimportance, and even portions of the New Testament are quickly deflected into the realm of period study and psychological speculation. In this way, serious Christian communities that invest in the intentional study of Scripture as well as its public reading could still attend to the Bible without actually attending to the words on the page. I know this happens because I have done it.

Well over a decade ago, a mentor gave me a beautiful ESV Study Bible, leatherbound with my name on the cover, and bulging with supplementary material. I received the gift with legitimate gratitude and zeal (and still do), but as I began to wade into the footnotes, introductions, and vast historical material, I began to feel utterly overwhelmed. How could I ever learn enough about the Ancient Near East to fully understand these texts? How could I master the Second Temple period with enough historical dexterity to truly see what Paul was doing? Even as a student at a Christian college, I felt hopeless, and eventually stopped reading with any frequency at all.

My point is that even in some of the most biblically determined corners of the Christian scene, the dominant reading posture is one in which historical context and authorial intent powerfully govern any and all kinds of reading. And I believe such an attitude holds true even in faithfully wrought, broadly orthodox efforts to promote multi-textual reading. The hermeneutic is more refined, but the same rules are immovable. This interpretive move often looks like discerning when and if a New Testament author is utilizing Old Testament material to communicate personal commitments, but the problem remains.

Readers end up thinking about a reconstructed historical context and the imagined intentions of an author, but then lose sight of the actual words of a given passage. And then the looming question becomes: could a text like the Gospel of John actually say things about Jesus and the church beyond the intentions of the author? Or even more troubling, the question could be: how could the words of Scripture actually be about us in some real and intimate way? How could lay people then figure out what words are truly pertinent to their lives?

Now, I realize study Bibles and publications on hermeneutics do not necessarily represent the broader reading habits among the laity. That condition is surely pluriform, nor would it be straightforward to research in some credible way. And yet there are significant designators here. Familiarity with the Old Testament within the church is low. The latest and most robust report from the American Bible Society on scriptural engagement is confusing, if not troublesome. And even while much of this data represents the religious upheaval of our moment, surely it also represents our inability to introduce Scripture to the people in our pews and in our neighborhoods.

I would not venture to say this decline is exclusively caused by our interpretive tendencies on a popular level, but surely our historicist reading habits have not helped us draw the current generation of Christians into a deeper relationship with the words of Scripture. We have, to our detriment, passed down a Bible that we can hold, read, and then functionally forget. The words on the page no longer draw us in because they belong to a different moment, a different time, and a different people.

My deepest worry in these interpretive trends is that all of the very normal Christians who are subtly and unintentionally taught from church leaders that Scripture is mostly for experts will ultimately give up reading the Bible on their own or in their communities. Many of us — maybe most — learned how to read Scripture in a life-giving way not from seminaries or pastors, but from the people around us, people we loved — our friends and family members.[2] And so, now, in a world where the mastery of Scripture belongs to the scribal elite, who will teach the coming generations to turn to the Scripture with expectation and hope? If it is only historical experts who hold the key, then how will parents or mentors or friends lead one another deeper into the life of God given in the words of the Bible? Again, the problem is not liberal vs. conservative; it emerges in most Bible-reading contexts across the spectrum.

For those of us who professionally handle the Bible, this current struggle with Scripture should certainly cause us to recalculate some of our efforts. There is extraordinary and important work to do here that is not simply about addressing the issues of secularism, morality, or religious deconstruction, but more particular and therefore, perhaps, something we might address directly. Simply put, there are people in our parishes and classrooms who have yet to taste the goodness of Scripture, even while they may have lived around it for years. Not only would such a return be live-giving, but it would surely enhance the depth of our very many debates within the church.

All of our theological discussion about gender or economics or sex require deft handlings of Scripture, and, of course, returning to the consistent fundamentals would add depth to those discussions. Even more, the very act of reading Scripture directly, attending to the bare words on the page, would only strengthen the bonds that we share in Christ Jesus. And so, while I enthusiastically affirm a continued effort to learn and rediscover how the Christian tradition has handled the Bible, we must also learn to read and know the Bible ourselves on a very basic level. What we learn from the past must be applied, and we should be honest and transparent about where we stand in our familiarity with the text.

In addition to being open about our need to learn the content of the Scriptures, those of us who write on the topic of interpretation might do well to begin aiming at a more popular audience. For example, Hans Frei’s Eclipse of Biblical Narrative, which so powerfully influenced a tremendous range of biblical thinkers in North America, has remained largely untouched by readers outside of the scholarly guild for nearly half a century. The primary ideas of that book, ideas that still challenge and encourage me as a pastor, remain enshrouded in technical jargon. There are, in fact, profound resources for our interpretive conundrums, and yet they typically exist at a very high level. It is time for us to take them up and take them out.

Finally, there is a profound call here for pastors. The word is indeed near us, and however we interpret it, it will surely interpret us, as George Lindbeck noted long ago. But will we, with joy and curiosity, come alongside others to wonder in the Bible? I do not believe there is a comprehensive lack of interest.

I have watched very normal parishioners come alive as they engage with texts like 1 and 2 Kings, the Psalms, Genesis, and the prophets. Even amid the shifting reading patterns of our digital age, clergy can bring people into the fascinating and awesome life of God given in our sacred texts again and again. Surely many will not listen or read, but some will. Some will attend to the words given in the infinite wisdom of God’s Spirit, and then might we simply watch as their faces become illuminated and transfigured by the brightness of God’s face.

[1] Eamon Duffy writes so persuasively on this topic in his famous volume The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England 1400-1580 (New Haven, Yale University Press: 2005).

[2] See Esau McCaulley’s insightful reflections on Bible-reading tendencies within the black church in Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope (Westmont, IVP Academic: 2020).

About The Author

David Barr is associate rector at St. George’s Episcopal Church in Nashville, TN.

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4 Responses

  1. C R SEITZ

    It has been noted with irony, that historical critical reconstruction is akin the the worst of the allegorical reconstruction it thought it was correcting. A ‘resultant system’ that displaces the ‘way the words go.’

    Fortunately, the sheer weight of historical critical speculation and reconstruction is simply too ‘heavy’ to be of any practical use in preaching, Bible Study, or the daily practices of Ignatian spirituality (for example).

    I used to wonder if I gave a exam question ‘tell me as much as you can about the content of the Book of Exodus, or the Letter to the Hebrews’ people would fail at this, and long for historical critical answers to fill in the blanks.

  2. Charlie Clauss

    I think some kind of diagnostic tool to help people (me!) discern where I stand vis a vis the Bible would be helpful. This would include basic, factual knowledge as well as components to clarify if one has an overly historicist understanding, how “Marcionite” is my understanding, etc. The give directions for deepening, correcting, etc.

    Deeper than that, your discussion is very sociologically focused. We need to speak of a “Theology of Scripture.” What you believe *about* the Bible will highly determine what you do with it. In his book *The Fire of the Word* Chris Webb points to a view of scripture that believes you can experience God in the interaction with scripture. He posits that we might want to treat it as a love letter. What would that do for our motivation?

    • C R SEITZ

      If I may (David will have his own response), ‘of what advantage has the Jew? Much in every way. To them have been entrusted the oracles of God.’ That could be a ‘love letter’; a dial tone, etc, to which Gentiles are given a party line, included at the reading of a will (Luther).

      Our parish in SC is using a series called ’66 Love Letters.’ It’s a walk through scripture.

    • David Barr

      Two diagnostic pathways come to mind. Great question!
      First, in terms of personal reading, the old Augustinian insight might prove valuable. If an interpretation prompts love of God and love of neighbor, then pursue! “Against such things there is no law (Gal. 5: 22-23).
      As for theological conclusions, a simple guide might revolve around quantity. Does a given conclusion involve lots Scripture from lots of different parts of the canon? More Scripture is better. Plenty more to say here, but you’re welcome to reach out to me personally if you like!
      Dr. Seitz, thanks for the comments. I also suspect many seminarians/graduate students would not fare well with a question simply about biblical content.
      Thanks for reading!


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