A recent post on the Evangelical Calvinist blog notes the danger of a personalized or private approach to reading the Bible:
In American Evangelicalism we have been taken captive by what some have termed a solo scriptura; meaning that... all I need is my own personal, introspective and private reading of the Bible.... My strongest argument against ‘solo scriptura’ (or scripture by itself in contrast to the Reformed ‘sola scriptura’) is that Jesus himself actually reinterpreted the Old Testament scriptures (often times in contrast to the Rabbinic readings of his earthly day) in light of himself. This at the least should underscore the fact that the scriptures have a ‘canon’ or standard by which they themselves are measured; indeed, this canon is none other than Christ in God’s life himself. In short, even Jesus engaged in what today has been termed as ‘theological-exegesis’; even Jesus recognized that you didn’t or couldn’t just read scripture in isolation or as your own private Readers-Digest. No, Jesus understood that the context through which the scriptures made sense was only in light of a theological reality. [emphasis added]I agree. Indeed, it is not uncommon to hear people say, "This is what this verse [of Scripture] means to me." Though such statements are likely well-intentioned, they may reflect a wrong-headed approach to reading the Bible. The meaning of scripture is found not in "it seems to me" personal interpretations, but in the reality of its central focus--the incarnate Son of God, Jesus Christ.
The above-quoted blog post also notes the resurgence of interest in the writings of Swiss theologian Karl Barth, who championed a Christocentric approach toward Scripture. He realized that the truth of the written word of God (the Bible) is found in who it points to--the living Word of God (Jesus Christ). In order to encounter that Living Word in the words of the Bible, Scripture must be read through the "lens" of Jesus himself. Said another way, we must read the Bible with Jesus. He is Scripture's canon (rule or standard); he is Scripture's hermeneutic (interpretive process).
I am reminded here of a fictional, though powerful story. Jesus walked into the cavernous reading room of a large library. The room was full of erudite biblical scholars hunched over copies of the Bible, reading intently; deep in thought. As Jesus entered, not a single head turned to acknowledge his presence in the room. Jesus waited for a while; still no one noticed him. So he cleared his throat; still no response. Then in a loud and authoritative voice, Jesus proclaimed concerning the Bible these scholars were so intently studying, "DON'T YOU KNOW---IT'S ABOUT ME!!!"
If forests can be missed by intently gazing at trees, it is even more true (and devastating) when Jesus is missed by people as they intently gaze at the words of Scripture. This reminds us, of course, of words actually spoken by Jesus--this time to some assembled Jewish religious leaders who were recognized experts in the Hebrew Scriptures:
"You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf. Yet you refuse to come to me to have life" (John 5:39-40 NRSV).These scholars were guilty of bibliolatry (the worship of a particular book, in this case the Bible). Indeed, a misplaced reverence for Scripture held them in blindness concerning Scripture's true, life-giving subject, Jesus Christ.
To read the Bible with Jesus is to read it in his presence, guided by his Spirit, and in community with his body, the Church; and there to find the God who is revealed in and by Jesus Christ. To read the Bible with Jesus is to read it along with 2,000 years of teaching, including times when the church's understanding of Scripture was renewed, refined and even radically reformed.
Thus to read Scripture and then say, "This is what this means to me," is potentially to miss (even to grossly miss) its actual meaning, both for that person and for all humanity.
What we need is not a personalized understanding of Scripture, but a Christocentric understanding. And it is my experience that this understanding is offered to us with consistency and clarity through a Trinitarian, Christ-centered theology.
For additional information on this topic, check out these resources:
- Beyond Bible Study: Finding Jesus Christ in Scripture, a paper by Frank Viola
- Principles of Biblical Interpretation (posted on this blog)
- A Three-Fold Ministry of the Word (posted on this blog)
- An excerpt from a video of a lecture from Trinitarian theologian Gary Deddo: