12 Aug 2008

Trembling Before the Word: The Act of Bible Reading

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Bible, Exegesis, Hermeneutics, Kingdom, Preaching, Worship

For those who have not read John Mark Hicks recent posts on “It Ain’t that Complicated” I would like to recommend them to you.

I want to suggest that we can learn a lot about the proper reading of the biblical text from our Fathers and Mothers in the faith. Karl Barth once asked “Are we at liberty to ignore the past? Do the great teachers of the Church … not possess a — certainly not heavenly — but, even so, earthly, human ‘authority? We should not be too ready to say, No. To my mind the whole question of tradition falls under the Fifth Commandment: Honour {sic} father and mother! …” I really like this perspective. Can we not learn from our fathers and mothers? Even if they are not canonical or inspired? Unfortunately those baptized into the Enlightenment and Modern world view the answer to Barth’s question is often in the negative. Peter Gay in his Modernism: The Lure of Heresy insists that a cardinal trait of modernism is “aggressive self-liberation” from “ancestor worship” that is we are autonomous selves (cf my review of Peter Gay’s Modernism). Yet it seems that there is vast wisdom in listening to ones elders. Even when we decide to ultimately disagree with them.

It may come as a surprise to most Evangelical Christians but the act of Bible reading for the average Christian is a distinctly modern (chronologically) ability. The average Christian in the first, second, third, fourth (and so on) centuries never owned a Bible. This is reflected in Revelation 1.3 where we read “Blessed is the one who reads the words … and blessed are those who hear it ...” This text shows us that there is one reader and many listeners. Reading the Bible in the ancient world was a communal activity and it was heard as often as it was read.

Our Fathers and Mothers in the faith often suggested that the proper hearing (i.e. understanding or interpreting) of the Word was that of humility. You might say that the Fathers believed that trembling before the Word was the proper disposition to any approach to God’s powerful word. Hearing the word took place best in the context of worship in and with the gathered people of God. Worship is, perhaps, the “womb” of theology and hearing God’s word.

Worship is so important because in that context we embrace the truth that there is only one Lord, only one Teacher, one Sovereign. We recognize that God’s powerful word first addresses us in our sin and my community. Hearing the word in worship nourishes the spirit and produces healthy Christians. You might say our Fathers taught that spiritually ill Christians produced sic theology.

Encountering the word is not first about besting anyone but in letting the Spirit of God use his instrument of healing on us. Alexander Campbell understood this fundamental point. In 1839 he published a series of “Short Sermons on Christian Practice.” He begins his series by talking about prayer. After he addresses prayer he addresses “Bible Reading.” The order here is important, I think. The proper approach is to tremble before the text. Here we approach God and the Spirit uses this tool to bring about sanctification. In that prayerful trembling we learn to “will what God wills, to love what he loves, and to hate what he hates” (On Bible Reading, No. I, Millennial Harbinger [August 1839], 343). It is improper to approach the text as a “disputant” or a “formalist” rather we come trembling before the text because “the soul pants for this reading as the thirsty roe pants for the brooks of water.” We read the text because of the soul “pleasure” and “communion with God” that is mediated to us through an encounter with the word.

When we begin to hear the word from the perspective of people prostrate in worship before the Almighty King perhaps it will begin to sound somewhat different. We might hear it like Isaiah did (cf. Isaiah 6). He was profoundly and utterly confronted. His pretense of righteousness was completely destroyed. His sense of privilege was quietly removed without anyone even pointing it out. And he found his purpose in life.

So what is a “proper” read or “hearing” of the Word of God? What might it look like? When you hear it are you grateful for the grace God has shed on “us”? When you hear it do you love more than before? When you hear it are you moved to sacrifice self more? When you hear it do you volunteer for missional vocation in this world? When you hear it do you praise the One who has given it to you? If our hearing and reading are not producing affirmative responses to these kinds of questions then it is a legitimate concern to raise: Are We Hearing (Reading) the Word of God Properly? Should we not ask ourselves if we are trembling before the Word … Isaiah did. Are healthy Christians emerging or are sick people leaving our Gatherings? Perhaps the Fathers and Mothers were onto something here. I think they were.

Bobby V

8 Responses to “Trembling Before the Word: The Act of Bible Reading”

  1. nick gill Says:

    As the Spirit of God trembles over the waters of God’s creation, so we who are sealed by that Spirit should tremble before Abba’s revelation.

    In HIS love,

    PS- can you send me a link to AC’s sermon on prayer?

  2. cwinwc Says:

    I wonder if we’ve lost something over the centuries as we moved from the communal reading and hearing of God’s word to individual Bible Study. Thank you for your thoughts Bobby.

  3. Candle (C & L) Says:

    Expecting hearing God’s word to translate into change and action on my part- isn’t that a bit harsh? I thought it was for all those other people who didn’t know God yet!!

    Great thoughts Bobby and your questions hit the heart of the word — it seems so simple – why is it so hard — because I really do have to surrender ALL of me

    God Bless

  4. preacherman Says:

    Wonderful words for us to hear Bobby. Thank you for this wonderful post. May we all tremble before the word during the act of reading because it is the very words of I AM.

  5. Cheryl Russell Says:

    Bobby, I REALLY enjoyed this post. It’s beautiful to consider ‘trembling before the text’ and ‘letting it heal us.’ The implications of this approach are far reaching.

  6. Gardner Hall Says:

    This is the type of practical advice found often in your books that make them so valuable in spite of other reservations I sometimes have about them. God bless.

  7. kingdomseeking Says:

    Whatever the proper way to read and hear scripture is, when we have read and heard scripture properly we will come away transformed. Thanks for the great post!

    Grace and peace,


  8. Ken Green Says:

    A great text to hang those thoughts on:

    “Thus says the Lord:

    ‘Heaven is My throne,
    And earth is My footstool.
    Where is the house that you will build Me?
    And where is the place of My rest?
    For all those things My hand has made,
    And all those things exist,’
    Says the Lord” (Isa. 66:1-2)
    “But on this one will I look:
    On him who is poor and of a contrite spirit,
    And who trembles at My word.

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