Making the Most of the Bible: An Ecumenical Road to Christ

by Neil G. Richardson

Reading the Bible on our own might damage our spiritual health. The danger is flagged up in the New Testament itself – in the Second Letter of Peter (2 Peter 3.15-6). The biblical norm for exploring scripture seems to have been ‘two or three’. Of course, reading the Bible on our own may be better than not reading it at all. Neglecting the Bible altogether may plunge us well and truly into unbelief, or, shall we say, fail to extricate us from the cloying unbelief which is never far away. (More of that later.)
Reading the Bible on our own may not be – almost certainly isn’t – the best thing we can do with Scripture. A daily discipline, important, even vital as it may be, easily becomes a daily chore. It shouldn’t be, but large tracts of the Bible are difficult if not impenetrable. In the New Testament alone, think of large sections of Paul’s letters, much of Hebrews and Revelation. As for the Old Testament, many churchgoers gave up on that ages ago. I get the impression that many ministers and local preachers have done the same.

The spiritual – and theological – perils of all this are increased by what we are exposed to all day long  most days through the media in one form or another. Our daily exposure to Scripture is minute when compared all the secular, atheistic influences which bear down on us every day, including Sundays.   A theologian of the 20th century recommended a Bible in one hand, a newspaper in the other. That picture used to commend itself to me. Now I’m not so sure. It can’t possibly imply that Bible and newspaper are equally authoritative or important. But what about their respective influences upon us and upon the Church?
One option, increasingly attractive to many in these threatening times, is to turn off the news altogether. But that won’t do either. Many ‘Christians’ of the second and third centuries increasingly turned their backs on the world, and were eventually dubbed – not always accurately or charitably – ‘heretics’. But a flight from the world, however attractive it may be, is hardly being faithful to the Jesus of Nazareth and of Calvary.

So we seem to be between a rock and a hard place. Reading the Bible on our own isn’t always helpful; neglecting it altogether takes us into unbelief. But perhaps our greatest enemy today – both in church and society at large — is superficiality. Contemporary superficiality is aided and abetted by many things:  the busyness of life, driving us to do things quickly or inadequately ; a surfeit of information, leading us to skim read more than we should;  church-centredness and much more besides.
Our worship, our preaching and our reading of the Bible can be superficial, and we need urgently to ask what we can do about it, not just for the sake of the Church but for the sake of the Kingdom and for the sake of the world. So our subject today is not an optional academic luxury, or anything of the sort. Reading the Bible well is the very lifeblood of the Church. And if you say, ‘But earlier generations didn’t have copies of the Bible in their day — the centuries before books and printing — that is true. But many knew large sections of scripture by heart – or what was to become Scripture. It was in their blood stream.

So let’s turn to the question of how we may make the most of the Bible. A first way to get out of a Bible-reading straitjacket, when Bible-reading has become a chore, is to ask and to allow the Holy Spirit to deepen our prayers. No heartfelt ‘arrow’ prayer is ever unheard. So the Bible teaches, and so I believe. But the word ‘heartfelt’ here is crucial. We can’t rustle up heartfelt prayers as a matter of routine, especially when we’re ‘sitting comfortably’, when there’s no persecutor at the door, and when we’re sure, beyond any reasonable doubt, where our ‘daily bread’ that day is coming from. ’What’s the urgency?’ we might think, even if we know we shouldn’t.
Practising silence will help us. Practising silence regularly and for as long as we can manage each day will help. Pressing demands of love and compassion can hardly be put on hold by such a daily discipline, however important. But such silence matters because it can lead us into contemplation – attending to God. And such attention to God in turn generates a deeper attention to the words of the Bible passage in front of us. Charles Williams, novelist friend of C.S. Lewis, wrote: ‘Some people believe the Bible, some people don’t; either way, nobody notices what the words are.’

But as we ‘centre down’ (as the Quakers might put it), we start to notice details we haven’t noticed before.  It will happen again and again. It will happen across the years, not least because ‘the changing scenes of life’ will light up afresh familiar texts, and bring to light new truths in scripture which we haven’t seen before.
But silent contemplation is only the beginning. It is also important – maybe necessary – to read the Bible with an other. The ‘other’ may be the author of your Bible-reading notes, though they tend to vary in quality and depth. Or a commentary – but the same caveat applies here too. A commentary for devotional use needs to be relatively short, and not too detailed. A good one is worth sharing or recommending.  If we have prayer partners and triplets, why not also bible-reading partners and triplets?

Every fellowship of preachers needs a library of good commentaries. Think of a commentary as a friend. After all, it will have been written by a fellow-Christian. Sometimes that’s obvious, sometimes less so. For our purposes we need a commentary where the author’s faith shines through.
This brings me to my main theme. Why is reading the Bible on our own the norm – especially when we have a sermon to prepare, and especially if, on most Sundays, preachers are wrestling with the same — sometimes  difficult – set of lections? Why do most of us preachers toil away in splendid isolation?  A few years ago, I  co-wrote , with a supernumerary colleague in Leeds, the Revd Dr George Lovell, a supernumerary colleague in Leeds, Sustaining Preachers and Preaching, (Continuum 2011), in which we advocated more collaboration between preachers.   

But we need to go a step further. The ‘other’ person with whom we read the Bible needs perhaps to be a Christian uncomfortably different from ourselves.  C.S. Lewis wrote somewhere that it ‘takes all sorts to make a church’, and a similar point applies to the reading of the Bible. ‘Tell me what you find in your Bible, and I will tell you what kind of a person you are.’ So wrote, not a cynic or an agnostic, but a devout Puritan of the 16th century. So if you’re a ‘liberal’, find yourself an ‘evangelical’ (if we must use these terms!), and vice versa. If you’re a Guardian reader, find someone who reads a different newspaper. And so on.  The point is not to have a good discussion, but – together – to be led by the Spirit into deeper truth and a deeper unity in Christ.

This does not imply that everyone finds, or should find in the Bible what they want or expect to find. Rather, we should expect, and hope for, the opposite. It takes ‘all sorts’ to make a fruitful Bible-reading group, and even a fruitful bible-reading triplet. This can be the experience within our own church. But the more ecumenical our Bible-reading partnerships become, the more fruitful they are likely to be.

It’s worth recalling the analogy of a distinguished  Methodist scientist, C.A Coulson:  a great, high mountain… can be seen from different angles; different views and perspectives may all contribute . It would be worth discussing later whether there are times when we have to draw lines. A well-known example from the 20th century would be the way in which Christians of the Afrikaaner Dutch Reformed Church found justification in the Old Testament for apartheid.
There is a fundamental reality at the heart of all things, and that reality, Christians believe, is the Christ who prayed that all his followers might be one, ‘as I, Father, am in You, and You in Me’ (John 17.21ff). In practice, that prayer of Jesus surely means this: the closer we draw to each other – and especially to Christians different from ourselves – the closer we draw to Jesus himself. The two journeys towards each other and towards Christ are one and the same. The point can be put more negatively: how can we draw nearer to Him, unless we draw nearer to each other?

Why is this? I suggest it has everything to do with the dynamic of loving. Loving someone different from ourselves requires more from us: not more effort, though that may be involved, but rather a more costly love which we can’t simply manufacture at will. Compare the even more demanding command of Jesus, ‘Love your enemy’. To engage in that very costly, painful process brings us most certainly nearer to the crucified Christ.

Within the Church and beyond it, the framework for all this is a network of friendship, rooted in Jesus himself. (‘You are my friends if you do what I command you…’) In practice, as we know from the centrality of Holy Communion, a shared meal is a natural accompaniment of the sort of Bible study we are envisaging here.

But we have now reached a stage in human history where our ecumenism can’t end with the Christian Church and Christian unity. There is a growing, urgent need for inter-faith Bible study – or rather, for a sharing of our respective Scriptures. In that respect, we Christians have been ecumenical –in this broader sense – from the beginning. By that I mean the books of our ‘Old Testament’ were the scriptures of the Jewish people long before they were ours. There is a further, urgent reason why we should begin with the Jewish people on this stage of our ecumenical journey into Christ. That is the anti-semitism – still, tragically with us – to which the Christian Church has contributed mightily down the centuries. (It continues to blight Biblical scholarship and much Christian preaching even today.)

Given our lamentable track record  vis a vis the Jewish people, it should go without saying that, in our shared reading of the scriptures (the gospels, the Psalms and Romans 11 would be good places to begin),  we are clear about the purpose of this sharing: it is to learn from each other. It cannot be, from our perspective, to put the Jewish people right, and to convert them to Christianity. (Many would need re-assurance on this point).

There is another fundamental point to be made at the start. Just as it would be – or should be – quite unthinkable to survey a Christian congregation trying to decide who is a ‘proper’ Christian, so we cannot assume that a Jewish person can’t possibly know God because they don’t ‘accept’ Jesus. The Bible itself belies that view. Think especially of the psalms and the prophets. Or, conversely, in the New Testament, of the centurion of whom Jesus said ‘Nowhere in Israel have I found such faith (Luke 7.9 and  Matthew  8.10), and, in Acts, of another centurion to whom Peter responded, ‘I am now learning   (present tense)  that everyone who (lit.) “does  righteousness” is acceptable to God’ (Acts 10.34-5).

I need to say a special word about the Gospel of John. It has been mistakenly but understandably dubbed ‘anti-semitic’.  John 14.6 is the most apparently exclusionist verse, and the fierce words of Jesus to ‘the Jews’ in John 8.44 –‘Your  father is the devil’ – perhaps the most shocking

All scholars, I think, are agreed that John’s  gospel comes from a time and a situation when Jew and Christian were, generally, drifting further and further apart, and  mutual misunderstandings were growing.  The more the Christians reflected on the significance and identity of Jesus, the greater became the gulf between the two communities. From the Jewish side, how could Jesus have been the Messiah, given his fate, and given the fact that the world continues apparently unredeemed? How could anyone imagine that the Messianic Age had dawned? Hard work needs to be done by Christians, not to water down our faith, or change the text of John’s gospel, but in order to reduce misunderstandings. And such learning will always be a two way process.

Can we Christians make the most of the ‘Old Testament’ without Jewish help? It’s a question too important to shirk or brush aside. We may say, ‘But haven’t we been promised the help of the Holy Spirit to lead us into all truth (John 14.16)? We have. But maybe – especially in our day – that promise may come nearer to fulfilment if we make friends with Jewish people and share our respective faiths in the same  God.

Every religion, every faith – including our own – has adherents  whose moral indignation sometimes, if not often, exceeds their love and compassion.  That, for St Paul, seems to have been the failing of at least some of his Jewish compatriots. (Romans 10.2 describes  people who can be found in every faith, including our own).

Conclusion:   Perhaps we should try putting a moratorium on the word ‘Christian’. We’ll stop using it until we sense that the world at large deems us to be at least a little more worthy of bearing it. The word ‘Christian’ occurs hardly at all in the New Testament. What words should we use instead to describe ourselves or to refer to each other? Denominational labels would be as bad, if not worse. Perhaps we should talk about ourselves and the Church less often.

But let us not have a moratorium on the name Jesus, and his accompanying title, ‘Christ’.  In the New Testament the most frequent self-description of Christians is those ‘in Christ’ or ‘in the Lord’.  Abiding in that holy mystery – of Father, Son and Holy Spirit - takes us nearer the reality within which (or, rather, whom) and for whom we are called to live. And the way in, I suggest, is ecumenical.

Copyright © Neil G. Richardson, 2021. All rights reserved.