Earlier this year I had written a Bible study on the book of Ephesians and used it in a study with some women in a discipleship program. My work was later reviewed by a group of people who oversee my ministry as a provisional deacon and it was noted that I had used phrases like, “the Apostle Paul notes” or “Paul says” in my study. I was asked if I was familiar with historical-critical challenges to Paul’s authorship of the book of Ephesians and, if so, why had I not included that information in my study.
I explained that my target audience is women who are new Christians and who generally have about an eighth grade reading level, many having failed to graduate from high school. I responded that I was aware of historical-critical challenges to just about everything traditionally assumed about Scripture and I said it seemed more important to me to communicate my own confidence in the value and authority of Scripture, convey the principles of Scripture and how to bring those principles to bear on one’s own life rather than to confuse them with various controversies about authorship which could not be proved one way or the other. I was further asked whether, if I had been teaching it to a more educated audience within my own church, I would have taught if differently. Well, certainly, as the teacher must adapt the lesson to the level of the student.
Tonight I was reading an article by Andrew Selby, a PhD candidate in historical theology at Baylor University in Baylor’s “Christian Reflection” periodical that comes out several times a year. This most recent edition is on Scripture and how we read and interpret it.
Selby suggests that patristic fathers and medieval biblical interpreters can help us relearn reading of Scripture within the story of salvation instead of favoring the historical-critical method of interpretation that has disconnected Scripture from the life of the Church which has traditionally viewed Scripture from an overarching Christian narrative of salvation. He reminds us that we need to interpret texts in the light of God’s story of salvation. He points out that this “divorce of faith and scholarship” has not always existed, but became fashionable with the Enlightenment, the spell of which is now lifting from among “scholars within the guild of biblical studies”. He points out, too, that we can learn from the ancient teachers of Scripture, the patristic and medieval authors whose defining characteristic was that they emphasize the big picture over the details. They are attuned to the larger narrative of Scripture from start to finish.
By way of example Selby points to the Beatitudes, as interpreted by a ninth century monk named Christian of Stavelot, who lived in an area now known as Belgium. It was written for his young monastic proteges. His commentary was written to help address a growing demand for reform, as Charlemagne and others of his day sought to train and equip leaders for teaching, preaching, and evangelizing through better instruction in reading and comprehension of the Bible. Liberal arts education of the day consisted of grammar, logic, and rhetoric, as well as Bible literacy and exegesis. Christian’s own commentary borrowed liberally from Augustine of Hippo (fourth century) and other earlier church fathers, without referring to them directly, but continuing their tradition within his own insights and commentary. Selby notes that “a more theological reading of Christ’s teaching in the Beatitudes prevents us from making them abstract statements unconnected with Jesus’ person, but assists us to live in light of the grace available to us through his Incarnation.”
I have a passion for the Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount myself and, in my own study of these Matthean Scriptures, I had studied several patristic and medieval writers, finding in them a more spiritual and holistic approach to the text than modern commentators seemed to offer.
I commend Selby’s essay, “Reading the Beatitudes Like a Christian”, to you. I won’t give away all of the “goody” that it contains. I simply want to say that I found his position very much in line with my own approach to Scripture, and particularly so with regard to his example of the Beatitudes.
During seminary studies I was also introduced to “The Epic of Eden”, another beautifully written work that takes this holistic and spiritual narrative approach to interpretation of the Old Testament. This book by Sandra Richter gives beautiful and rich language to God’s larger purpose and avoids bogging one down in the minutiae of the Old Testament that can sink a reader with a less studious appetite. It is scholarly, but imminently readable….a wonderful combination for one like myself who wants to teach faithfully, but must do so in a context of an audience of barely engaged new believers who often feel less than competent in Bible study. Historical-critical analysis simply raises more questions than it answers in such cases. To demand such an approach of all Bible studies is to burden the student, the teacher, and the text with unnecessary explanations for questions that have not yet even been asked by milk-drinking baby Christians.
Perhaps we need to get back to some basics in teaching the Bible, especially in today’s educationally challenged culture.