This is a continuation of curriculum I am writing on the spiritual disciplines for small groups at my church. Parts I, II, and III are on the disciplines in general, silence and solitude, and prayer, respectively. As well, I have attempted to tackle Scripture previously in two places.
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There is great confusion today, not least in the American context, about Christian Scripture: its nature, its function, its purpose, its heart, its message, its content, its context, its relevance. Christians no less than non-Christians have questions: What is the Bible? Why do we have it? How did we get it? What are we supposed to do about it, and how in the world can we read it rightly?
Fortunately, in this study we are not out to answer these questions—though they are undeniably important!—but rather to live inside of them and wrestle with them. As Christians—and as Christians belonging to a particular tradition [churches of Christ] which stresses the authority and knowledge and study of Scripture perhaps more than any other—we already find ourselves in the peculiar position of believing that this book and these words have unique, God-ordained meaning for our lives, whatever the exact theological answers may be. We stand under the authority of this strange collection of ancient writings, written over more than a millennium, in three different languages, detailing events of people unrelated to us by blood and separated by an ocean, in cultures utterly alien to our way of life, comprising genres as varied as law, narrative, family history, royal chronicle, poetry, prophecy, apocalyptic, epic, and song.
It is not a surprise this book would elicit questions!
But our place before this book is not scholarly, exegetical, historical, linguistic, or as disinterested bystander. We stand before it as belonging to that people by whom and for whom it was written, in the conviction that in the hearing of these words we somehow hear the word of God for the people of God—today.
“Hear” is an important term here, for God speaks, not writes; God’s Word is living and active, not dead and lifeless like black marks on a white page. Thus we must be attentive to and mindful of the fact that until the Word of God is spoken—more fully, until it is embodied in flesh and blood—it is powerless, and unfaithful to its own character. “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says” (James 1:22). “He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant—not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Cor 3:6).
So just as the Word was made flesh in Jesus (John 1), and the church is the embodiment of Christ on earth (1 Cor 12), so hearing and knowing and doing the Word of God in Scripture requires both the empowerment and inspiration of the Holy Spirit and the presence and obedience of the community of God’s people. The same Spirit who inspired the writings of Scripture must illumine their meaning and calling for us today lest they be mere dead words on a lifeless page, and the same community then who received these words for their life and faith must in each new generation receive them again for today.
The primary way this is done is not by head knowledge or Bible trivia or a towering repertoire of memorized passages—though of course these things can be put to good use—but by appropriating and living into God’s story as our story today. We must live and breathe, eat and sleep with these holy words, for they are ours and are meant for our benefit. They offer us unimaginably potent resources for the highs and lows of life in discipleship to Jesus: death and mourning, birth and praise, pain and lament, joy and worship, trial and prayer, doubt and encouragement—all grounded in the community’s relentless memory of the Father’s love toward us, the Son’s suffering with us, the Spirit’s speaking for us. Scripture takes us up into this memory, invites us into this “strange new world” (Karl Barth), and recolors, reimagines, and refocuses what we thought was possible with the impossible possibilities of the God who overcomes the world.
So as we come to Scripture, we come with open ears, ready to hear and be formed by the story of stories; not to examine or dissect, but to be examined ourselves. We come not as individuals ready to learn, much less ready to gain more notches on our (Bible) belt or to gather proofs for our preconceived notions; rather, we come as part of a community, in the humility of prayer, prepared for judgment, for challenge, for rebuke and for transformation—and for love, for good news and all grace.
We come hungry for God’s word. May we eat, then, and be filled at God’s holy table.
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Therefore our working definition will be:
Scripture is that bound collection of writings (1) distinctively authoritative for the life and faith of the church, (2) written by, within, and for God’s people, (3) set apart from other writings as uniquely inspired by God’s Spirit (4) as the definitive and true story of God’s life and dealings with his creation through Israel, (5) in order to bear witness to the good news of God’s grace, love, and redemption of the world in Jesus Christ.