There’s a lot of talk about why to read the Bible. There’s a lot of talk about how to read the Bible. But there’s not as much talk about where to read the Bible. At first glance, it seems like a silly question… why should a Christian worry about where they should be picking the Bible and reading it? Well, the catch is that I’m not asking so much about the physical location of the reader as I am asking about the Bible’s natural habitat. Where does it belong? In what context or “place” is it best read and best understood?
To a large extent, this question overlaps with the big question how to read the Bible. And indeed I’ve touched on that subject from time to time already, particularly the two series lectia biblia 1 2 3 4 5 and levels of biblical interpretation 1 & 2. But now we’re on to a slightly different track: where is the Bible’s natural habitat?
We begin with one of the few direct references that the Bible makes about itself:
the Holy Scriptures … are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.
According to what St. Paul wrote to Timothy here, Scripture is God-breathed… that’s very similar language to how the giving of the Holy Spirit is often described. So there’s something definitely spiritual about this book we call the Bible. But the book of Hebrews takes this a step further:
the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.
So not only is the Bible “God-breathed,” but it also has a life of its own! So what does this say about how we should read the Bible and where it belongs? Well first of all it belongs with God – specifically the Holy Spirit who inspired it. After all, if it’s breathed out by God, then we should not be subjecting it to mere human interpretation (as St. Peter also argued).
Ironically, focusing on human interpretation is precisely what many seminaries teach us to do these days. We study the original languages, we look at some of the manuscript differences in an attempt to dig our way back to the original text, we work through the grammar of the Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic to reveal what the original texts meant, and in all this seem to equate the Bible’s human authorship with its divine authorship. And while these are certainly useful and valid, because human authors definitely were involved in the writing and shaping of the Scriptures, this cannot be the whole picture. When interpreting the Bible is reduced to translation, grammar, and linguistic analysis, biblical theology becomes more a matter of archaeology – digging up information from a dead past.
But the Bible is not just God-breathed, it’s living and active! As a current Eastern Orthodox scholar has put it,
Scholarly interpretation has been governed by an overriding concern to establish the original text and meaning. But there are many circumstances in which this is either not appropriate or not the whole story. For the Scriptures do not simply belong to their original context: they have been read and re-read over the centuries. When we venerate the Book of the Gospels we are acknowledging it as something that belongs to the present: it bodies forth Christ now.
—Andrew Louth, Introducing Eastern Orthodox Theology, p. 9
Regardless of denomination, all Christians do believe this – the Bible is the word of God, and therefore is an embodiment of the true Word of God, Jesus. Sure, some of the more liberal traditions have played upon this fact to try to pit “Jesus” against “Bible” and pick up only what they want from the ashes, but that’s not what this is about. Rather, just as Jesus is living and active, interceding for us to the Father, so is his Spirit and his Word and his Body:
- The Spirit of Christ (the Holy Spirit) is actively sanctifying us and leading us into all the truth of Christ.
- The Word of Christ (the Bible) is actively shining the light of Christ’s truth into the world, in the capable hands of the Spirit and the Church.
- The Body of Christ (the Church) is actively proclaiming the Gospel unto the ends of the earth, ministering in Christ’s Name.
So where is the Bible’s natural habitat? As the Word of Christ, it belongs with the Spirit of Christ and the Body of Christ – it belongs in the Church. That means that the “best place to read the Bible” is in the Church. I don’t mean you and I physically have to go into a church building, sit in the pews, and only there crack open our Bibles. I mean that the Bible is best read, best understood, when read by the Body of Christ – when the Church is gathered to be the Church. As this article puts it:
The way of understanding sacred writ in the early Church and down through the centuries–many years before widespread literacy and the advent of the printing press–was in how they were utilized in our daily, weekly, and annual liturgical celebrations.
To explain this practically; the way that Scripture readings are arranged, and how the Scripture passages are chosen for a given worship service on a given day are in themselves tools for understanding the Bible. The themes of the Scripture readings on certain days give birth to Christian holidays, and the themes of the Scripture readings over a period of time give birth to Christian seasons. A whole liturgical calendar is formed by the way that the Bible is read together by the worshiping community!
Some people today look at this liturgical framework and calendar and accuse us ‘traditionalists’ of imposing upon the Bible a limitation that binds it down and controls it according to our own weird catholic agenda. But in reality, the liturgy and the calendar join with the Bible naturally and on a more equal basis. The Bible gives shape and meaning to the liturgy; the liturgy gives us a lens to understand the Bible. The relationship is mutual. The Bible is living and active. The liturgy is its ecosystem, its natural habitat in which it thrives and propagates its truth into the hearts of the faithful.
This habitat of the liturgical life of the Church for the Bible gives room for a more robust approach to Scriptural interpretation than we often realize.
- The literal, grammatical, historical approach to understanding the Scriptures is affirmed as real people and real events are celebrated throughout the year.
- The moral (or tropological) approach (think of “sermon applications”) to understanding Scripture is affirmed as Scripture readings match each other highlighting certain lessons and themes.
- The allegorical approach to understanding Scripture is especially preserved in how Old Testament prophesies and events foretell aspects of the life and ministry of Jesus, such as in when we read about Abraham’s sacrifice of his son Isaac on Good Friday.
- The anagogical or spiritual approach to understanding Scripture is also maintained. For example, our movement from reading the Old Testament, to the New Testament, to the Gospel, to the sermon is a sort of re-enacting the long history of God’s revelation to his people, culminating in the arrival of Jesus – God in the flesh.
When the liturgy, calendar, and lectionary (Bible reading plan) are sufficiently robust, all four of these approaches to understanding the Bible are not only available to us, but also in perfect harmony. They need not conflict with each other. In fact, if handled rightly, they all match and complement one another perfectly. Generally speaking, the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, and the Anglican Communion each have strong traditions of a robust set of liturgy & calendar & lectionary. Obviously the Anglican one is my favorite, but each has its own flavor, strengths, weaknesses, and style.