How do we read the Bible?
Special Guest Post by Chick Yuill. This was posted by Chick recently on his Facebook page, and is reproduced here with his kind permission.
This year we celebrate the 400th Anniversary of the King James Bible. And this week two things have stimulated my thinking in relation to Scripture.
Men and Women
Firstly, I read an email from a young woman who has joined the Christian Union at her university only to discover that a woman is not allowed to do the weekly talk. Neither is she allowed to stand for president of the CU because they believe she would not have 'the necessary authority'. I responded to this by describing it as 'gender bigotry masquerading under the cloak of biblical loyalty'.
This was met by a strong rebuke from a well-respected friend in the reformed wing of the church who sent me a 500 page document consisting of proof texts and comments which he believed demonstrated that there was a solid biblical basis for maintaining a clear distinction between the roles of men and women in the church. He added that you could work out a position purely from biblical passages without muddying the waters with 'extraneous cultural issues.'
Melvyn Bragg and the Bible
Secondly, I read an article in The Sunday Times by the broadcaster Melvyn Bragg. (Bragg is not a believer but describes himself in the words of Albert Einstein as 'a deeply religious non-believer'.) The article is entitled 'The book that brought freedom' [Ed: Note that this link may require payment to access the article] and Bragg asserts that the King James Bible 'has a fair claim to be the greatest single force in shaping the English-speaking world.'
In the article he writes as follows of the impact of the Bible on the issue of slavery in the United States:
In effect there were three King James Bibles at work here. Firstly, those who believed that slavery had existed (as it had) in every civilisation ever recorded found authority in one reading of the Bible. Noah cursed Canaan, son of Ham, and all his offspring to slavery...Therefore, under the curse of Noah all black people were liable to be enslaved. Second, William Wilberforce, one of the key abolitionists, drew all his moral conviction from the King James Bible, which he read ever day of his adult life... And finally, the slaves in America also read the Bible...It gave them through its stories - Moses leading the Jews out of Egypt, for instance - an example to follow. It politicised them. It provided the launch pad for gospel music and spirituals, which not only buoyed them up all the way through to Martin Luther King, but also sowed the seed for America's unique cultural contribution to the world.
What do we make of these two things - my confrontation with a fellow-believer and Bragg's comments on the Bible and slavery? Let me - as someone who has a high view of scripture and believes it to be God-breathed - suggest four things:
- It is dangerous to take any text in isolation. Every text needs to be set in the context of the BIG SWEEP, the BIG STORY of Scripture which is essentially the revelation of a God with an infinitely loving heart. If we fail to do that we might end up encouraging our governments to wipe out every man woman and child of nations with whom we are at war, stoning homosexuals, and consigning entire ethnic groups to slavery - to name but a few!
- It's impossible to read scripture without reference to culture. That means, of course, that we have to be aware of the culture in which it is set. So, to take an obvious example, Paul's instruction that women must have their heads covered in church needs to be understood in the light of the prevailing culture of Corinth in which an uncovered head could signal that the woman was a prostitute. The central issue then becomes not that of head-covering but of how we conduct ourselves in a manner that is honouring to God.
- But we also need to be aware that we read Scripture in the light of our own culture. There is a positive and negative aspect to that. Positively it means that, just like the black slaves to whom Bragg refers, we will discover truths that are particularly relevant to our age and inspirational to our own situation. Negatively it means that we will bring to the text prejudices and suppositions of which we are often not aware. We evangelical Christians, for example, are more impacted by the rationalistic culture in which we have been raised than we might imagine. Hence our predisposition to place all the emphasis on propositional doctrinal statements and forget the proper place of a mystery and wonder when we are dealing with an infinite and holy God.
- But reading the Bible reverently, intelligently and in a manner that enables us to hear the voice of God is not an impossible task. I think there is a clue in Melvyn Bragg's brief comments on William Wilberforce who he reminds us 'drew all his moral conviction from the King James Bible, which he read ever day of his adult life'. Wilberforce's encounter with Scripture was a daily discipline, not an occasional, casual encounter. Just as a man learns over the years to listen to his wife and - despite the different ways men and women express themselves - to hear her voice and to know what she is really saying, so with practice we can hear the voice of God in Scripture. We don't take one isolated word and build a rigid theology on it. We reflect on the whole conversation, discern the heart of God, and allow it to form and transform us into the likeness of Christ.
If Jesus is the perfect revelation of the heart of God, let his life, his death, his resurrection and his teaching be the window through which we view all of scripture. And if the Holy Spirit who inspired the writing of scripture also inspires us as we read the sacred text, let the presence of the Spirit be the light that shines through that window and illumines the page.
About Chick Yuill
Chick has spent over thirty-five years in full-time ministry. Most of this time has been devoted to leading and pastoring local congregations, both in the UK and the USA. He is a passionate communicator and has frequently appeared on national radio and TV, speaking on issues of faith and morality. He is also a regular speaker at major Christian conferences such as Spring Harvest and contributes frequently to Radio Two’s Good Morning Sunday show.
Chick has been married to his wife Margaret for over 40 years and for all of that time they have shared their ministry. Their commitment to God and each other is summed up in their joint mission statement:
To model Christian marriage and Christian ministry in a manner
that glorifies God and serves as an example to others.
that glorifies God and serves as an example to others.
Find out more about Chick at his website, www.anvilding.com