Wrong assumptions in our approach to Bible study
What do you do with an overgrown field if you want to plant? If you’re an avid gardener or a farmer, you already know this. However, for the rest of us, a little instruction might be helpful. You have to clear the ground. Out comes the chain saw (or maybe even a tractor) because trees need to be felled. Better have your stump grinder on hand as well. Then there are rocks and boulders that need to be removed. After that, there’s brush to deal with. Lastly, you’ll want to rototill the remaining plant material into the soil to enrich it with nitrogen and other nutrients.
May I suggest that in some important ways our field of Bible study has become overgrown with assumptions and practices that leave us unprepared to do the biblical reflection necessary for engaging God’s mission in the world? The cultural history of the West is such that we’ve spent centuries reading the Bible with a sense of the Church as chaplain to a world that shared our assumptions. However, that world has changed significantly. Consequently, the ground needs some serious clearing in order for us to engage the Scriptures in new ways in a social setting that is more like A.D. 50 than 1950.
The late South African missionary scholar David Bosch, in his book,Transforming Mission, raises an important question, “Did the New Testament give rise to mission or did mission give rise to the New Testament?”[i] We’re inclined to think it’s the former. Bosch rightly corrects us and says it’s the latter. Post-Pentecost, the church has no New Testament but it moves out in mission – from Jerusalem, to Judea, to Samaria and then beyond to the Gentiles. So where does the New Testament come from? In what context did it arise? It arose in the context of mission, the mission to the nations. The early Christians did not suddenly find themselves the proud owners of a New Testament, study it in isolation for purposes of in-house edification, and then discover to their amazement that, “Wow, one of the really important themes in the New Testament is the mission of God. Let’s go guys!” Rather, as they took the gospel across geographical and cultural borders, they thought out loud about that mission. One form of that out loud thinking was the New Testament.
Reading the Bible with different lenses
How might that shift to a missional perspective change things? Consider, for example, Paul’s letter to the Roman church. Often I hear it described as Paul’s systematic theology. What it is, in fact, is a missionary support raising letter. Paul is informing the church about his planned mission to Spain and outlines the reasons the Christian community in Rome should get on board and support him (15:14-33). That has to change how you read this pivotal letter. Take the epistle to the Philippians. Whatever you’ve heard about this apostolic missive, for a new perspective, try reading it as the missionary thank-you letter it really is (4:10-20).
It’s easy to think of a letter like Romans as Paul’s ruminations about theological themes divorced from the day to day concerns of mission from the trenches. We’ve become so accustomed to the notion of theology as the musings of those in the academy and seminary, that we’ve come to think that biblical and theological reflection can be divorced from the big picture of the mission of God, His purpose to recapture a runaway planet. And so we read the New Testament as a rather intra-ecclesial document – to the church, for the church, and about the church.
But consider the pattern we see at the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15. What drives this ecumenical council of apostles and elders to study the Old Testament Scriptures? Mission! God’s mission! Reports from the trenches of Gentiles submitting to the Lord Jesus fill this infant Jewish church with wonder and puzzlement. “What do we make of what’s happening? How do we respond?” And so to the Scriptures they go, wrestling with questions of mission and cultural engagement (they are Gentiles after all) until James declares, expositing Amos, “This is the rebuilding of the fallen tabernacle of David (vv. 12-18).” What this means is that we don’t simply read Romans or Philippians as missionary documents but every New Testament book as a missionary document. In one way or another each book is reflecting on the mission of God and the life of His people as the agents of that mission.
How Jesus read the Scriptures
Let’s step back for a moment to take in the bigger picture. If Jesus is to be believed in Luke 24:13-49, it’s not only the New Testament that is to be read in light of the mission of God but the Old Testament as well. Speaking of Jesus teaching the disciples on that first Easter Sunday, Luke says, “Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures” (45). What Scriptures? The Old Testament Scriptures! And what did he teach them about the message those Scriptures contained? “ He told them, “This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day,and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high” (46-49). For Jesus, this is the story told in the Old Testament.
So, how might Jesus’ impromptu Easter Sunday seminar on the Old Testament clear the ground and prepare the soil for better Bible study? Take the Torah, for example. It didn’t exist independently of Israel for decades or even centuries. God didn’t happen to have it hanging around so that when He redeemed Israel out of Egypt, He thought, “Wait, I just happen to have a book that might be useful for devotional purposes.” These are books that arise in the context of God redeeming a people to whom he gives a missional purpose. “This,” He says, “is who you are and this is what you are called to do.”[ii] What if, for example, we read the first five books of the Old Testament as the missional identity documents of the people of God, recently redeemed from Egypt in order to be a light to the nations? What might we see if we read Genesis through Deuteronomy as documents that outline the missional life of God’s people who are blessed in order to be the conduit of blessing to the nations in fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham? Not only would we have a better sense of what Moses actually had to say but we’d have a better sense of how these books fit into the larger Biblical narrative as well as the proper launching point for missional engagement of our own cultural moment....