Not long after I first “owned” * my faith I got a copy of Halley’s Bible Handbook. It was the very first Bible study resource that I ever bought, and while it’s not a resource that I have turned to now in years and years, I have never gotten rid of my copy of it. In fact, I can see it right there sitting on a shelf as I write. There’s certainly a smattering of nostalgia in this decision not to shed my copy of Halley’s Bible Handbook. Like your first car, your first kiss, and your first job, a preacher’s first Bible study tool is something special that has an enduring place in your heart. And so even though I haven’t opened it in years, I still like having my old copy for Halley’s Bible Handbook around. And this “connection” with it was only reinforced for me when I later learned than H.H. Halley was one of “us” – a minister of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) who was trained at the College of the Bible in Lexington, Kentucky, and who sat at the feet of one of our Movement’s true spiritual giants, J.W. McGarvey. If nothing else, Movement “loyalty” has earned Halley’s Bible Handbook its permanent place on my bookshelf. But there’s something more to it than even this.
The great Andre Crouch, my very favorite Gospel Music composer and artist, has a song the chorus of which says –
Take me back, Take me back dear Lord,
To the place where I first received You.
Take Me Back, Take me back dear Lord
Where I, first believed.
And this is what my Halley’s Bible Handbook does for me.
It takes me back to where I first believed.
In the years since first giving my heart to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, I have found myself on a long journey of learning. My faith sought understanding, and where I turned to find that understanding was in the corridors of higher education -Northwest Christian College in Eugene, Oregon, Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, Brite Divinity School in Ft. Worth, Texas, and Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Austin, Texas. After giving my heart to Jesus Christ when I was 12, little did I know that there were 12 long years to come during which I would get a theological education and earn three degrees! But at each progressive stop along this journey, I felt the simplicity and sincerity of that heartfelt commitment that I first made to Jesus Christ becoming more and more complicated and abstract.
In his book Bread for the Wilderness, Wine for the Journey (Word 1976), John Killinger described how this same thing happened to him –
Once I saw an angel, bright as the sun, diaphanous as a movie projection. There was no question of its reality. I had not yet fallen into the way of dividing objective and subjective phenomena which our educational system teaches and enforces in us. The vision was a gift, as life itself was. I saw with a single eye.
Then the world began to wean me away from belief in angels. Not suddenly or dramatically, but gradually. I became caught up in its frantic pace. I learned to speak the language of its jaunty secularism and self-assurance. I submitted to its subtle way of psychologizing everything about me – my dreams, my loves, even my beliefs.
The enthusiasm, the fire that had burned inside me, was artfully damped. The living flame became a hidden coal. (11-12)
I began the journey because I had fallen in love with Jesus Christ. I was crazy about Him. But along the way, as I read the books, wrote the papers, listened to the lectures, entered into the discussions and strove for academic distinction and recognition, I found that I had become a member of the Ephesian Church of Revelation 2:1-7 unawares. Its toil and perseverance were not to be sneezed at (2:2-3); but the spiritual amnesia it developed along the way was a real problem! The Risen Christ told the members of the Ephesian church that they had “left their first love” (2:4), and He warned them that they had better “remember from where they had fallen, and repent and do the deeds they did at first” (2:5). And this is why my 40 year old copy of Halley’s Bible Handbook still sits on my bookshelf. It’s there so that I don’t forget my first love.
There is simply no place for Halley’s Bible Handbook in the critical study of Scripture in which I was trained. The first and only time that I ever cited H.H. Halley in a research paper at one of the academic institutions I attended along the way, I was scolded and ridiculed. I didn’t make that mistake twice. That’s when I put my Halley’s Bible Handbook up on my bookshelf. I “retired” him. And “the enthusiasm, the fire that had burned inside me, was artfully damped… The living flame became a hidden coal.” I surrendered my Halley’s Bible Handbook with its warm-hearted devotional spirit as the price of admission to the grown-up table of serious theological conversation, and it took me years to recover from this decision spiritually.
Don Carson of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School up in Illinois probed the contest between the “serious” study of Scripture and its “devotional” reading that gets pitched in the experience of many ministers during their seminary years in his address “The Pastor as Scholar and Scholar as Pastor.”
Fight with every fiber of your being the common disjunction between “objective study” of Scripture and “devotional reading” of Scripture, between “critical reading” of the Bible and “devotional reading” of the Bible. The place where this tension usually first becomes a problem is at seminary. Students enter with the habit of reading the Bible “devotionally” (as they see it). They enjoy reading the Bible, they feel warm and reverent as they do so, they encounter God through its pages, some have memorized many verses and some chapters, and so forth. Seminary soon teaches them the rudiments of Greek and Hebrew, principles of exegesis, hermeneutical reflection, something about textual variants, distinctions grounded in different literary genres, and more. In consequence, students learn to read the Bible “critically” or “objectively” for their assignments, but still want to read the Bible “devotionally” in their quiet times. Every year a handful of students end up at the door of assorted lecturers and professors asking how to handle this tension. They find themselves trying to have their devotions, only to be harassed by intruding thoughts about textual variants. How should one keep such polarized forms of reading the Bible apart? This polarization, this disjunction, kept unchecked, may then characterize or even harass the biblical scholar for the rest of his or her life. That scholar may try to write a commentary on, say, Galatians, where at least part of the aim is to master the text, while preserving time for daily devotional readying.
My response, forcefully put, is to resist this disjunction, to eschew it, to do everything in your power to destroy it. Scripture remains Scripture, it is still the Word of God before which (as Isaiah reminds us) we are to tremble, the very words we are to revere, treasure, digest, meditate on, and hide in our hearts (minds?), whether we are reading the Bible at 5:30 AM at the start of a day, or preparing an assignment for an exegesis class at 10:00 PM. If we try to keep apart these alleged two ways of reading, then we will be irritated and troubled when our “devotions” are interrupted by a sudden stray reflection about a textual variant or the precise force of a Greek genitive; alternatively, we may be taken off guard when we are supposed to be preparing a paper or a sermon and suddenly find ourselves distracted by a glimpse of God’s greatness that is supposed to be reserved for our “devotions.” So when you read “devotionally,” keep your mind engaged; when you read “critically” (i.e., with more diligent and focused study, deploying a panoply of “tools”), never, ever, forget whose Word this is. The aim is never to become a master of the Word, but to be mastered by it.
What H.H. Halley didn’t know about the latest developments in Biblical scholarship was more than made up for by what he did know about Jesus Christ. I fully agree with Dr. Carson that the divide between scholarship and spirituality is both unnecessary and unhealthy. But if ever a choice has to be made between them, I’m going with spirituality, with knowing Jesus Christ over knowing about Jesus Christ. And this is where H.H. Halley excels.
Flipping through my Halley’s Bible Handbook right now as I write this blog, I am once again reminded that for all that H.H. Halley didn’t know about the textual, source, form, redactional, canonical, rhetorical, narrative, psychological, socio-scientific, postmodern and feminist criticisms of the Bible, what he did know about the Bible are things that the disciplines of biblical criticism can never touch, and that we are spiritually poorer for having forgotten. It’s the passion and conviction of entries like these in Halley’s Bible Handbook –
- “Christ is the center and heart of the Bible” (20-21)
- “The Bible is God’s Word” (22-23)
- “The Subject or Leading Thought of Each Book of the Bible” (28-29)
- “The Habit of Bible Reading” (805-814)
- “The Most Important Thing in this Book; The Simple Suggestion” (814-818)
- “A Suggested Resolution” (824)
- “The Sunday Morning Church Service” (825-829)
That continue to give it spiritual value for us today. When I need to know what something in the Bible means from an historical, cultural, literary or theological point of view, Halley’s Bible Handbook is not where I would turn. But to get a better appreciation of the spiritual value of the Bible in the life of a Christian and a congregation, there are not many other places where I could turn that would speak to me more directly as a member and minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) than does Halley’s Bible Handbook. And that’s what makes it one of my favorite things.
*“Owned” faith according to John Westerhoff is when one’s faith is no longer merely the inherited faith of one’s parents, family, and friends, but a faith that has been personally embraced. Even though doubts and questions remain, those who “own” their faith want to witness it by personal and social action, and are willing and able to stand up for what they believe in as mature disciples of Jesus Christ. A person with “owned” faith reorients her life and takes personal responsibility for what is believed.