Psalm 119, the longest chapter in the Bible, is a love poem. Structured on the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, each one of the 22 sections of Psalm 119 offers another reason why the Psalmist loved God’s Word so much. And every time I read Psalm 119 I am struck again by the intensity of the feelings of devotion and affection that the Psalmist had for the word that God had spoken to Israel, and I am left to wonder about the disposition of my own heart to the word that God has spoken to us.
In the Episcopal Church of my childhood and youth I watched the priest every Sunday morning kiss the pages of Scripture at the end of the Gospel reading. It was always a curious thing to see. And there was a season in my spiritual life when I would have told you that that this gesture was a dangerous thing for a Christian to do, a confusion of the gift for the giver, of the word spoken for the one speaking it. I know all about the dangers of what’s been called “Bibliolatry,” the way that some Christians have made an idol out of their Bibles, a functional substitute for God. Being right about what the Bible says matters more to some believers I know than actually being in a right relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Jesus specifically warned us about this. In John 5:39 He observed that some of His critics were searching the Scriptures because they thought that in them they would find eternal life, but in fact what the Scriptures bore witness to was Him. It is Jesus who is the Word of God (John 1:1), and I believe that the Bible shares in this designation of the Word of God as the divinely superintended witness (this is what I understand “inspiration” to mean) to God’s speaking and acting (John 13:26; 16:12-15). My love for the Bible is just as simple as the children’s song says – “Jesus loves me this I know for the Bible tells me so.” I appreciate the way that John Piper (this is not a blanket endorsement of everything that he says and does) explains it –
I love the Bible the way I love my eyes—not because my eyes are lovely, but because without them I can’t see what’s lovely. Without the Bible I could not see “the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ” (2 Cor. 4:4). Without the Bible I could not know “the unsearchable riches of Christ” (Eph. 3:8). Without the Bible I would not know that I am a great sinner and that Christ is a great Savior. I love the Bible because it gives the wisdom that leads to salvation, and shows me that this salvation is nothing less than seeing and savoring the glory of Christ forever. And then provides for me inexhaustible ways of seeing and knowing and enjoying Christ. (John Piper – http://www.desiringgod.org)
My view of Scripture these days tracks pretty much along the lines that were first staked out by James Denney (1856–1917) the Scottish Congregationalist theologian. He had a “sacramental” take on Scripture. He regarded them as the outward and audible expressions of the invisible and eternal God. He called the Bible a “means of grace,” and he explained that what he meant by this was that “it is the means through which God communicates with man, making him know what is His heart towards him.” He called the Bible “the medium through which God speaks to the believer.” (1856–1917) Quoting a Professor Robertson Smith, James Denney concurred –
If I am asked why I receive Scripture as the Word of God, and as the only perfect rule of faith and life, I answer with all the fathers of the Protestant Church, “Because the Bible is the only record of the redeeming love of God, because in the Bible alone I find God drawing near to man in Jesus Christ, and declaring to us in Him His will for our salvation. And this record I know to be true by the witness of His Spirit in my heart, whereby I am assured that none other than God Himself is able to speak such words to my soul.”
Believing this to be true, and then having the personal experience of it myself over and over again when I open my Bible and read, I find myself in the spiritual vicinity of the same kind of devotion and affection that the Psalmist extolled for God’s Word in Psalm 119. Martin Luther (1483 – 1546), the Protestant Reformer, once described the Bible as the straw in which he found the baby Jesus. And so, while I don’t kiss the pages of Scripture, I find that I truly love them because they bring me to Jesus. And like any lover, I find that I often take offense when I hear the object of my devotion being slighted, real or imagined. I am put on edge by any dismissive attitude or flippant comment that have the effect of undermining people’s confidence in the Bible because what is being diminished is the instrument that we have been given that brings us into a saving encounter with the living Word, Jesus Christ.
Just like when my doctor taps my knee with her little rubber hammer and I kick reflexively, I find that I tend to kick spiritually too when I hear the Bible or people’s sincere attention to it being dismissed or ridiculed. For instance, I reacted strongly at a recent denominational meeting I was at to a young colleague’s jaunty public observations about what I suspect we both would both easily put in “a matter of interpretation” category where unanimity of conviction is neither expected nor required, and where honest and searching debate is welcome. Far from being an “essential,” I nevertheless kicked when this topic was tapped. And as I have reflected on why I reacted as I did, I have found myself circling back around to Psalm 119.
I don’t suspect my young colleague of not loving the Scriptures or Jesus Christ as I do. Despite our differences, substantial as they are, I know that he does. But I took his flip comment about the authorship of a New Testament letter that has long been disputed by scholarship as a swipe (see: Andrew Wilson – “Why it Matters That Paul Wrote the Pastoral Epistles” – http://thinktheology.co.uk). It felt like he was calling my girlfriend fat, or telling me that my beloved was ugly, and I took them as fighting words. I rose in her defense. Now, in all fairness, I don’t think that he was intentionally doing this, but his irreverence just tapped the knee of my soul in such a way that it reflexively kicked.
When the dust settled from our little kerfuffle, what I was able to name for my friend was my increasingly urgent concern as a theological conservative in an ever more progressive denomination that our stated pluralism as a church has to be taken seriously and sensitively. For all of our vaunted appreciation for unity in diversity, the way that we actually make room for somebody with whom we disagree is by what we say to them and by how we say it. And for people with a more traditional faith like mine, the flash point is often going to be anything that threatens the credibility of our confidence in the trustworthiness of Scripture. And that’s because when the Bible is in dispute it is not some abstract and theoretical ideas that we are debating but something that we deeply love, and upon which we truly rely for our spiritual vitality. When we hear it being diminished or feel like it is being undermined, then we are likely to react spiritually. We traditionalists are certainly not adverse to rigorous conversations about the Bible, but our souls require that there be some degree of reverence in the conversation as well because the word that we are examining so closely is “full of the Spirit and life” for us (John 6:63).
In my last year of seminary I was part of a Council of Southwest Theological Seminaries seminar. COSTS seminars brought together students and faculty from the major seminaries around Texas – Perkins at SMU, Brite at TCU, Austin Presbyterian, the Episcopal Seminary of the Southwest, the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio – for shared research and a sustained conversation on a theological topic of current interest. The faculty member from Brite who accompanied us on our COSTS seminar back in 1979 was Dr. Duke, the church historian at Brite. On one of our drives home from Austin following a COSTS session, I remember Dr. Duke sitting in the backseat of the car quietly reading the Bible. We asked him what he was doing. “Are you preparing a sermon?” “Are you getting ready for a lecture?” “Was this in preparation for the teaching a class?” I’ve heard it said that when W.C. Fields was caught reading the Bible one day, he explained away his behavior by saying that he was just “looking for the loopholes.” Well, our assumption as seminarians was that a critical scholar of Dr. Duke’s stature would only be reading the Bible in pursuit of some academic interest or assignment — “looking for some loophole” so to speak. But instead, Dr. Duke simply looked up from his Bible and said, “No, I’m just reading the Bible for myself” he explained, “I do this for my spiritual well-being.” And with that he looked back down at his Bible and continued to read it for the rest of the trip back to Ft. Worth.
That image and those words are vivid and impactful in my memory. The example of reverence for the Biblical text from this scholar of enormous intellect and learning has remained in my imagination one of the more powerful examples of what it means to love God with all your mind. So much so that now, at the beginning of almost every Bible Study that I teach, I offer a prayer that includes the specific petition that the spiritual exercise in which we are about to enagage might not just fill our heads with more information so that we would be smarter, but that it might also fill our hearts with a greater awareness of who God is and what God is doing so that we might learn to trust and thank Him more. And as I pray this, in my mind’s eye I often see Dr. Duke sitting in the backseat of a car reading his Bible. Intellectual rigor and heartfelt reverence are not mutually exclusive categories for the Christian. In fact, they desperately need each other. DBS+
Imagine a lover who has received a letter from his beloved. I assume that God’s Word is just as precious to you as this letter is to the lover. I assume that you read and think you ought to read God’s Word in the same way the lover reads this letter. Yet you perhaps say, “Yes, but Scripture is written in a foreign language.” Let us assume, then, that this letter from the beloved is written in a language that the lover does not understand. But let us also assume that there is no one around who can translate it for him. Perhaps he would not even want any such help lest a stranger be initiated into his secrets. What does he do? He takes a dictionary, begins to spell his way through the letter, looks up every word in order to obtain a translation. Now let us imagine that, as he sits there busy with his task, an acquaintance comes in. He knows that the letter has come, because he sees it lying there, and says, “So, you are reading a letter from your beloved.” What do you think the other will say? He answers, “Have you gone mad? Do you think this is reading a letter from my beloved! No, my friend, I am sitting here toiling and moiling with a dictionary to get it translated. At times I am ready to explode with impatience; the blood rushes to my head, and I would just as soon hurl the dictionary on the floor—and you call that reading! You must be joking! No, thank God, as soon as I am finished with the translation I shall read my beloved’s letter; that is something altogether different.” (Soren Kierkegaard – For Self-Examination/Judge for Yourself, ed. and trans. by Howard V. and Edna H. Hong [Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990], 26-27)