the role of the Bible in ministry

With less than 24 hours to go until my ‘Bible in Ministry’ exam, I thought I would review by posting my final paper for that class, a reflection on [you guessed it] the role of the Bible in ministry’. Enjoy.

This course has sought to explore the significance of the Bible for the practice of ministry, with input from leading scholars in the fields of Systematic Theology, New Testament studies, Practical Theology, and Christian Ethics. The purpose of this final paper is to reflect on the role of the Bible in Ministry, specifically in relation to how we are to read, interpret and participate in God’s Word.

The opening weeks of the course were spent examining John Webster’s book, Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch. Highly influenced by the likes of Karl Barth and John Calvin, Webster presents a view of the Bible wherein the reader is called to take the Word very seriously, and to allow it to interrupt and even disrupt their lives. In our reading of Webster, we discussed issues revolving around the topic of scriptural inspiration, inerrancy and infallibility, and the modern tendency to use the Bible as a text that reveals propositional truths and historical data that must be upheld to be literally true. It is a question of seeing the Bible as prescriptive rather than descriptive. The inherent problem with this position is that the question of whether the Bible is true or not dictates and defines how we read the text, how we view and think about God, and ultimately how we engage in ministry.

Webster would argue that we ought to begin by maintaining not that the text is inspired and infallible, but that God, who reveals himself through the Bible, is the One who inspires. Therefore, we should approach the Bible as a text through which God reveals God’s self, not allowing our ministry to be defined by the worshipping of and strict adherence to the text itself, but rather by trust, worship and obedience in relation to the God that the text reveals. In relation to ministry, therefore, the Bible must be read as an account of God’s self-revealing work in creation, as a text that must be interpreted in context and as a story that demands active participation.

In terms of reading the Bible, then, we examined several essays through which it became clear that, for the purpose of ministry, a more communal and narrative mode of reading is necessary. Modern modes of reading have encourage individuals to examine the text on their own in search of certainty and fact, that which can be applied to daily living and held onto in the face of immediate and imminent personal experience. As readings by George Lindbeck and Stanley Hauerwas reminded us, however, we are to approach the Bible as an all-embracing story of the past and present dealings of the triune God with his creation and his people. Through this mode of reading, there will be a renewed sense of our place within the text, and how it is to be read and lived out within the context of our specific communities.

Jonathan Boyarin’s “Voices Around The Text” raised the question in regards to what we are doing when we gather to read scripture – do we simply recite pre-conceived answers and generally accepted interpretations, or do we wrestle with the text to uncover something fresh in relation to how the text shapes and transform not only our lives, but our communities and the world as a whole? This, of course, presupposes that this kind of reading is included within the scope of ministry, and I would suggest that it is indeed vital to gather together to engage in the communal reading of the Bible. On a very basic level, then, the role of the Bible in ministry is that it must be read, and read in such as a way that the Messenger, and not our assumptions about the message, is central. While this would seem to be glaringly obvious, it is possible to become so familiar with the text, and with what are perceived to be the generally accepted interpretations of the text, that we cease to take the time to read it as though it continues to speak in new and dynamic ways. This we must do in order to engage in any form of meaningful ministry.

A key statement in regards to reading and interpreting the Bible in community comes from the Fowl and Jones article entitled “Reading in Communion”, where they assert the following: “we need to participate in the friendships and practices of Christian communities in order to become wise readers of Scripture who can link the words we use with the Word whom we follow” (Fowl and Jones 34). Central to ministry, then, must be this process of communal reading and interpretation with a view not only to uncovering the meaning of the text and how to apply it, but ultimately to come to know God as revealed in Scripture.

Why is this communal reading so important? There is no denying the reality that all readers of the Bible approach the text from different backgrounds and specific perspectives or lenses that influence how they read and interpret it. To read in community allows not only for the opportunity to wrestle with and interrogate the text, but also to be interrogated by Scripture so that we may “be constantly reforming the preconceptions we inevitably bring to interpretation” (Fowl and Jones 42). The activity of reading in community exposes us to different perspectives that can reframe how we interpret and embody the Bible. This is not to suggest that hermeneutical problems that arise through individual reading and interpretation are avoided through this more communal approach – surely communities can have different or even opposing interpretations in the same way that individuals can. However, if faith communities begin to see the Bible as the primary place wherein we discover the story that informs who we are to be, the focus can be removed from whether or not we agree with one another to whether or not we are becoming more loving people in the process. This process of reading interpreting Scripture, therefore, is a difficult task in that it involves “a lifelong process of learning to become a wise reader of Scripture capable of embodying that reading in life” (Fowl and Jones 29). This kind of process demands the kind of accountability that can only come from community, an accountability that prompts us not only to become wise readers, but readers who attempt to lovingly engage in the task of embodying the text in life.

This brings us finally to a third aspect of the role of the Bible in ministry, namely that the text invites and even demands active participation on the part of those involved in the reading and interpretation of Scripture. This is the ‘so what?’ component of the Bible in ministry. If we begin to understand that the Bible is a descriptive book as opposed to prescriptive, a book that is meant to be read and interpreted together as an account of God’s self-revealing work in and through his creation, then one cannot avoid seeing the Bible as a book that is meant to interrupt and even disrupt our lives – it demands a response.

To refer again to Stanley Hauerwas and the reading entitled “Jesus: The Story of the Kingdom”, the purpose of reading and interpreting the Bible is so that the church may become “the kind of community that tells and tells rightly the story of Jesus” (Hauerwas, 52). As we learn to understand Jesus’ story, and the grander story of God at work in and through creation, we learn how to live out our own stories with a view to embodying the redemptive work of God in the world around us; participation in the story is what is most important, not finding the meaning of or explanation for it. According to Leonardo Boff and Clodovis Boff, if the church is to take the Bible seriously, personal contact with the poor and marginalized cannot be avoided. Jesus himself understood Scripture in a way that proclaimed good news to the poor; this was his understanding of the Bible in ministry, and this too must be the approach of all those who wish to participate in his story today.

While much more can be said about the role of the Bible in ministry – specifically in relation to Andrew Clarke’s work on church structure – a reasonable and necessary starting point is a clear view of the importance of reading and interpreting the Bible in community with a view to embodied participation in the story of Scripture. A link must be made between the words we read and the Word that we are called to follow, not with an emphasis on explanation but rather on application; this can be achieved through the communal practice of wrestling with the Bible to gain a better understanding of the nature of the text itself, and to uncover something fresh in relation to how the text shapes and transform not only our lives, but our communities and the world as a whole.

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