When I was a pastor in the 1970s, I introduced my congregation to the Serendipity Bible study materials. Small-groups pioneer Lyman Coleman had created exercises that used the Bible as an aid to "self-discovery" and "creative expression." It was radical stuff.

The groups in my church were used to reading through lists of key texts in order to learn how to explain our church's doctrines. The new study materials were intensely personal. They demanded existential engagement. Unfortunately, they lacked a reference point beyond the self.

It was an adjustment for people who weren't used to being asked what they felt about a Bible passage. They expected an assemblage of scriptural data. Instead, they got an exercise in "encounter."

I expected some resistance, but as I introduced the new approach (which, I believe, had us use paper plates and crayons), one of the older saints became almost embarrassingly enthusiastic. Her response effectively granted permission to everyone else.

Self-Focused Spirituality

Like the members of my congregation, the late theologian Robert Webber had been taught to mine the Bible for doctrinal facts.

This intellectual spirituality colored every aspect of Bob's Christianity, including his way of reading the Bible. He eventually came to realize that "an intellectual spirituality is situated not in God's story, but in my knowledge about God's story …. This quest to know God through the mind was just another self-focused spirituality." When he realized that narcissistic potential, Bob headed in a different direction: to the early church and its typological way of understanding Scripture.

The early church was as thoroughly convinced of the Bible's historical reliability as modern evangelicals are. Yet, thought Bob, those Christians were in better tune with the way the Bible tells its own story: focusing on images that reveal the repeated patterns of God's activity.

The more that Bob concentrated on the grammatical, cultural, and historical facts connected to the text, the more remote God became for him. "When the cognitive aspect of the person dominates the symbolic side, a vital part of humanity is neglected and the human spirit is squelched." We need to recover the use of image, symbol, and metaphor in the church, but that doesn't mean that we must start from scratch with only ourselves as reference points. The images are there. And the church fathers can open our eyes to them.

Bob turned especially to Irenaeus, the second-century foe of Gnostic heresy. Irenaeus offered three typologies through which the Bible tells its own story: creation and recreation; the first Adam and the second Adam; the Exodus event and the Christ event. I mention these because it is not unusual to hear that if we follow the church fathers' approach to Scripture, there is no limit to our use of imagination in interpretation. But there were limits: for the most part, the Fathers' interpretations are centered on Christ and his Cross.

The church fathers focused on the images that reveal the repeated patterns of God's activity.

Here's an example that goes beyond the plain sense of the text, but which stresses Christ's work on our behalf. Augustine (354-430) wrote about the boat that carried Jesus' disciples across a stormy lake. Jesus walked on the water, he said, to show there was a way. But the disciples, who could not walk on water, needed a wooden boat. The wood of the cross, said Augustine, is like the wood of the boat. Jesus shows us that he himself is the way to the homeland, but "there is no way to cross over to the homeland unless you are carried by the wood."

This simple analogy is pictorial and evocative. By translating the wood of the boat into the wood of the cross, Augustine transformed it from something that I as one soul might cling to into something that we as a church ride in together. There's wisdom there.

At a time when many of our biblical scholars have essentially become historians, it is important to recover a theological way of reading Scripture. It is important to study the text in its cultural and literary milieu, but such study can easily stop short of helping us hear and respond to God's Word as God's message about God's saving acts.

In November, to inaugurate Wheaton College's new Center for Early Christian Studies, premier patristics scholar Robert Louis Wilken gave a lecture on how the Fathers read Scripture. Wilken, briefly: The books of Scripture do not bear their own significance. They must be united to something greater, which is Christ. The Fathers also understood the interpretation of Scripture to require the reader's participation in the spiritual reality of the text. Thus, it is not enough to say that Christ was crucified. We must also say, "I am crucified with Christ," and thus also, "I am raised with Christ."

Ironically, encouraging us to be participants in the biblical story is what Lyman Coleman had in mind. The Fathers can help us do that without the same temptations to spiritual narcissism.

Related Elsewhere:

Previous articles on studying the Bible include:

Finding Meaning in the Pentateuch | Powerful endorsements bolster John Sailhamer's new tome on the Bible's first five books. (January 11, 2009)
Year of the Study Bible | Christian publishers struck the right chord in 2008. (April 1, 2009)
The Beginning of Education | The new Bible Literacy Project curriculum is impressive—as far as it is able to go. (October 7, 2005)

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Past Imperfect
David Neff
David Neff was editor in chief of Christianity Today, where he worked from 1985 until his retirement in 2013. He is also the former editor in chief of Christian History magazine, and continues to explore the intersection of history and current events in his bimonthly column, "Past Imperfect." His earlier column, "Editor's Bookshelf," ran from 2002 to 2004 and paired Neff's reviews of thought-provoking books and interviews with the authors.
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