Thursday, 30 June 2011

Six of the Best 8: Books on the King James Bible

This is the eighth in an occasional series of ‘Six of the Best’ books in a particular area related to engaging with Scripture which are first posted on the website of the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity. This one looks at books on biblical interpretation written at an intermediate level.

Half-way through 2011 – the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Bible – it’s worth taking stock of some of the best of the books that have come out (or have been reissued) which tell the story behind the so-called ‘authorised’ version of the Bible and explore its influence on subsequent history and culture. Other good and helpful treatments of this topic have been published, and still others will doubtless appear during the remainder of the year, meaning it will be worthwhile revisiting ‘books on the King James Bible’ in six months time. Watch this space. Meanwhile...

Benson Bobrick, Wide as the Waters: The Story of the English Bible and the Revolution It Inspired (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001, reissued 2010).

Focusing on the period between the European Reformation and the American Revolution, Bobrick argues that the translation of the Bible into the English vernacular sparked a popular social revolution, helping kickstart the birth of modern democracy – first in England, and then later in America. The democratisation of a translated Bible was itself significant, and Scripture was seen to be on the side of those who demanded the rights of the individual in matters of governance.

Gordon Campbell, Bible: The Story of the King James Version 1611-2011 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).

A full but concise sweep, with a reasonably generous smattering of illustrations, through the history of the King James Bible from its beginnings in Wycliffe and Tyndale through its reception and adaptation across the centuries to the present day.

David Crystal, Begat: The King James Bible and the English Language (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).

Vestiges of the influence of the King James Bible on the English language are seen in the continued use of phrases like ‘lamb to the slaughter’, ‘my brother’s keeper’, ‘as old as the hills’, ‘written in stone’, ‘sour grapes’, etc. In this engaging and illuminating study, David Crystal counts 257 of them, showing how the Bible ‘begat’ such phrases in the English language – now found in newspaper headlines, TV sitcoms, song lyrics, and book titles.

Alister E. McGrath, In the Beginning: The Story of the King James Bible and How it Changed a Nation, a Language and a Culture (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2001, reissued).

A clear and accessible account of events leading up to the publication of the KJV in 1611 and its influence on subsequent generations.

Adam Nicolson, When God Spoke English: The Making of the King James Bible (London: HarperCollins, 2011).

This was first published in 2003 as Power and Glory: Jacobean England and the Making of the King James Bible, and subsequently as God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible, before the arrival of this reissue. A bit wordy, perhaps, but Nicolson is clearly a fan of the language and style of the King James Bible, and an enthusiastic teller of its story against the backdrop of seventeenth-century England.

Derek Wilson, The People’s Bible: The Remarkable History of the King James Version (Oxford: Lion Hudson, 2010).

A highly readable historical sketch, from the decree of the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 that ‘the secret mysteries of the faith should not be explained to all men in all places’ to the NIV of more recent times.

Previous entries in this series:

Books for beginners on interpreting the Bible

Books on biblical themes

Books on biblical worldview formation

Books on the biblical story

Books on the biblical genres

Books on preaching biblical genres

Books on biblical interpretation at an intermediate level

International Bulletin of Missionary Research 35, 3 (July 2011) on Mission and the Care of Creation

In addition to some interesting-looking articles, including one on David Bosch’s missional hermeneutic, July 2001’s issue of International Bulletin of Missionary Research (available here, via a free subscription) carries three main articles on mission and the care of creation:

Dana L. Robert

Historical Trends in Missions and Earth Care

M.L. Daneel

Christian Mission and Earth-Care: An African Case Study

Craig Sorley

Christ, Creation Stewardship, and Missions: How Discipleship into a Biblical Worldview on Environmental Stewardship Can Transform People and Their Land

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Richard J. Mouw on Abraham Kuyper

Richard J. Mouw, Abraham Kuyper: A Short and Personal Introduction (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011), 148pp., ISBN: 9780802866035.

No surprise that I’ve ordered this book, being something of a fan of both Richard Mouw and Abraham Kuyper...

Richard Mouw is President of Fuller Theological Seminary; Abraham Kupyer (1837-1920) was a Dutch politician, journalist, statesman, theologian, and more besides.

Eerdmans make available an excerpt of the book here. The book itself comes in two parts: (1) Kuyper on Theology and Culture: An Overview, and (2) Kuyper for the Twenty-First Century.

In the Introduction, Mouw provides some autobiographical background for his interest in Kuyper, noting this:

‘In Kuyper’s robust Calvinism I discovered what I had been looking for: a vision of active involvement in public life that would allow me to steer my way between a privatized evangelicalism on the one hand and the liberal Protestant or Catholic approaches to public discipleship on the other hand. I have attempted to walk in this way ever since’ (ix).

He notes the renaissance of interest in Kuyper, even beyond circles of Reformed theology, and he hopes that Kuyper might help evangelicals develop a ‘coherent theological-philosophical perspective on our efforts to influence the policies and practices of the larger society’ (xi).

Over at ‘Hearts & Minds Books’, Byron Borger (also a fan of Mouw and Kuyper) provides a lengthy and largely autobiographical perspective on the subject matter of the book.

Mouw also kicks off a series of posts on Kuyper at Cardus, which hopes to ‘explore how Kuyper's vision and the neocalvinist movement he inspired can offer the church an alternative way of engaging with cultural issues as diverse as racial relations, youth ministry, personal piety, sports, work, and more’.

Christian Witness in a Multi-Religious World

The World Evangelical Alliance (WEA), the World Council of Churches (WCC), and the Vatican’s Pontifical Council on Inter-religious Dialogue (PCID) have released what is being billed as ‘an historic document’ on the ethics of Christian mission – Christian Witness in a Multi-Religious World: Recommendations for Conduct (available here).

It is the result of a five-year collaboration of the WEA, WCC and the Vatican, who are together said to represent over 90 percent of the world’s total Christian population.

The document comes in three main parts:

• ‘A Basis for Christian Witness’ – laying out the biblical foundations for mission, asserting that Jesus is the example for Christians in witnessing to others, and outlining the church’s participation in God’s mission.

• ‘Principles’ – outlining 12 principles Christians are called to follow in witnessing to Christ in a manner consistent with the Gospel, including acting in God’s love, rejection of violence, mutual respect and solidarity.

• ‘Recommendations’ – to Christians, church bodies, mission organisations and agencies, including study of the document, building relationships of respect and trust with people of all religions, strengthening issues of identity and faith while at the same time deepening knowledge and understanding of different religions, advocating justice and respect for the common good, calling on governments and representatives to ensure religious freedom for all people, and praying for the well-being of neighbours.

The WEA also publish some comments from Geoff Tunnicliffe, Secretary General of the WEA, who claims that the document ‘is a valuable resource for church and ministry leaders for reflection and practice on how to best witness in ways faithful to the call of Christ and in line with the life and Spirit of Jesus’.

Clinton E. Arnold on Ephesians (1)

Clinton E. Arnold, Ephesians, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010), 538pp., ISBN 9780310243731.

In recent years, Zondervan have started publishing a new commentary series – the Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament – which I anticipate becoming a significant and useful resource – especially for students and preachers/teachers of Scripture. Just four volumes are out so far – on James by Craig L. Blomberg and Mariam J. Kamell, on Galatians by Thomas R. Schreiner, on Matthew by Grant R. Osborne, and this one on Ephesians by Clinton E. Arnold, who also serves as the General Editor of the series. A further volume – on Luke by David Garland – is due out later this year.

I’ve used Schreiner on Galatians for a few small writing projects, but I’ve read more of this one on Ephesians by Clinton Arnold for my contributions to a recent preaching series at my home church and for producing discussion starters for a house group.

During my Masters course in 1990-1991, we spent half an academic year in a New Testament exegesis module working our way through Ephesians. At that stage, the published version of Clinton Arnold’s PhD thesis was not long out – Ephesians: Power and Magic: The Concept of Power in Ephesians in Light of Its Historical Setting, SNTSMS 63 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989) – and it was hard not to be persuaded by his central thesis of the significance of the likely cultural setting of first-century Ephesus and western Asia Minor for understanding the major theme in Ephesians of the power of God over all principalities and powers. Even in his thesis, Arnold was careful to note it wasn’t the only theme, but (for us students, at least) it seemed to illuminate passage after passage.

So, it’s nice to come back to Arnold on Ephesians in this mode. And it’s been a rich experience. From my perspective, the commentary is shot through with a warm devotion, in the very best sense – for people, for the text of Scripture, and for the God who speaks to us through it.

In a few subsequent posts, I’ll say more about the format of the ZECNT series and some more about Arnold’s position on introductory matters. Meanwhile, if you’re doing any work on Ephesians, this one comes with my hearty recommendation.

Saturday, 25 June 2011

Matthew Lee Anderson on the Human Body

Q Ideas posts a nice short piece from Matthew Lee Anderson on ‘The Human Body and the Limits of Technology’.

‘The heartbeat of Christian theology is person and work of Jesus, who demonstrated his own love and gracious acceptance of our bodies through taking one on, dying for it and rising again in the same body. The good news of our salvation holds out the promise that our bodies, as much as our souls, will be re-made according to the pattern of Christ’s salvation through the empowering presence of the Spirit. Rather than bodily transformation through quantification or hacking, the Gospel makes possible transformation by grace, the gift of God himself to our bodies, for our bodies.

Friday, 24 June 2011

Pauline Croft and Mark Noll on the King James Version

There are two nice articles on the King James Bible in the latest edition of Theology – 114, 4 (2011) – currently with a free trial period.

Pauline Croft

The Emergence of the King James Version of the Bible, 1611

In 2011 we celebrate the four-hundredth anniversary of the publication in 1611 of the King James Version of the Bible. It is by far the best-known of all Bible translations, still used worldwide. In 1604 at the Hampton Court Conference, the more puritan wing of the Church of England pressed King James I to reform various ecclesiastical practices which they saw as abuses. He refused but agreed that there should be a new Bible translation. The article discusses this key event and traces the background, from Anglo-Saxon translations to the Reformation scholarship of men such as Tyndale and Coverdale, who used the new technology of printing to make Scripture widely available to those who knew no Latin or Greek. The process culminated in 1611 with the King James Bible, an exceptionally scholarly and readable version, at a time when expanding literacy allowed far more people to read the Scriptures for themselves.

Mark A. Noll

William Jennings Bryan, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and the King James Version of the Bible

During 1911 three of the United States’ leading statesmen (Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and William Jennings Bryan) delivered lengthy speeches to commemorate the tercentenary of the King James Bible. While all three emphasized this Bible’s important contribution to American democratic ideals, Bryan also stressed the Bible’s role in revealing Jesus Christ as ‘Son of God and Saviour of Mankind’. Shades of difference in how these leaders spoke of the Bible and in how their careers promoted progressive politics suggests the range of meanings to which the King James Version has been put in American history.

Global Survey of Evangelical Protestant Leaders

This will make for interesting reading...

Danut Manastireanu links to the news that the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life conducted a survey of participants in the Third Lausanne Congress of World Evangelization, and the results have now now published. The executive summary is here and the full report (118 pages, 1.6 MB pdf) is here.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

Lectio Continua Commentary Series

Yet another new commentary series is on its way, with the first volume planned for February 2012. This one comes from a self-consciously Reformed stance, with a commitment to systematic expository preaching.

‘The Lectio Continua Expository Commentary on the New Testament is a new exegetical commentary series published by Tolle Lege Press. The series will be authored by sixteen ministers from five countries representing ten different Reformed denominations. The Lectio Continua Expository Commentary seeks to be rigorously exegetical, God-centered, redemptive-historical, sin-exposing, Gospel-trumpeting and teeming with practical application.’

Miroslav Volf on a Public Faith

Miroslav Volf, A Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good (Grand Rapids: Brazos, forthcoming 2011), 192pp., ISBN 9781587432989.

My link of a few days ago to Volf’s ‘Soft Difference’ article was really a set up for a post on this forthcoming book from him. Having read the article a few times over the years since it first appeared, I have wondered whether he would ever provide a fuller, worked-through, applied treatment. This book may or may not be that hoped-for work, but I’m looking forward to it all the same.

The publishers make available a pdf excerpt here, which includes the Table of Contents, Introduction, and Chapter 1.

Volf begins the Introduction by noting the debates about the role of religion in public life, drawing attention to the numerical growth of religions and the unwillingness on the part of religious people ‘to keep their convictions and practices limited to the private sphere of family or religious community’, as well as their aim ‘to shape public life according to their own vision of the good life’ (ix).

As it should be, according to Volf:

‘Unlike those who think religion should stay out of politics, I will argue in this book that religious people ought to be free to bring their visions of the good life into the public sphere – into politics as well as other aspects of public life’ (x).

He notes the views of of Sayyid Qutb, a significant representative of ‘religious totalitarianism’ of the radical, militant Islam sort, but says:

‘The position that I myself will advocate in this book will be an alternative both to the secular total exclusion of all religions from public life and to Qutb’s total saturation of public life with a single religion’ (xi).

I find that distinction helpful... neither ‘total exclusion’ nor ‘total saturation’...

It’s a position Volf designates as ‘religious political pluralism’ (xi), ‘a vision of the role of the followers of Jesus Christ in public life, a role that stays clear of the dangers of both “exclusion” and “saturation”’ (xiv).

Mentioning H. Richard Niebuhr’s fivefold typology in Christ and Culture, he notes (as many others have done) that ‘the actual representatives of these five stances toward culture are less clear-cut and tend to combine elements from more than one category’ (xv).

‘My contention in this book is that there is no single way in which Christian faith relates and ought to relate to culture as a whole... The relation between faith and culture is too complex for that. Faith stands in opposition to some elements of culture and is detached from others. In some aspects faith is identical with elements of culture, and it seeks to transform in diverse ways yet many more. Moreover, faith’s stance toward culture changes over time as culture changes. How, then, is the stance of faith toward culture defined? It is – or it ought to be – defined by the center of the faith itself, by its relation to Christ as the divine Word incarnate and the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’ (xv).

His Introduction closes with six points on the relation of the ‘center of the Christian faith’ to the broader culture (xv-xvi):

• ‘Christ is God’s Word and God’s Lamb, come into the world for the good of all people, who are all God’s creatures and loved by God.’

• ‘Christ came to redeem the world by preaching, actively helping people, and dying a criminal’s death on behalf of the ungodly. In all aspects of his work, he was a bringer of grace.’

• ‘A vision of human flourishing and the common good is the main thing the Christian faith brings into the public debate.’

• ‘[T]he proper stance of Christians toward the larger culture cannot be that of unmitigated opposition or whole-scale transformation. A much more complex attitude is required...’

• ‘The way Christians work toward human flourishing is not by imposing on others their vision of human flourishing and the common good but by bearing witness to Christ, who embodies the good life.’

• ‘Christ has not come with a blueprint for political arrangements; many kinds of political arrangements are compatible with the Christian faith’, and Christians are to ‘grant to other religious communities the same religious and political freedoms that they claim for themselves’.

Friday, 17 June 2011

Horizons in Biblical Theology 33, 1 (2011)

The latest Horizons in Biblical Theology is out, with the contents and abstracts as below. According to Greene-McCreight’s editorial, four of the articles (Bockmuehl, Wagner, Kaminsky, and Lohr) were originally presented as papers at the 2009 Society of Biblical Literature Annual Conference for a session organized by the ‘Christian Theology and the Bible’ group. The title of the session was ‘Universalisms and Particularisms in Judaism and Christianity’.

Kathryn Greene-McCreight

Particularities and Universalities

Markus Bockmuehl

The Trouble with the Inclusive Jesus

In the long-standing debate between universalist and particularist interpretations of Jesus, recent years have witnessed the relentless rise of the idea that his was a socially radical and subversive gospel ahead of its time, fully in keeping with contemporary cultural agendas of “inclusion” or “inclusiveness”. The present study attempts to contextualize this “inclusive Jesus” within New Testament studies by means of three angles of approach: (1) recent work on the “inclusive”ethics of Jesus, (2) Jacob Neusner’s critique of New Testament scholarship on Jewish particularism and Christian universalism, and (3) the reception in current debate of Joachim Jeremias’ interpretation of Jesus’ view of Gentiles. In view of the overwhelming evidence that Jesus was “inclusive” as well as “exclusive” in both theology and praxis, Concluding Observations stress the location of this problem within a wider understanding of the biblical view of Election, and identify the Israelite particularity of Jesus as essential to his mission on behalf of Israel as well as the nations.

Joel N. Lohr

Taming the Untamable: Christian Attempts to Make Israel’s Election Universal

In this essay, the author suggests that contemporary ways of thinking about exclusion and particularism have profoundly affected contemporary interpretations of the Bible, both Old and New Testaments. This, the author suggests, becomes particularly evident when looking at the issue of Israel’s election. Through an examination of the theological interpretations of two evangelical Christian commentators on Deuteronomy, Christopher Wright and Gordon McConville, the author argues that each interpreter, to varying degrees, inappropriately reads a universal agenda into Deuteronomy in the service of Christian theology. The author maintains that a better approach is to accept the exclusive, particularistic nature of Deuteronomy (and of the Old Testament more generally) and to acknowledge that although a universal trajectory may be observed in the Bible overall, it should not be achieved through skewed readings of Deuteronomy, or at the cost of Israel’s irrevocable – and thus enduring – election.

Joel S. Kaminsky

Election Theology and the Problem of Universalism

This essay critiques the widespread tendencies to assume that universalism is always progressive while particularism is always regressive and that the Bible over time moves away from an intolerant particularism toward a tolerant universalism. In the course of the study, one comes to see that utilizing these binary modern categories often impedes one’s ability to understand the text in its own context. The author concludes by arguing that the Bible’s election theology provides evidence that universalism arose not through a waning of Israel’s sense of her self identity as God’s chosen people, but rather through Israel’s ever deepening reflection on the meaning and significance of her elect status.

J. Ross Wagner

Baptism “Into Christ Jesus” and the Question of Universalism in Paul

This essay adopts Paul’s occasional theological reflections on the concrete social practice of baptism as a vantage point from which to investigate the question of universalism in the apostle’s thought, examining passages from 1 Corinthians, Galatians, Romans, and Colossians. In these texts, Paul variously conceptualizes salvation as incorporation into “the one body of Christ”; “the seed of Abraham”; “the children of God”; or “the new humanity,” whose representative is Christ, the last Adam. Despite the different metaphors, it is clear in each case that it is the singular identity of the man Jesus Christ that is determinative for the collective identity of redeemed humanity; it is precisely – and only – with respect to union with him that diverse human beings become “one.” The essay concludes by considering briefly the implications of Paul’s christologically determined anthropology for the question of universal salvation and for the idea of the enduring election of Israel as God’s peculiar possession.

Benjamin Mangrum

Bringing “Fullness” to Naomi: Centripetal Nationalism in The Book of Ruth

Many interpretations of the Book of Ruth read the relationship between the Judean woman and her Moabitess daughter-in-law as the expression of an inclusive school of thought within Israel’s attempts to define itself. The foreigner, in this view, becomes accepted into the covenant people of God, demonstrating Israel’s multi-ethnic horizons and Yahweh’s universal concern. Yet this essay uncovers the presence of an ideological subtext undergirding the narrative: the nations, represented in the character of Ruth, are the means for Judah’s exaltation – an ideological position that I expose through a literary reading of the narrative. This reading has concomitant implications for the book’s Sitz-im-Leben. This article focuses primarily on two episodes in the narrative, 3:14-18 and 4:13-17, exposing the underlying centripetal ideology that anticipates the restoration and exaltation of Judah through the gifts (or “fullness”) brought in by the nations.

Thursday, 16 June 2011


Anvil – ‘an Anglican Evangelical journal for theology and mission’ – has been relaunched as an online journal.

New material is available for free (following a pain-free registration process), and in time it is hoped that the whole Anvil archive will be available online.

According to the website:

‘Anvil is an Anglican evangelical journal of theology and mission. It aims to encourage clear and creative thinking and practice in theology and mission, through open, scholarly debate. While the journal stands clearly in an Anglican evangelical tradition, it seeks to engage constructively with other other Christian traditions both within and beyond the Anglican Communion. Anvil has a particular concern to reflect the unity and diversity of the church worldwide.’

Issue 27, 1 (2011) is available here. In addition to book reviews, it contains the following articles on the theme of ‘Fresh Expressions’:

Jonny Baker

Curating Worship

Drawing on many years involvement in ‘alternative worship’ and in particular on interviews for his recent book Curating Worship, Jonny Baker offers reflections on worship as curation and highlights a number of key themes arising from this creative liturgical and missional movement that are of value for the wider church.

Graham Cray

For the Parish by Andrew Davison and Alison Milbank – A Response

In their recent book, For the Parish, Andrew Davison and Alison Milbank offer a strong critique of Fresh Expressions and Mission-Shaped Church. In this response, Bishop Graham Cray highlights and responds to six of their criticisms, arguing they seriously mislead and misrepresent both the report and Fresh Expressions. He identifies contrasting approaches to the gospel and culture as underlying many of the differences before noting three areas of shared concerns.

George Lings

Evaluating Fresh Expressions of Church

One of the big questions we face today, particularly in relation to Fresh Expressions, is what we mean by ‘church’. In this article George Lings provides us with an overview and some critique of a number of existing lists and criteria on offer to evaluate church. He then explores in more detail the additional question of what it means for a church to be Christian, offering four distinctive characteristics. Finally, he critically explores the deeper question of our image of church and tracks four paradigm changes in this over recent years before concluding with a reflection on how the interpersonal paradigm can combine with the distinctively Christian features of church to assist in evaluating fresh expressions.

Eleanor Williams

Urban Fresh Expressions: Sustainability in the Mixed Economy

Drawing on parish experience and on research interviews conducted in preparation for a written project on the viability of Fresh Expressions of Church in urban deprived settings, Eleanor Williams surveys the findings of the research, drawing out key insights. She concludes by raising some challenging questions about the sustainability of new forms of church at the margins of society, and the meaning of the concept of ‘mixed economy’.

Select articles from earlier issues of Anvil are available here.

Tim Keller on Family

QIdeas reposts a short piece by Tim Keller – ‘Three Ways With Families’ – in which he writes about the declining interest in family in secularism alongside the idolatry of the family in traditional religion.

He draws fairly heavily on one of my favourite pieces from Stanley Hauerwas, which reminds us that Christians ‘do not place their hope in their children, but rather their children are a sign of their hope... that God has not abandoned this world’ (Hauerwas, Community of Character, 191).

Keller writes:

‘The gospel-based community practices a view of family that is contrary both to the cultural idols of secular and traditional societies. The gospel frees singles from the shame of being unmarried they find in conservative cultures. Their truest identity is in Christ and their assured future hope is the kingdom of God. Even bearing children, in the Christian view, is merely nurturing more lives for the family of God. That can be done in other ways than the biological. On the other hand, the gospel gives us the hope and strength for the sacrifices of marriage and parenthood that is lacking in liberal cultures. Christians grasp that they were only brought to life because of Jesus’ radical sacrifice of his independence and power. We know that children are only brought to life and self-sufficiency if their parents sacrifice much of their independence and power. In light of the cross, it is the least we can do.’

David Instone-Brewer on Genesis 11:1-9

David Instone-Brewer, senior research fellow at Tyndale House, Cambridge, is writing a series on ‘Embarrassing Bible Texts?’ for Christianity. The one for July is devoted to Genesis 11:1-9, the tower of Babel.

On the question of whether God made everyone talk in different languages, he notes that ‘the text doesn’t say that any new languages were created at Babel. It says that ‘the Lord confused the language’ (11:9)’, that ‘there was still only one language, but the people couldn’t understand each other any more’. Moreover, he says, ‘there is no indication that this was a worldwide phenomenon, because the phrase translated “the whole earth” (Hebrew eretz) can also mean “the whole land”’.

In the closing paragraphs, he wonders whether ‘a modern equivalent of the Tower of Babel is humanity’s reuniting via the Internet’, concluding that ‘we have an important role to play in doing all we can to ensure that our unity doesn’t destroy us, but rather that it helps us understand and unite with each other and with God’.

Earlier contributions in the ‘Embarrassing Bible Texts?’ series are on Genesis 1, Genesis 3, and Genesis 6.

Living By the Book

[This has just been published as an article in EG 29 (June 2011), by the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity. I was asked to write a 1,500-word piece on Scripture as a disciple-forming text...]

‘Teach me, Lord, the way of your decrees,

that I may follow it to the end.

Give me understanding, so that I may keep your law

and obey it with all my heart.

Direct me in the path of your commands,

for there I find delight.’

Psalm 119:33-35

Christians are a people of the book – God’s word – and we want to live by the book. But how do we we do so, particularly when some parts of it seem obscure or irrelevant? How does Scripture speak to my life right now: with the annoying colleague at work or the needy child at home, in the checkout queue or on the sports field?

Alas, the greatest problem to be overcome might be ourselves. In Eat This Book, Eugene Peterson writes about the temptation to replace the triune God who reveals himself in Scripture with the unholy trinity of ‘my Holy Wants, my Holy Needs, and my Holy Feelings’. The potential danger in a desire to make Scripture ‘relevant’ is to make ourselves the centre around which it must spin; we become the primary focus rather than the God who speaks through it, the Spirit who inspired and illumines it, and the Christ to whom it witnesses.

As it happens, then, the most appropriate starting point for thinking about how Scripture ‘disciples’ us is not to look at ourselves but to begin with God himself.

Founded on Scripture

In the first place, Scripture is God’s word of the covenant. As the designations ‘Old Testament’ and ‘New Testament’ suggest, Scripture itself functions as a covenant document – that which ratifies the promises made by God and which regulates the faith and practice of the people of God. More than a mere vehicle for ‘information’ or ‘answers’, Scripture is bound up with God’s work of salvation in which the Spirit joins us together in one body, and through which God shapes us into the image of Christ. The Bible is not only a sign and seal of God’s commitment to us and to all creation, but that through which the covenant Lord speaks and acts – in word and in deed – as he makes promises, blesses, rebukes, commands, warns, and encourages us.

Secondly, Scripture is God’s word about Christ. God’s covenantal promises and acts come to their climax in Jesus. Jesus himself was clear that the Scriptures testify about him (John 5:39, 46-47); he expounds Scripture to the travellers on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35) in such a way to show he cannot be understood apart from the Old Testament and the Old Testament cannot be understood apart from him. Hence, a goal of our reading is to be a people whose lives are focused on the promises of God now fulfilled in Christ, the one who stands at the heart of the gospel. Scripture as the authoritative witness to Jesus is the authoritative word for the church’s life.

Third, then, Scripture is God’s word to the church. When we engage with Scripture, we don’t do so as isolated individuals but from the perspective of the believing community. The Protestant emphasis on the priesthood of all believers and the right of all to read Scripture for themselves was never intended to detract from the significance of the church or its tradition.

Belonging to the body of Christ has implications for how we read and appropriate Scripture today – locally (in our home churches), globally (with brothers and sisters in Christ around the world) and historically (in the light of those who have gone before us). It is in the community of faith that Scripture is preached and practised. Being discipled through Scripture, then, is bound up with prayer and worship, baptism and communion, as God works through his Spirit to build up the body of Christ.

Jonathan Leeman writes of God’s words ‘reverberating’ in the church – in preaching, prayers, music, conversations – and then beyond:

‘The church building doors should open and God’s words should echo out the doors, down the street, and into the members’ homes and workplaces. The reverberations of sound that began in the pulpit should eventually be bouncing off the walls in dining rooms, kitchens, and children’s bedrooms; off gymnasium walls, cubicle dividers, and the insides of city bus windows; through e-mails, text messages, and Internet pages.’

A covenant-focused, Christ-centred reading of Scripture forms the gathered community that is then sent into the world in his name. Dispersed during the week we testify, in word and deed, to the presence of God’s reign in the world, bearing witness to what God has done in Christ.

Formed by Scripture

So, the Bible is not merely a witness to how God has acted in the past, through Christ and for his people, but the means by which he relates to his people today, and through which he calls us to follow his way.

We see this clearly in Psalm 119, an extended payer. Like Psalm 1, Psalm 119 opens with the word ‘blessed’. As there, so here, the way of blessing is to ‘walk according to the law of the Lord... to walk in his ways’ (119:1). To walk with the Lord is to walk in step with his word. We don’t merely watch God from a distance; we follow in his way, the way of blessing.

But, lest we think this comes about by our achievement, the way of blessing is also a way of grace. The word ‘covenant’ isn’t used in Psalm 119, but it doesn’t need to be: the idea lies behind every verse. The key terms used for God’s word – laws, statutes, precepts, promises, etc. – all presuppose the covenant relationship made by God with his people. Life comes from the ‘unfailing love’ of the covenant Lord (119:41, 88, 149, 156, 159). Only because of his grace do we walk in his ways.

But the relationship founded on God’s covenant word is maintained through that same word. Line by line, he praises the Lord, makes requests, describes his trouble, confesses his sin, makes vows, asserts his trust – but always with the word of the Lord as the means by which the relationship is sustained and nurtured. Moments of lament, moments of struggle, moments of asking for leading, moments of love and commitment are worked out through the word, addressed to the Lord of the word.

Psalm 119 shows how the Psalmist seeks to become holy not merely by understanding Scripture, but by learning to walk a path, to have his affections and desires redirected, and to find delight in doing so. It’s not that isolated verses from the Torah are ‘applied’ or ‘made relevant’ to particular situations, but that the Psalmist is shaped by God’s word – in such a way that what is emphasised is the transformed character of the one reading.

As such, then, Psalm 119 – and the Psalms more generally – affect not only how we pray, but how we live. As we immerse ourselves in the atmosphere of the Psalms, and adopt to their climate, we familiarise ourselves with how God communicates through Scripture, and how Scripture ‘schools’ the lives of those who read it appropriately.

What is true of the Psalms is the case with other biblical genres too. Scripture ‘disciples’ us in how to think and feel and live: laws disclose his will for how we should relate to him and to each other, and how our life together should be ordered; narrative tells of his gracious plan being worked out through the ages and our part in it; wisdom shows what it is to fear him in all areas of life; prophecy challenges us to fulfil our responsibilities as his covenant people; gospels proclaim the centrality of Christ in his plan of redemption, providing a kingdom-and-cross-shaped pattern for living in the process of doing so; letters instruct those who are ‘in Christ’ to grow up in him as we serve each other and live in the world; apocalyptic trains us in how to hope as we look forward to the renewal of all things.

In all these ways and more, God himself – through Scripture – nurtures Christian identity and discipleship as we follow his word in faith and obedience. Reading Scripture as disciples, and being discipled by Scripture, is not about mastering a blueprint for life, let alone picking and choosing passages according to felt needs. What’s required is not merely competence in reading and handling biblical texts but the acquisition of virtuous habits that lie at the heart of good relationships sustained over time – trust of the other, careful listening, openness to challenge, willingness to change. In short, for disciples, reading Scripture is an act of love.

Further Reading

Christopher Ash, Bible Delight: Heartbeat of the Word of God (Fearn: Christian Focus, 2008).

Jonathan Leeman, Reverberation: How God’s Word Brings Light, Freedom, and Action to His People (Chicago: Moody, 2011).

Eugene H. Peterson, Eat This Book: The Art of Spiritual Reading (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2006).

Timothy Ward, Words of Life: Scripture as the Living and Active Word of God (Nottingham: IVP, 2009).

Daniel Gover on the Archbishop of Canterbury in Contemporary English Politics

Daniel Gover, Turbulent Priests? The Archbishop of Canterbury in Contemporary English Politics (London: Theos, 2011).

Commenting on the Archbishop of Canterbury’s recent well-publicised guest editorial in New Statesman, Paul Bickley of Theos writes:

‘[I]f Rowan Williams’ editorial is a “sustained attack” on anything, it is on an impoverished political culture as a whole, where radical solutions are being pursued outside of proper political debate – and, crucially, of opposition... There is, in all this, a peculiar assurance for the Church of England which, though established, has evidently not been made captive to the interests of the state as some like to claim. The Church remains eminently capable of voicing the “fear and anger” of the ordinary man on the street. It is not, as detractors of establishment would imply, simply a source of civil religion and legitimation for whatever policy is either necessary or appealing.’

At the same time, Theos announced the publication of a new substantial report by Daniel Gover – Turbulent Priests? The Archbishop of Canterbury in Contemporary English Politics – examining the political interventions of Rowan Williams, George Carey and Robert Runcie since 1979.

Based on research carried out for his MPhil dissertation, Gover covers issues ‘as wide ranging as asylum, criminal justice, military conflict and church schools’, seeking to answer the question: ‘does the Archbishop of Canterbury contribute a moral voice in support of the common good that is much needed in contemporary British politics?’