Jared Witt l February 5, 2019
Reading the Bible is NOT the thing itself.
Prayer is the thing itself.
Caring for those in need is the thing itself.
Generosity is the thing itself.
Hope for the world is the thing itself.
Forgiving enemies is the thing itself.
Worship is the thing itself.
But the Bible is NOT the thing itself.
When you hear the way many modern Christians talk about their Bible—their Bible studies, their interpretations, their leather bound heavily annotated Bibles themselves, it’s clear that many believe reading the Bible to be synonymous with the Christian life itself.
That this is not and was never intended to be the case can be demonstrated as there was no such thing as a New Testament for over three centuries after the life of Jesus. And virtually no one owned or had access to a Bible, give or take, let’s say sometime well after 1439 AD when the printing press was invented, and it no longer cost a kajillion dollars in vellum and a room full of professional scribes working day and night to hand print a single copy.
Before that, a person’s sole exposure to the Bible would’ve been in small tidbits bouncing off of a cathedral wall in a language they didn’t understand.
How rare was it for someone to even touch, let alone read, a Bible in his or her lifetime? One time Constantine, the emperor of the entire Byzantine Empire and the most powerful man in the world, ordered the making of fifty Bibles in 331 AD, and everyone hit the ceiling. Fifty!? How!?
First of all, only like three people in the entire empire could even count that high. Secondly, are you crazy? You want to tie up like 80 percent of our workforce in copying Bibles? Then who is going to make our ivory jewelry boxes or those little gold crosses to go in them?
Ok, I’m exaggerating a bit. There was probably like twenty or thirty people who could count that high (relax, I’m still joking, too soon?)
Why the history lesson? Because this means that if you say that reading the Bible is synonymous with the Christian life, you’re essentially saying that there were no Christians until 1439—which, hey everything has got to start somewhere, but I’m not quite willing to concede that.
Btw, if you ever make a theological declaration, and it seems like nonsense, just tracing it back to the first person who said that thing is a great way to deconstruct it. It gets pretty tough to maintain that we all have to just slavishly go along with an idea, when you can say, “Wait, some person just decided this at one point?”
I know of quite a few denominations, that I won’t name, in which it’s earnestly taught that there are no real Christians outside of themselves, which logically means that there was no such thing as a Christian until they, the denomination, were founded in the 1800s or what have you. Seriously.
You almost wonder if reading the Bible has become an easy and convenient stand in for the hard work of spiritual formation. Learning to love your mother-in-law in spite of her faults, to care for the Earth even when it seems futile, to suffer disappointment with graciousness, to forgive through the pain of broken relationships, to manage your fear of the other without turning to violence, these are lifelong challenges of the spiritually intentional person. And I wonder if these, the most difficult challenges a person can tackle in a lifetime, can all be pushed to the side, if I can just go to Bible study, find the “correct” interpretation to a passage in Galatians and go back to my typical Roman home, my typical Roman job, my typical Roman family, and my typical Roman life, confident that I’ve done my Christian-ing for the day.
The Bible is very helpful. It’s definitely time-tested. Authoritative for having stood the test of time. When read intelligently, it guides us in the thing itself. It is the central place to learn from the successes and failures of the saints who have gone before us. And most importantly, it tells us that “He is Risen,” worth the price of an NRSV even if that were the only line it contained.
But the Bible is not the thing itself.
Get on with the thing itself.
Cheers and Peace,
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