by Jonathan Parnell
Good Bible reading is about meaning and application. We come to the Bible asking two questions: first, what does this text say? And second, what does it mean for me right now?
What It Means
We ask the first question because God is real. The world exists because he created it. He is the originator and everything else the originated. And in this world he has made, meaning has meaning whether we know it or not. My one-year-old son doesn’t understand me when I say “I love you, buddy,” but I still do, and one day he’ll get it. Meaning is more like steel than clay: it stands strong despite the number of hands on it. Remember that in God’s economy “The Word became flesh,” not “Flesh conjured up the Word.” We have “seen his glory,” not pieced it together ourselves. God says things and they matter, and he’s done it this way before we had brains. So texts come before readers. “It is written” trumps “it means to me.”
Reading is discovery, not invention. Our eyes scarf down words to observe, not create. Isn’t it interesting how reading takes such a passive posture? Surely our brains are working hard, but we can’t see it. The posture is all about exposure. Just get the text in front of us. We examine. We mentally digest. Meanwhile, our hands don’t have to move. Our keyboards aren’t punched. We look at what’s there, hunched over symbols, bowed, as it were.
We know that there’s meaning in this text — in the Bible. There’s an inspired author who said it this way, not that, who intends for us to see what he sees, not whatever we want. Moreover, there is a divine author who has given us “divine eyes” so that we shed the scales of carnal preference and cultural pressure (1 Corinthians 2:12). We can’t make the text say what it doesn’t say — and why would we want to? Only one has “the words of eternal life” (John 6:68).
Therefore, we ask, “what does this text say?”
Why It Matters
But we don’t stop in discovering the meaning. Once we know what it says, we ask why it matters. These are not so much two different questions as they are Part 1 and Part 2 of the same. Meaning is determinate, as we’ve seen, but its power is not static. The word of God is living and active (Hebrews 4:12). Words, yes, but also voice. We read, of course, but we also must listen.
Anchored down in the text’s meaning, we cast our nets into the depths of our everyday. Something will be caught, something bound and swallowed up, something pulled in and harnessed according to the author’s will. We should expect no less. The Bible is, after all, for us. It isn’t by us (postmodern interpretations) and it isn’t about us (pop culture), but it isfor us. The Bible is by God, about God, for us. Or more particular, the Bible is God’s word about the God-man, Jesus Christ, given to us as the testimony of his salvation and script for our true identity. “Give me life according to your word!” (Psalm 119:25).
Because there is word and Spirit (Institutes, I.9), reading the Bible is more like breathing than mastering a body of knowledge. We inhale, not once a few years ago, but everyday. And we exhale, not a cerebral description of historical contexts, but how this text changes things now. We read illumined and walk transformed.
And the best way, it seems, to make these points is to model it. Which is what I hope to do in tomorrow’s post.