Brother Jonny has got me thinking about what I said in a previous post about commentaries. I was glad for Brother Jonny’s response because it caused me to consider the matter further. He enjoys reading commentaries — especially Puritan reflections — on the Scriptures. Personally I don’t read a lot of commentaries, devotionals, or “teaching” type Christian books, and have rarely looked into them, though I’ve been interested in the Bible for as long as I can remember. In the previous post, I was not being facetious when I wondered what is wrong with me, or what my problem is that a lot of extrabiblical texts just don’t seem to resonate much with me at this point in my life.
In my younger years I worked in a Christian bookstore in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware — where I eventually met my wife whom I nicknamed Sikki. The store wasn’t very busy as consumers even then — the mid-1990s — were turned on to the fact that it was cheaper to acquire Christian books, music and other resources through the mail, online, or even from Walmart. So during the copious downtime I was able to do a lot of reading, at least until I fell in love with Sikki and lost focus on reading very much. I scoped out the popular stuff, most of which was very disappointing material. I scoped out commentaries and devotional books. I learned what Bible study tools were available, and compared the different translations of the Bible. I listened to Christian music but also found a lot of that unsatisfying. I noticed that a lot of the best-selling materials were often ones that I considered distracting (at best) and even unsound (at worst).
I read the Journals of George Whitefield and a lot of other biographies and autobiographies. I read The Cloud of Unknowing from the Middle Ages. I read a lot of mystical stuff by Madame Guyon and Brother Lawrence. I bought a lot of books during this time, books by A.W. Tozer, E.M. Bounds, John Bunyan, the Wesley brothers, Augustine, and some contemporary works by James Dobson, David Wilkerson, Leonard Ravenhill, John Wright Follette, Wade Taylor, Watchman Nee, and many others. My childhood was sort of crazy although both of my parents were Christians, so I think in my youth I was really looking for help in how to live, like really what it means to live out a Christian faith and worldview. I didn’t want to be married and get a divorce. I didn’t want to be bound to destructive habits for my whole existence. Superseding everything else as a young man, as now, I was very hungry to know God and have a relationship with Him that wasn’t spooky or fake or rooted in imagination. I wanted to be a sheep that knew His voice and rightly handled the word of truth: the span of life is short, too short to miss the real thing.
Since that time, I have continued to read as much as I can, but I have noticed that the material to which I am drawn is not interpretive work, or sermonizing, but testimonial works that focus on application of Scriptural truth. In the past year, I have read works by James Sire, Alvin Plantinga, Dallas Willard, John of the Cross, Augustine, John Wright Follette, and N.T. Wright. But I would guess that these extrabiblical writings make up less than five percent of my total reading time. I am most interested in the Bible, because it is the only written work on Earth that is alive and inspired and capable of changing me and the world around me. I know there are great teachers and wonderful commentators, but I honestly do not feel a burden to try to read them all. God has not as yet granted me time or inclination to do that, but He has given me a clear sense of His expectation that I must labor in His Word. Eventually others’ words and mine will come to nothing, and all the created universe will be silent before the Lord who is in His holy temple. Until then my approach to the Bible is like Jacob’s wrestling with the angel: I am wounded and healed only by His voice and touch. Everything else to me is like Job’s statement in 42:5.
Here are a few reasons why I don’t feel it necessary to know everything every other believer has said about God’s Word:
- I don’t want to be overly influenced by others’ interpretation of the Bible. Sometimes other people’s viewpoints have been for me a kind of handicap or limiting factor to be overcome.
- For one thing, every time I approach a scriptural text, I try to read it as if I have never read it before. I purposefully resist “skipping ahead to the outcome” I know is coming in a story because I don’t want to miss the “process” of God that led to that outcome. The less spectacular and mundane details of faith are, I think, the most exciting buried treasures to discover in the Word of God.
- If I were to run to the commentaries first, I feel like when I read the Word I would be reading it with the commentator’s opinion in mind — his interpretation would limit me because I might consider the text “settled.” Growing up in church, I even had to pitch off some of the things I learned in Pentecostal traditions, or that my parents had taught me, because the Bible frankly had a different outlook. As much as possible I would rather have my heart to be a tabula rasa, a “blank slate” for the Holy Spirit to write upon, as Jesus said He would.
- I have purchased Bibles with headings and textual notes and even verse numbers removed so that I am not interrupted by even the translator’s opinion of what is going on. A couple of misnomers that come to mind that are often found in headings are things like “The Fall” in Genesis or Jesus’ encounter with “The Rich Young Ruler.” These headings offer misleading notions that aren’t found in the actual text, though the people who placed them there were probably highly educated students of the Bible.
- I have personally witnessed folks getting way off track and bringing countless problems into their lives because they heard erroneous teaching which gave them a false impression of what a life of faith means. (That is, they sent the last of their savings to a greedy, salon-slicked preacher who convinced them that this act of “faith” would bring the breakthrough they needed in their life. Or they heard some teaching that indicated that a Christian does not experience lack or suffering, unless he is hiding secret sin. Or that because Christ’s work is complete we therefore don’t have to do anything. Just to name a few.) So not knowing the Bible or what constitutes good doctrine can derail a person’s life. I’ve seen people turn their back on God because they placed faith in an uninspired human being’s interpretation of Scripture, rather than looking at the whole counsel of God’s Word. They never learned that their first effort should be to learn to hear from the Holy Spirit — to have the ear of the discipled — and seek His interpretation and application of the written Word into their flesh-and-bone existence. How can this reader or listener know whether the commentator or the preacher is speaking from the Book, unless he/she first knows the Book?
- The religious traditions of men tend to become calcified and hardened, even if their origin was in God at a specific time: the wheels keep spinning long after God has moved on. My thoughts run to Ezekiel 10 here, where the glory and presence of God keeps departing from the Temple and nobody notices and dead religious practice keeps going and going like the Energizer bunny. Throughout my life I have encountered rock-hard, cut-from-marble Christians who are so convinced that their tradition and viewpoint is the only “right” way they are basically useless. Saltless salt. They love traditions, but not people, not the Lord. They are like walking statue memorials to the past work of God. I am not very interested in what Christians were saying 150 years ago, though I do appreciate that God was speaking to them and holding their hand through this life, just as He does mine. It isn’t that I think they’re bad or that the authors were wrong or anything like that, but I recognize that God has chosen that I live in a certain time and place in history. Many of the old commentaries were fresh when they were written, but to a new generation their language and style can be cumbersome and clunky. Not to mention the fact that the present time and generation is one which people from long ago could never have imagined. There are unique physical, mental, and societal problems for Christians today that did not exist 50, 100, 200, or 2000 years ago. As history has progressed, the Church through the ages has had to grapple with new problems — and that is an interesting story. Perhaps the reason people make commentaries is that they are gifted to encourage the Church of that time in meeting those specific, current problems. Not that truth changes, but the application and apprehension of truth must always be kept in the present moment. We cannot eat yesterday’s manna but must seek the Lord for Daily Bread. So that is where the emphasis of my heart lies. I am not thrilled by trying to sift through a lot of archaic language, be it the original languages of the text (one could reasonably argue that all Christians must learn Hebrew and Greek if they REALLY want to understand the Bible), the Latin of the early Church, Martin Luther’s German, or even the Puritans’ extremely garrulous and wearying English.
- Relationship seemed to be a key component in effectively conveying New Testament doctrine and teaching. The churches knew the men who were reading and interpreting the Word of life to them. Perhaps this is why I am less excited when someone says, “Look, I read in this book X, Y and Z.” and thrilled when someone I know says, “Here is what God led me into, here is what He said to me, here is how I’ve been changed, and I’ve come to point you to Him because I am a witness that He is active and present right now.” This is why God calls us to be with other believers — the community of the saints. Faith comes to me as I hear what God is doing and saying in other imperfect people’s lives, and as I am obedient to serving Him as I serve them. Someday God will join me with those of faith who went before me, and then I can thank them personally for keeping the flame of truth alive in the earth and handing it down to my generation. But my focus for now is on the present time, the present sustaining Word.
Especially with points 2 and 3 in mind, I am much more thrilled by hearing the biography and viewpoints and how God has glorified Himself in the life of, say, Brother Jonny, than I am in hearing the opinions of someone with whom I’m not acquainted. I think this dynamic has a basis in Scripture — that is, having fellowship with those we actually know versus those in the great cloud of witnesses whom we are yet to be joined to — because God called us to live for Him in the same time period on this earth. There are very limited number of broken saints with whom we share this earth at the same time, facing the same types of culture and challenges and historical events.
So I believe in spiritual reading, and I understand that many Christians like my brother find a lot of help and comfort in reading devotionals and commentaries. But the Church is not in the state she’s in because she doesn’t read enough, or because she isn’t intellectual enough. She could read all the books that have ever been written about Jesus and the Scriptures and still remain in a wasteland, a desert place. She is in trouble because relationships are severed and nonexistent — lack of love has made her a clanging cymbal — and because her new believers are not instructed to hear God for themselves and pursue a relationship with Him.
Until I come, give attention to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation and teaching. – 1 Timothy 4:13
For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you have need again for someone to teach you the elementary principles of the oracles of God, and you have come to need milk and not solid food. Hebrews 5:12
Love never fails; but if there are gifts of prophecy, they will be done away; if there are tongues, they will cease; if there is knowledge, it will be done away. 1 Corinthians 13:8
And Jesus said to him, “Blessed are you, Simon Barjona, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven.” Matthew 16:17
For I would have you know, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not according to man. For I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. Galatians 1:12
Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judaea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of Ituraea and of the region of Trachonitis, and Lysanias the tetrarch of Abilene, Annas and Caiaphas being the high priests, the word of God came unto John the son of Zacharias in the wilderness. Luke 3:1-2