How the Bible was read versus how the Bible is now read

Spiritual theologian Eugene Peterson:

We seldom if ever think of it, but it doesn’t take much imagination to realize that the first people who read the Bible didn’t know they were reading the Bible. They were simply listening to stories of their ancestors Abraham and Samuel, or reading notes from old sermons written on scraps of paper, or discussing a letter from a man whom they had never heard of but some friends had told them was well worth listening to. These words carried no external authority with them. If the readers judged the “book by its cover,” they could very easily be unimpressed, even scornful. The danger for them was sacrilege downward, despising what they didn’t understand or reducing revelational intimacies to the latest in pious gossip. But it didn’t take long for some of them to realize that these words revealed something about God that they could never have guessed, and gave them a language by which they could respond appropriately, answering from their hearts. The words were collected and honored; they became the text by which Christians lived their lives. That was a good thing; that is how we got our Bible.

But along the way the dangers of sacrilege shifted from downward to upward. Once the Bible became a revered authority it became possible to treat it as a thing, an impersonal authority, to use it to define or damn others, and to avoid dealing with God’s word in a personal, relational, and obedient way. It didn’t take long for people to start using the Bible as a cover, as a front, by honoring it, praising it as a verbal artifact, defending it as the Truth against all comers, treating it as a classic, as great literature, rather than receiving these words and responding to these words as God’s word to them, personally. But the words of Scripture are not primarily words, however impressive, that label or define or prove, but words that mean, that reveal, that shape the soul, that generate saved lives, that form believing and obedient lives. Impersonal, opinionated, propagandizing, manipulating words, no matter how ardent and accurate, inflate upward. They loose rootage in hearts. They lose grounding in human dailiness. They are no longer at the service of listening and responding to the word, those words that reveal God’s will and presence, the language in which we are invited to likewise reveal ourselves in prayer and praise, in obedience and love. Having and defending and celebrating the Bible instead of receiving, submitting to, and praying the Bible, masks an enormous amount of nonreading.

Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading (pp. 139-140)


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