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How does Scripture function?

I am looking forward participating in the Youth Theology panel discussions at the National Youth Workers Convention in San Diego and Dallas. The panels, sponsored by Immerse Journal, are designed to engage youth ministers theologically, encouraging a deeper reflection over the role of theology in the practice of ministry. One of the panels will address the role of scripture. The panel description reads:

“What is the point of reading the Bible?” What youth worker hasn’t heard that question? How that question gets answered depends on theology. Any answer we give suggests something about God, the church and discipleship. The Bible and theology are inexorably bound together, so this panel will engage broadly around the topic of their interaction. How do theological commitments impact how we interpret Scripture? How does culture shape our understanding of the Bible? What role do communities play in helping us read Scripture? What really is the point of reading the Bible? And, are we ever just reading the Bible? How do we help young people grapple with a Bible that is complex, ancient, enigmatic and yet normative and authoritative for our faith? 

I am thankful Mike King invited me to address this issue with a really stellar panel of youth ministry specialists who share deep theological convictions. The challenge reminds me just how deeply theology shapes our reading of scripture alongside how scripture informs our theology. This may be a “chicken and egg” issue since we never come to scripture without some theological assumptions (a theological horizon) which influences our understanding of scripture. To be sure, we ought to be disciplined enough to attempt to take scripture seriously on its own merits. However, I really do not believe we can ever approach scripture without a theological framework. The challenge may be more accepting our assumptions first and then recognize how they may or may not hinder our interpretations.

However, I really wonder if our theology remains so deeply rooted that often it shapes our understanding of the very role of scripture. In short, what do we assume happens when we read, teach, discuss, and engage scripture? How does the Bible “function” in our ministry from the standpoint of how it informs actual participation in the Christian life? What actually “happens” when we read scripture and what does the Bible “do” for us as we read it?  

The question came home early in my ministry when I was engaged in a conversation with a really intelligent young adult finishing his doctoral program in American history. He was struggling with his faith journey and I was there to help him sort out his past with his vision for God’s salvation at work in and through his life. I asked if he read scripture and, if so, why? He frankly admitted he never read scripture anymore and saw no need. When pressed why, he merely replied “I already learned all the answers so why bother?” The response took me off guard. Much like passing a driver’s license exam, my friend was raised to see scripture as a deposit of data, a manual, with requisite data to be memorized, tested, and passed. He did admit that he might consult scripture when he “forgot” the guidelines for a particular way of living, much like checking for a long forgotten traffic law. The very source of life for some Christians had become a hurdle to overcome and nothing more. It was almost “been there, done that, bought the t-shirt” Bible study. Why?

A number of years ago Donald E. Miller wrote one of the earliest books on narrative theology and discipleship. In the book, Story and Context (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1987)  Miller provided a review of at least three theological approaches to scripture and reflected on how they shaped education in the local church. Miller’s approach so impressed me we replicated, and expanded the outline in Mark Maddix and my book, Discovering Discipleship: The Dynamics of Christian Education (Kansas City: Beacon Hill of Kansas City, 2010).

People often approach scripture with one of four theological assumptions. The first approach assumes that scripture represents primarily the historical accounting of religious experiences of the past. These experiences may be authentic, indeed people encountered God both in the Old Testament and New Testament, but they are now encapsulated in the historical account that contains the event but interprets and shapes it through distinctly historical cultural layers. This view tends to read scripture primarily as a history of the past from which we can draw principles and practices, but scripture stops with the limits of history. Normally ministers, including youth ministers, in this tradition read to both appreciate God’s action in the past and hopefully help us to reimagine and replicate through similar experiences in the present. However, the power of scripture remains primarily descriptive of a different history and setting and undue preoccupation with the past can limit the power of scripture today.

Other theologians see scripture more as God WORD revealed. Ministers shaped by this view see scripture less as history to be studied and more as revelation to be encountered. Scripture provides occasions of deep encounter, moments where God almost reaches through scripture like Jesus on the Damascus road, to “slam” us (like Saul who became Paul) into a vision of a reconciled and reconciling God. Shaped primarily from a neo-orthodox perspective, this view sees our participation with scripture primarily an existential encounter and our response can only be worship and ongoing discernment in light of that encounter. Of course, waiting for the next existential encounter may make discipleship a bit difficult when it comes to continuity, much less allowing scripture to shape what that ongoing life might look like. Nevertheless, this approach often appeals to youth ministers, if they can avoid the temptation to “create” encounters through manipulation rather than letting scripture serve its own role.

Other readers and teachers of scripture see the Bible primarily making propositional assertions, those self-evident statements of fact that seem to be extracted from scripture. Ministers with this view often see scripture as a seed bed of concepts and ideas that demand our extrapolation, memorization, and consent. Scripture serves Discipleship primarily as a resource since knowledge contains an abstract, decontextualized, quality.  Youth ministers tasked with teaching must determine how to “apply” scripture to daily life for the sake of their students. Students often find themselves preoccupied learning the “right” propositional assertions (and debating them with fellow students to determine which propositions are more true or valid). Unfortunately this preoccupation can lead to the very problem my friend had… one of possessing right answers but little connection to daily life where they can truly “apply” those scriptures.

One other possible approach to scripture rests, like Donald E. Miller, in a narrative approach. Scripture, as a whole, possesses a broad story, God’s story. The Bible serves primarily as a large narrative of God’s ongoing work of salvation and reconciliation for that day AND for our day.  This approach assumes that our own lives are story like as well. Not a fiction, (though some people may live self-deceived lives) but the very “stuff” of our lives remains best understood as a story: a story that has a past (where our lives came from), a present (where our stories unfold in daily relationships), and a hopeful future (where we dream we will go). Rather than “applying” scripture, minsters in this theological view see the goal as aligning our story to God’s story.  Discipleship in this view rests with the messiness of living in a community (the church) seeking to align the life of that community according to the story of God, to find ourselves “inside” God’s story, so that we can then “live out” that reconciling story as God’s ongoing narrative in the world today. One book that took this view seriously was edited by my friends Jim Hampton and Rick Edwards titled Worship Centered Worship-Centered Teaching: Guiding Youth to Discover Their Identity in Christ. (Barefoot Ministries of Kansas City 2001) The theological center of that book approached scripture, discipleship, and youth ministry, with this vision in mind.

Undoubtedly this template does not exhaust the theological horizons that shape our reading of scripture. Undoubtedly theological themes of suffering, liberation, diversity, and even sacrament influence on only the interpretations of particular scriptures, but expectations how we participate with scripture in our ongoing discipleship. I hope this theme will surface at the youth and theology panel discussions for the sake of youth pastors engaging scripture. For now the role of scripture remains a purposeful question for reflection for every minister who hopes to take scripture seriously in preaching and teaching. What about you? How does scripture function in your life? Does Bible remain primarily a history to be remembered, a Word to be encountered, a proposition to be learned, or a Story to be lived? Let me know.

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