Learning to Trust (and) Reading the Bible

What does trust in God look like when it comes to reading the Bible? I’ve read two different books recently and being struck by the same central hypothesis in quick succession. This really serves to bring the point into focus. One might even say, it is an indication that God is saying something …

Karen Armstrong’s ‘The Bible: A biography’ is a scintillating whizz through the origins of the Bible and the history of its interpretation. Written for a general readership, it does not go into too much detail, but skims over the surface of an extraordinary breadth of material, all of it informed by sound scholarship. One of her main purposes, I surmise, is to address particular strands of contemporary appropriation of the Bible (especially ‘fundamentalism’) and offer a rationale of why they just don’t make sense, either of what the bible is, or of how it has ever been read previously (i.e. up to about 150 years ago).

Along the way there are two observations that stood out for me.

The first is that when the word ‘believe’ occurs in most biblical texts, it really means to ‘trust’. In other words, the biblical concept of ‘belief’ is not a cognitive acceptance of an abstract idea, as it tends to be in much modern religious usage. Rather it is the active reliance upon that idea in the cut and thrust of daily life. I’ve been pondering that distinction for some time, but Armstrong’s articulation of it crystalised it for me.

The other is that almost all traditions of studying the Bible from down the ages, for all their vast differences, have had in common a concern to reverence the text: to sit under its divinely ordained status and seek to know God through it, not merely to understand it better on its own account. Whilst I find this inspiring, it touches a nerve for me. Almost every year I am faced with students who, either explicitly or implicitly, express concern (or even disdain) for the ‘dry’ or ‘academic’ study of the Bible, suggesting this stands in opposition to its ‘spiritual’ or ‘devotional’ reading which is truly nourishing. It is salutary to be reminded that the Rabbis and Scholastics, whose methods of study were often painstakingly more engrossed in minutiae and abstract ideas than a modern theology course, conducted their study as an act of devotion and saw it as a means of a transformative encounter with the divine.

Richard Briggs’ ‘Theological Hermeneutics and the Book of Numbers as Christian Scripture’ is a bit more specialized, as the title suggests. This one requires some familiarity with the key concepts in biblical studies and interpretation. The book started out as a commentary on Numbers, but morphed in the making into something more like a set of reflections on what is known as the ‘theological interpretation of the Bible’, taking Numbers as a case study. Engaging with dialogue partners in the realm of historical-critical biblical studies, literary studies, and theology, Briggs reads the book of Numbers from a theological point of view. The significance is that many of those dialogue partners have generally been unwilling to read in this way, focusing instead on historical questions about the text, its origins and the world that lies behind it.

In contrast, Briggs wants to get to what the text might mean for Christian faith, the world ‘in front’ of the text, whilst not ignoring the fruits of historical-critical scholarship. One part of his answer is that the book of Numbers tells a story that illustrates the difference between suspicion and trust and the consequences of each. The people of Israel followed their God into the wilderness, but then failed to trust (e.g. complaining about lack of meat; not going up into the promised land) and suffered the consequences.

In a striking and creative allegorical move, Briggs then presents the task of reading the Bible as the same task facing the Israelites at the border of the promised land. It lies before us in all its evident goodness – we are called to enter into it, trusting in God’s ways – but we might be put off by the fortified cities and the natives (the ‘biblical scholars’), to whom we ‘seem like grasshoppers’. (You need to have read Numbers 13-14 for any of this to make sense!)

Writing in his particular academic context, Briggs offers this allegory as an encouragement to theological engagement, rather than an uninvolved, dispassionate ‘security’ of historical-critical enquiry. But the allegory may just as well be appropriated by those concerned students (and anyone else) who need an encouragement to historical-critical study, rather than a settled insistence on the Bible as a comforting source of liturgical/homiletical soundbites.

So as I wrestle with the challenge before me, of what does it mean to actively trust God, I recognize an aspect that faces all faith-based readers of the Bible: are we willing to see any form of reading/study of it as an act of trustful devotion?

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2 Replies to “Learning to Trust (and) Reading the Bible”

  1. Thanks Simon. I see that we will enter ‘Numbers Land’ in the daily lectionary soon.
    I remember years ago reading the early chapters about the arrangement if the camps and understanding that this was to enable the people to move more quickly when God told them to, and to stop when told. A picture of the church.

  2. Interesting. Have you read McGilchrist’s ‘The Master and His Emissary’ which looks at the differences in the way left and right brain hemispheres interact with the world. He talks about two meanings of ‘belief’ – for the left brain which deals in facts ‘I believe…’ means ‘I think but I’m not certain’ (eg I believe the train goes at ten o’clock). For the right hemisphere which focuses on relationships and care, ‘I believe’ means ‘I am going to act towards you as though certain things are true’ (eg telling a child – you can do it, I believe in you). Religious believers tend to use the second meaning, but their opponents assume they mean the first.
    The Numbers book sounds good – hope it is in the library when we get to go back there!

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