Deep Church and Bible Reading

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Remembering Our Future

‘Deep Church’ is about remembering our past in order to face our future. At the heart of the ‘Deep Church’ conversation lies the attempt to reconnect with “a common Christian tradition from the apostles to the councils, creeds, and writings of the fathers of the early church” (Remembering Our Future, xvi). But, very importantly, “The vision for a deep church is neither an attempt to simply restate or repristinate the Christian tradition, this is tantamount to ancestor worship; nor does it take its bearings from the emerging culture, to do this is simply to assimilate the prevailing hegemony; rather, to be a deep church means to stand on the cusp or the breaking point of both the Christian tradition and the emerging culture, deeply rooted in the former while fully engaged in the latter” (Remembering Our Future, xviii).  

To a charismatic evangelical, such as myself, this is an incredibly exciting vision. I was trained, as many good charismatics are, to reject anything to do with tradition (we follow the Spirit, not the traditions of men!) and as a good evangelical I saw no point in getting to grips with the story of the Church – all I needed was the Bible. If I read the Bible and was full of the Spirit what else could I need? Thank God that many charismatic evangelicals are now coming to see just how naïve and shallow such thinking is. If we are to read Scripture aright we most certainly do need to be led by the Spirit but we need to learn how to do this by learning from the past.

Reading the Bible With Giants

So what might the ‘Deep Church’ conversation contribute to the renewal of Scripture reading? The book, Remembering Our Future,  suggested four things to me.

1. Reading with the Rule of Faith

(Andrew Walker’s essay, “Deep Church as Paradosis: On Relating Scripture and Tradition” and D.H. Williams’ book, Evangelicals and Tradition)The early Christians very quickly learned that having the right scriptures was no guarantee that what one ‘got out of them’ was from God. Various Gnostic groups arose and they used the same scriptural texts as the proto-orthodox and yet drew radically different conclusions from them. Charismatics should pay close attention! The Church saw that reading the texts aright was as important as having the right texts. The common mind of the proto-orthodox Christians was that Scripture should be interpreted according to ‘the Rule of Faith’. The Rule of Faith was simply a summary of the key Christian beliefs that had been passed down through the churches set up by the apostles. It was the common faith of the Church. Its shape was configured around the triune God – Father, Son and Spirit – as revealed in the story of Jesus: born, crucified, buried, resurrected and ascended. Any interpretation of Scripture that does not accord with this Christian revelation of God is ruled out. But, lest anyone think such a hermeneutic stifling, this still leaves plenty of scope for many diverse Christian readings of the Bible.

Reading Scripture through tradition is a safeguard against error but, more than that, it can actually open up texts in amazing new ways. Consider the following example (not from the book):

 

 There is an ancient service performed in the Western Church during Holy Week called Tenebrae (meaning ‘shadows’). It is a very solemn service remembering and lamenting the death and burial of Christ. During Tenebrae there are several Bible readings from the book of Lamentations. Now Lamentations is all about lamenting the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in the 6th Century BC. It is about siege, famine, massacre, exile, and profound grief. Jesus is not the city of Jerusalem so why on earth did the Church come to link Lamentations with Christ’s death and burial? I suggest that they were reading the book with the Rule of Faith and this allowed the text to have applications beyond those imagined by the original author(s). And I think they were right. If, as the NT declares, Jesus is the Jewish Messiah and thus represents the story of Israel, Jerusalem and its Temple in his own story, then to see the death of Jesus as linked to the ‘death’ of Israel, Jerusalem and the Temple makes sense. It opens up new ways of seeing Lamentations (through the cross) and new ways of seeing the cross (through Lamentations). Lamentations becomes, as in the Tenebrae service, Holy Saturday literature. No biblical critic would think to read Lamentations in that way and yet it is just one example of how the Rule of Faith might open old texts in fresh ways.

 

2. Reading with the Giants

Increasing numbers of Christians are rediscovering what our ancestors knew well – that Church history is full of inspiring examples of how biblical texts were interpreted. Whilst we must not simply replicate the ways in which, say, Irenaeus, Origen, Chrysostom, Aquinas, Luther, or Calvin read texts we would be extremely arrogant if we thought we had nothing to learn from them. These men, and many others, were prayerfully immersed in the biblical text and in the history of its interpretation. God spoke to his people through their expositions of the Bible. (The most helpful, accessible and practical introduction to getting into this is David Parris’ new book Reading the Bible With Giants: How 2000 Years of Biblical Interpretation Can Shed New Light on Old Texts.)    Perhaps I can illustrate this with Lamentations. Lamentations 3:1-18 contains the gritty lament of an individual man who is participating in the exilic sufferings of Jerusalem. In the sixteenth century St. John of the Cross saw it as the perfect description of what he called “the dark night of the soul” – times of extreme spiritual despair that believers can face. This very helpfully allows Christian believers to map their own experiences onto those of this ancient resident of Jerusalem.

3. Reading with Prayer

(Ben Quash’s essay, “‘Deep Calls to Deep’: Reading Scripture in a Multi-Faith Society”)

Ben Quash reminds us of classical Christian methods of engaging the Bible and these can be deeply revitalizing to evangelicals brought up with the more ‘intellectual’ approach of daily Bible notes and expository sermons (though I am not knocking those approaches). Quash reminds us of the Benedictine practise of Lectio Divina in which a Bible passage is read slowly, meditatively, repetitively and prayerfully. In this way it is allowed to sink in to the soul and to spark off prayer. Such ancient ways of hearing God’s address are ripe for revival amongst evangelicals – not to replace but to supplement traditional evangelical ways of reading.

4. Reading in Contemporary Community

(Andrew Rogers’ essay, “Reading Scripture in Congregations: Towards an Ordinary Hermeneutics”)

Tradition can fossilize and die and is kept fresh and alive through a never-ending engagement with concrete, contemporary contexts (Hey Mum! I can alliterate!). Living tradition, as Paul Ricoeur noted, has an aspect of sedimentation as each generation adds to the story but, if it is to remain alive, each generation must receive the tradition in innovative ways. Andrew Roger’s chapter very helpfully illustrates this dynamic. So our Bible reading must engage with contemporary culture and the lives of ordinary contemporary Christians. If it does not, it will die.

    To illustrate, one last time, with Lamentations: some contemporary Christians have used the book of Lamentations to try and reinvigorate the practise of lament within the Church. The brutal, in your face, honesty of the book has proved a spiritual life-saver for some who find that at times Christian worship can tend towards the unreality of wonderland and fail to embrace the reality of pain.

Personal reponse

My response, then, to the ‘Deep Church’ vision explored in Walker and Bretherton’s excellent new book is, ‘Thank God!’

Dr Robin Parry is Editorial Director for Paternoster, publishers of Remembering our Future

Your response:

  • what do you think of Robin's piece - what inspires/excites you?
  • do you follow any of these practices already? Any similarities/differences you would draw out?If so what impact has it had on your communities journey of faith?  What advice would you give?
  • Would you like to start trying anythin Robin suggests? If so what questions/thoughts do you have?
  • What other practices do you engage in reading the bible from your own tradition? What is their origin/context? How does that practice impact/affect community?
  • Any resources, books, blogs, websites etc you would suggest?