Story Tellers: Reading and Performing Scripture

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Throughout the month of October Wineskins is exploring the future of the Churches of Christ, particularly the more progressive expressions of this fellowship. Rather than knowing just what we are against or have rejected, we need to know what we are for. My hope is that what we are for is the mission of God and how our congregations might participate as followers of Jesus.

In order to talk about participation in the mission of God, we must talk about scripture too. Rightfully so, the Churches of Christ have always held scripture to be the word of God, and therefore both truthful and authoritative. We want to do what the Bible teaches. Yet, besides understanding what the Bible teaches, which is not always easy itself, we must also think of how we interpret scripture − hermeneutics.

The Bible as a Law Book

Perhaps the best way of raising this issue is by thinking in terms of reading scripture. Because the Bible matters to us, we take reading the Bible very serious. And we should. However, as important as reading scripture is, how we read scripture is just as important.

Historically, the Churches of Christ have read scripture as a law-book. Through direct command, apostolic example, and necessary inference, we believed that a once-for-all pattern for the organization and practice of the “New Testament” church was attainable. I can still remember hearing sermons that said just as God gave Noah a pattern for building the ark, God gave us the New Testament as the pattern for building his church.[1] Of course, this pattern also included the law of silence which ironically wasn’t very silent as it said that where there was silence, scripture forbids or excludes.

The basic problem is the assumption that “New Testament Christianity,” as we like to call it, involves adherence to a written law. If being Christian requires living according to a written law, then there already exists a “holy, righteous, and good” written law (cf. Rom 7:12). Rather than adhering to a written law, followers of Jesus are called to live according to the Spirit. While this still involves obedience to certain commands such as loving God and neighbor (cf. Mk 12:28-31), it does not require reading scripture as a law-book.

Many Churches of Christ have tried steering away from this legalism and the sectarianism it produced among us in the twentieth-century. Nevertheless, I still find this law-book reading of scripture at work. Take an issue such as congregational leadership or women in the church and the question still is has to do with what does scripture authorize as though the Bible is a written law. Unfortunately, this hinders congregations from discovering contextualized expressions of the gospel within their own twenty-first century local culture.

The Bible as Story

The quest for a better way of reading scripture begins with scripture itself. According to the apostle Paul, “All scripture is inspired by God…” (2 Tim 3:16, NRSV). This means we must read all scripture, both Old and New Testament, as having authority for how we participate in the mission of God. But how?

As story!

We read scripture as story told through different genres, keeping in mind the historical occasions of every writing and the different recipients of these writings. Like a play, the story of scripture contains different acts.[2] Yet it is a story that is centered in Jesus Christ and oriented to the in-breaking future of God’s new creation where all things are made new (cf. 2 Cor 5:17; Rev 21:5). In other words, the biblical story is a script for following Jesus towards the goal of redemption, reconciliation, and restoration of creation via the cross and resurrection.

It is important that we view ourselves as participants within the story and in doing so, become participatory actors within the mission of God. As actors living out this Jesus-centered and future oriented story, our performance seeks neither to repeat the past performances of the church nor stray from the past confession and way of life. This is why we must read scripture within Christian tradition. For even though we have received the Spirit of God, we are humans nonetheless and are always prone to misunderstand. By reading scripture within Christian tradition, we have an “interpretive tradition” that allows us to read scripture faithfully through that tradition.[3]

Moving from reading to actual participation requires what N.T. Wright describes as faithful improvisation. Faithfulness ensures that our performance continue telling the same story we are part of, the redemptive mission of God. Improvisation ensures that we are not redundantly repeating the past, so that our performance tells the story in contextually appropriate ways that for our own local circumstances. Thus, rather than following an alleged pattern of church, we are poised to be the church following Jesus in our own contexts with the Bible as our script and the gospel or good news of Jesus Christ as the story we tell.

One More Thought

Those who insist upon reading the Bible as a law-book, through the rubric of commands, examples, and inferences, will not like the subjectivity that comes with reading the Bible as story. However, the law-book approach has been very subjective too in its selective application. The problem with reading scripture as a law-book is that it limits local churches to repeating the past. Over time this contributes in the onset of missional paralysis and even spiritual paralysis. As difficult as faithfully improvising the biblical story may seem, through prayer, reading of scripture, and communal discernment, the difficulty becomes a subversive and compelling story.

            [1] The problem with such an analogy is that even if the New Testament is a pattern of instructions for building the church, these instructions are not specifically given in an itemized list like the itemized list of specific instructions that God gave to Noah for building the ark (cf. Gen 6:13-22),

            [2] The following model for reading scripture is indebted to N.T. Wright, Scripture and the Authority of God: How to Read the Bible Today (New York: HarperCollins, 2011), 121-127; Christian Origins and the Question of God, vol. 1, The New Testament and the People of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 139-143. A couple of other popular books suggesting a story reading of scripture that include Scot McKnight, The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008), 67, who labels the five “elements” (acts) as Creating, Cracked, Covenant Community, Christ, and Consummation; and Craig G. and Michael W. Goheen, The Drama of Scripture: Finding Our Place in the Biblical Story, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004), 27, who divide scripture into six acts consisting of Creation, Fall, Israel, Jesus, Church, and Consummation.

            [3] James K.A. Smith, The Fall of Interpretation: Philosophical Foundations for a Creational Hermeneutic (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 152.

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