Searching for the Pattern: My Journey in Interpreting the Bible by John Mark Hicks, A Review

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I did not realize what an intensely personal journey down memory lane it would be, as I opened Searching for the Pattern. Reading Searching was like watching a movie of my own quest somehow unfolding before my eyes.

Searching for the Pattern is divided up by John Mark Hicks into four parts and concludes with three appendices.

Searching is clearly a labor of love from beginning to end. John Mark revels in his godly heritage from his parents to his biblical training at Freed Hardeman University. There is not a hint of condescension nor animosity recorded in his journey. The actors in the story are treated not only with profound respect but genuine love. Searching is itself a model, a pattern, for how “we be brethren” and can and should discuss matters that are deeply important to us. This alone makes it worth reading.

Constructing the Temple out of the Scattered Stones

In Part One, Hicks relates how he grew up learning how to read the Bible. Using the analogy from J. S. Lamar and Stephen Broyles on pp. 188-189, I will call this the “constructing the temple out of the scattered stones” phase of learning to filter scripture. Hicks relates how he learned which part of the Bible really mattered to answer the most important question of Bible reading, “What does God Require?” This question is actually a very limited question that rests upon a hidden presupposition behind it: how we do church is the most important thing. “What does God Require?” is not a question of how disciples live out the kingdom of God in the 20th and 21st centuries but what are we supposed to do (and not do) in worship and other corporate activities.

In answering the question, “What does God Require?” The Hebrew Bible, and even Jesus’s teaching, is largely lumped off as relevant to answering the question. So, without using the terminology, Hicks reveals our historical canon-within-the canon approach to the Bible and that our Bible is flat. Out of Acts and the Epistles we believe we are given a pattern from which we build a temple. The pattern is not on the surface. It has to be imagined and then the unmarked stones must be sifted, measured, and one by one fit together with great care. If one is out of place then the temple is likely to collapse.

Hicks illustrates this reconstructing the temple hermeneutic by bringing the reader into the “non-institutional controversy.” This controversy, that bloodied the Churches of Christ, was birthed by this approach to Scripture. That is the hermeneutic created this controversy. At the same time Churches of Christ believed that the controversy could be solved by the same approach to Scripture. What was needed was fine tuning our architectural prowess. So we learn of such technical matters as exclusive pattern, specific authority, generic authority, coordinates. John Mark then walks us through the transformation of an occasional (and not universally commanded) collection from 1 Corinthians 16 into a required pattern requirement and the money can be used only for saints.

“This is how I learned to read the Bible. It was comfortable, and it made sense to me” (p. 58). But it was (and is) exceedingly complex.

Questions about the Temple Building Process

Part Two of Hicks’ journey he calls, “Something’s Amiss.” This is when he began to see that the scattered stones did not come with all the directions necessary for building the temple. Some of the pieces might go together only after an exorbitant amount of mental pressure. The questions began for him, while discussing the non-institutional matter with a friend both before and after entering college. What happens when the temple, that we construct from the scattered stones, seems to be completely at odds with the God we have dedicated it to?

I regard Part Two of Searching as the crux of the book. It is here that we are lovingly but honestly taken step by step into the recognition that we do not just read the Bible and do what it says. Rather there is something between us and the text. This was the epiphany in Hicks’ journey: we filter the Bible through an intermediary step that arranges the stones into what we have already decided. That “deciding” is done before we ever look at the text. This middle step may be called “the regulative principle” or “commands, examples and necessary inferences.” The problem is the principle operates on the basis of many unexamined baby steps that are subsumed to the one large hidden step. This is nicely illustrated by Acts 20.7 and the Lord’s Supper being observed, by command, every Sunday and only on Sunday. So Hicks notes,

“In other words, it is not simply doing what the Bible says. Rather, one must decide what the Bible requires by identifying whether commands are generic or specific, by recognizing expediency in contrast to prohibitive silence, and determining what is a coordinate command and what is not, etc. This is no mere reduplication (or restoration) of biblical particulars but a process of discernment that makes judgments about what falls where and in what category . It is a highly developed expression of step two” (pp. 77-78)

What Hicks came to realize is that “each move is an inference” (p.85). Indeed inference (i.e. step) upon inference.

But it was the biblical narrative itself that began to cause the most angst in Hicks quest. The “story” of God’s incredible steadfast love, not for saints but for sinners, rebels, and even enemies that raised the question of why God’s people do not mirror God’s own actions and identity. At this point we are taken through a wonderful interpretation of 2 Corinthians 8-9 showing how Paul interpreted his Bible (the Hebrew Bible) and applied it to Gentile believers in Corinth in the matter of giving. Paul also had a “middle step.” He appeals to, and applies, Scripture but he also goes through the interpretation of Scripture in the person of Jesus. This is a rich section of Searching for the Pattern.

The non-institutional controversy made Hicks realize that neither he, nor the rest of the Churches of Christ, simply read and obeyed the Bible. Instead they, like everyone else, had a middle step (the existence of which we were frequently blind). The question that must be wrestled with is, “where do we get our middle step” and “does the middle step construct a temple that is completely at odds with what we know to be the values of God?”

Temple Exploring, Not Temple Constructing

Part Three of Searching is labeled “What’s the Alternative?” I call it discovering the temple is already built and God’s invitation us to explore it. During his quest, John Mark discovered that he actually had two hermeneutics already operative in his spiritual DNA. “I had one for God’s story, and God’s pattern, and I had a different hermeneutic for the blueprint pattern of the church” (p.110). At this point I am compelled to state that I did not grow up with these two approaches to the Bible. I inherited only the latter.

Hicks, in good traditional Churches of Christ practice, takes us “back to the Bible.” He confronts us with the “mystery of Christ” and the “rule of faith” demonstrating that, at least for Paul, there was a “canon” to determine Christian faith and life before there was even a New Testament. What is this “rule” or “canon”? John Mark demonstrates from the writings of Paul and Act (pp. 120-123) that this rule is the good news of the mighty acts of God culminating in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. This story interprets Scripture itself. This story is what the Scriptures are about.

But the traditional question in Churches of Christ has to do with what does God require and where is the authority to do what is or is not required. So if this story (story means the narrative of God’s acts in creation and redeeming creation) is what Scripture is about then how does it tell us what to do (how does it authorize)? Returning to 2 Corinthians 8-9, and the matter of giving, we are taken through the theological “middle step” to see how Christians are called to share in the grace of giving.

Instead of reconstructing the temple, disciples follow Jesus as he takes us on our tour of the temple.

Following Jesus

In the final section of Searching called “What Do I Do With This?” we are brought to the rubber meets the road questions for Churches of Christ, the Lord’s Supper and its frequency. This is rich material.

In following Hicks’ theological hermeneutic, the Supper is transformed from a legal requirement into a renewing covenantal encounter with the Triune God that anticipates (and partakes in) God’s new creation. Precision obedience to our imposed pattern is replaced with the imitation of God modeled supremely in Jesus Christ.

John Mark Hicks is a self-confessed patternist. He has a middle step in the hermeneutical process just like everyone. That middle step is the rule of faith or gospel that is embodied in the power of the Spirit through Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus interprets the rule and demonstrates how the kingdom of God finds expression in his own life. Paul calls this the “mystery of Christ” and shows us how to apply it to specific contextual situations in Corinth and Ephesus. Hicks believes we are far more biblical when we follow the same kind of hermeneutical move that Paul does himself.

The book ends with three short appendices on assembly, racism and women wearing expensive jewelry. Appendix two on segregation is especially helpful because it simultaneously highlights the inadequacy of the old blueprint hermeneutic. Churches of Christ never found a consistent way to address racism because the blueprint we brought to the text simply did not address the matter. Historically, the pattern hermeneutic allowed us to imagine we had restored the one true church while mirroring the racist culture around us that denied the heart of the gospel itself.

Wrapping Up

Searching for the Pattern is very much an “insiders” book. The issues and the approaches to the issues will probably be strange to anyone else. But for people who have grown up in Churches of Christ, who love the Lord, who desperately want to serve him and take the authority of the Bible with unquestioned seriousness, this book will be part biography of our mind, part clinical examination, and part prescription for wholeness and unity.

Searching deserves to be widely read. It deserves in fact multiple readings. It may in fact be required reading.

It is my prayer that it will be part of the answer to the psalmist’s prayer which asks God to come and take him/her on a tour of the temple of the word.

Open my eyes, so that I may see the wonderful truths in your law” (Psalm 119: 18, TEV).

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