“The B – I – B – L – E, yes that’s the book for me, I stand alone on the word of God, the B – I – B – L – E!”
So, the other day I was walking and thinking about the way technology influences our relationships (honestly, I really was) and it struck me that Gutenberg’s invention must have influenced the way we relate to the Bible. It is a historical commonplace that Western culture, post the invention of the printing press, experienced a sharp increase in literacy, which over time meant that more people started reading the Scriptures for themselves. From my Protestant background this is considered a very good thing as it affirms the teaching of “the priesthood of all believers”. I have my doubts. And yet, I do not think that people shouldn’t read the Bible for themselves. Rather, my doubts come out of what seems to be an over emphasis on the personal dimension of the faith to the detriment of the corporate dimension. As the song says, “I stand alone on the Word of God”. But, I think that the idea of standing alone is an illusion based upon the myth of rugged individualism. If anyone genuinely stands, he or she does does so in communion with others.
When I was in grad school, I remember a professor criticizing what he referred to as “Ray Gun” theology, which is the idea that when one places faith in Jesus Christ, a spiritual ray is shot down from heaven, establishing a life line between God and the believer. His primary criticism with this conception of grace is that it fosters an overly individualistic, “Me and God”, orientation toward Christianity. In contrast to this, another way to understand salvation is as a process of incorporation. When one places faith in Christ they are made a part of his body, which is the sphere where divine life freely operates. This understanding emphasizes the bond that we have with others, and encourages us to see others as an integral part of our becoming like Christ. In fact the whole point is that the whole body (and not just the individual) would be built up into the full stature of Christ.
The above two conceptions of grace surely encourage different orientations toward the Scriptures. In the “Ray Gun” conception of grace, the Bible is primarily a document of personal edification. By contrast, in the model of incorporation, the Bible is primarily a liturgical document, a document of corporate worship, designed to address and build up the whole body of Christ. Of course, these two orientations toward the Scriptures need not be mutually exclusive. The question is, which of these two orientations should be primary, and the answer (you should have seen it coming) is that the corporate should be the foundation of the personal.
To illustrate why I hold the above conviction, let me use the following illustration. William Shakespeare has written numerous plays that he intended to be performed before an audience. Though this be the case, there are probably more people who have read his plays than have attended performances of them. People read his plays in this way because though it doesn’t match Shakespeare’s primary intent, it is still possible to be entertained and edified by reading them. And yet, though this is true, hardly anyone would deny the fact that to really understand Shakespeare’s plays you have to see them performed. Pulling from this illustration, I suspect that the relationship between personal and corporate edification in reading the Scriptures, is much like the relationship between the private reading and public performance of Shakespeare’s plays. Both are possible, but one is primary, and the primary is the best means for full understanding.
I realize that to best support my point, I should perhaps establish why the Shakespeare illustration is credible for analyzing our relationship to Scripture, but I am not going to do that. Instead, I will leave you with an invitation to analyze it and tell me if and where it breaks down, and to tell me where you connect with what I am saying and where you are resisting and why.