Take the Bible Out of Their Hands

I just got a hold of The Moral Vision of the New Testament, a text I am considering for a theological ethics class that I have the opportunity to teach next semester. As is often the case in my relationship to a new text, I read through the introduction, scanned the table of contents in order to get a sense of where I will be going, and briefly scanned the bibliography for familiar names and perhaps names I should become familiar with. In doing all this, I encountered a very familiar name, Stanley Hauerwas, and I turned to the section of the book that addressed his thinking. In doing this, I came across the following provocative quote:

Most North American Christians assume they have the right, if not obligation, to read the Bible. I challenge that assumption. No task is more important than for the church to take the Bible out the hands of individual Christians in North America. Let us no longer give the Bible to every child when they enter the third grade or whenever their assumed rise to Christian maturity is marked… Let us rather tell them and their parents that they are possessed by habits far too corrupt for them to be encouraged to read the Bible on their own.

Yikes!! What possessed Mr. Hauerwas to say this? Isn’t he undermining the Protestant conviction regarding the priesthood of all believers with its concomitant impulse to deconstruct the barrier between the laity and priests, by giving all believers access to the Scriptures?

The rationale for Hauerwas’ statement comes earlier in this section where Hays, the author of The Moral Vision of the New Testament, pointed out the influence of the Patristics, particularly Athanasius, on Hauerwas’ thinking regarding the relationship between one’s character and one’s vision. The idea is that one’s moral constitution functions as a lens through which one sees the world, and all things in the world, including texts. This means that one’s moral disposition will profoundly influence how one will appropriate and apply the Scriptures. This, perhaps, can be summed up in saying that corrupt people will read and apply the scriptures corruptly.

I have to confess that I see worth in Hauerwas’ critique, and yet I wonder about our need to hear the Word of God in order to be revivified, renewed, and morally transformed. Though I have not read how Hauerwas addresses this matter, I imagine he would say that such need should primarily be met through the Church’s encounter with the Word, which is to say that the proper context for reading Scripture is in the gathering of the Church, not in the privacy of one’s prayer closet.

This response, however, still tramples upon my Protestant (and perhaps bourgeois) instincts. And yet, there is historical precedent to support Hauerwas’ proposal. In the early Church there were no mass produced Bibles, and so the reading of Scripture was a collective affair. Theologically, there is still further support in that a dominant motif for understanding the life of a believer is incorporation. When a person comes to faith he or she is made a part of the figurative body of Christ, which through the Spirit is connected to the resurrected and exalted body of Christ. This means that salvation is not primarily a private, me-and-God, affair, but a response to God’s purpose to sum up all  things in and through Jesus. Certainly, in this light, the collective gathering of the Church is the most proper context for reading Scripture.

Having said all this, I am still not willing to go out and retrieve Bibles from the hands of the unwashed masses. I know of too many instances, both now and in history, where people were edified and personally transformed through a private reading of Scriptures.

I guess I am going to have to consider all of this a bit more.

7 Responses to “Take the Bible Out of Their Hands”

  1. Roger Green  

    Is not that why God invented the printing press, so we could have a Bible in our house, gathering dust?

    Seriously, I’m having some real resistance to limiting Scripture reading to corporate settings.

  2. Anthony Velez  

    I’m with you Roger, but I do understand where Hauerwas is coming from. I see all around me the results of a private appropriation of Scripture. As I said, I have to think about this some more, but at this moment what I want to do is somehow meaningfully connect personal reading of Scripture with a genuine integration into the life of the Church, and by genuine integration I mean something more significant than “I go to church,” something that places oneself in fellowship and mutual submission to one another

  3. K.L.B.  

    Anthony, It seems to me that you have correctly identified the crux of the matter – which is “Athanasius contra mundum,” translated as “Athanasius against the world.”

    The interpretation of the Holy Scriptures CANNOT be left to ‘just everyone,’ or ‘just anyone’ for the reasons you identified – “corrupt people will read and apply the scriptures corruptly.” There is no doubt that we (the elite – hah! – Would it be more comfortable to write we whom are more studied in these matters, but by no means expert?) understand in context the “hows” and “whys” of interpreting Scriptures more accurately than some others. Which is why, for example, that we understand the issues of the death penalty, abortion, and social justice in context of God’s will for us all. Not just one person, but a collective body of believers. (Ooohhh! There’s that word! “Collective”! Sounds sinister, eh? Enough comedic relief…)

    And yet, that is precisely how Christ Jesus made His church, and prayed that we all would be one. And hence, therefore, His Holy Catholic Church.

    The writer of Romans identified this issue by writing “Just as our bodies have many parts and each part has a special function, so it is with Christ’s body. We are many parts of one body, and we all belong to each other.” cf 12:4,5 (NLT)

    Of course, I have read the Scriptures, many times. And I read them in my daily devotions. That is to say, where they are incorporated into the guide I use, I read them. Of late, I have not “just sat down and read,” though I have pondered it. I do, however, refer to them in study, as you have seen here. Acknowledging also that in order to “have it in you,” it must first be “put in” by reading. Whereupon lies a quandry: If an unrighteous person read it, is there value? The corollary is similar: If a righteous person reads it, is there value?

    My answer is “Yes,” on both counts – albeit with qualifiers.


    We read that “For the word of God is living and full of power, and is sharper than any two-edged sword, cutting through and making a division even of the soul and the spirit, the bones and the muscles, and quick to see the thoughts and purposes of the heart.” cf Hebrews 4:12 (BBE)

    The example also of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch gives some authority on the issue, as well – and may serve as perhaps the strongest example for what I shall introduce afterward. “And the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over and join this chariot.” So Philip ran to him and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet and asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” And he said, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. cf Acts 8:29-31 (ESV)

    In that example, the Ethiopian eunuch was a righteous man, for the Scriptures indicate he was going to worship in Jerusalem. And yet, being a righteous man, he did NOT understand the Scriptures.

    Indeed! “How can I, unless someone guides me?

    Introducing… the magisterium!

    From the Catholic Encyclopedia:


    Now in this respect there are several points of controversy between Catholics and every body of Protestants. Is all revealed truth consigned to Holy Scripture? or can it, must it, be admitted that Christ gave to His Apostles to be transmitted to His Church, that the Apostles received either from the very lips of Jesus or from inspiration or Revelation, Divine instructions which they transmitted to the Church and which were not committed to the inspired writings? Must it be admitted that Christ instituted His Church as the official and authentic organ to transmit and explain in virtue of Divine authority the Revelation made to men? The Protestant principle is: The Bible and nothing but the Bible; the Bible, according to them, is the sole theological source; there are no revealed truths save the truths contained in the Bible; according to them the Bible is the sole rule of faith: by it and by it alone should all dogmatic questions be solved; it is the only binding authority. Catholics, on the other hand, hold that there may be, that there is in fact, and that there must of necessity be certain revealed truths apart from those contained in the Bible; they hold furthermore that Jesus Christ has established in fact, and that to adapt the means to the end He should have established, a living organ as much to transmit Scripture and written Revelation as to place revealed truth within reach of everyone always and everywhere. Such are in this respect the two main points of controversy between Catholics and so-called orthodox Protestants (as distinguished from liberal Protestants, who admit neither supernatural Revelation nor the authority of the Bible). The other differences are connected with these or follow from them, as also the differences between different Protestant sects–according as they are more or less faithful to the Protestant principle, they recede from or approach the Catholic position.

  4. Roger Green  

    Oh, and just to stir up trouble, I should note that, as you probably know, the book of Revelation didn’t even make everyone’s cut for inclusion in the Bible! So even what Scripture we read (the Douay v. the Proestant version) is humanly defined, albeit by the priesthood.

  5. Anthony Velez  

    Kevin – Being still Protestant, I don’t accept the definition of tradition as an existing authority along side the authority of Scripture, but rather that tradition is the authoritative guide in how we should navigate and understand Scripture. I know you disagree, but I don’t want to engage in polemics over this matter.

    I do agree with you in that there must be a stronger more organic understanding of the relationship between Scripture and the Church, particularly as the Scriptures emerged from the life of the Church. Traditionally Protestants have understood the Scriptures to be self-authenticating, and out of this they say that the Church merely recognized the authority of the Word by which she is constituted. I think there is some truth to this, but of course Protestants, in the polemics of the Reformation, wanted to downplay the significance of the Church in the constitution of Scripture. I, however, think this must not be denied as it is consistent with God’s incarnate ministry in Jesus.

    Of course, what I have just articulated is very via media, which is not at all surprising given the tradition in which I worship.

  6. Anthony Velez  

    Roger – What you say is largely undeniable, but I don’t have a problem saying that bishops and priest made decisions, in the struggle that is the life of the Church, regarding what were definitively recognized as authoritative for the Church. Of course after 2000 years of Church history we must now ask “What church?” which is why I think the divisions of the Church are so problematic from a theological standpoint.

    Again, regarding the Scriptures being humanly defined, if we take seriously that Jesus is the incarnation of God, then we must say that God allowed his very self to be “humanly defined.” Along with this, in fact emerging out of this, God has expressed his commitment to using human agency (the life of the Church) to minister to the world.

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