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.