Chapter 7: The Reader in Dialogue

Taking the Bible Seriously
by Leander E. Keck

Chapter 7: The Reader in Dialogue

If we grant that the Bible may become the Word of God, we still want to know how to read it as such. Without in the least subtracting from our assertion that no recipe exists for concocting encounters with God, it is still true that there is a way of reading the Bible which is appropriate to its character as the potential Word of God.

Obviously, the Bible may be read profitably in other ways. For one thing, it can be read simply as good literature. Portions of it have great literary merit, such as the Joseph saga in Genesis, selected Psalms, Job (still as good as J. B.), poems of Isaiah, sections of Paul’s letters, or important visions in the Revelation to John. It is unfortunate that many people who read the Bible to buttress Christian doctrines seldom see the artistry of it. Not all the Bible is great literature, and the Bible is more than a literary monument; still, an appreciation of its literary merits is in order.

Another way of reading the Bible is for historical reconstruction of ancient cultures, ideas, or religions. Until the modern archeologist provided clay tablets, inscriptions, and artifacts, the Bible was the major historical source for important aspects of the ancient world. It is still a valuable source for the study of the ancient Near East; for Israelite history, it remains indispensable.

But our major concern in this chapter is to sketch the mode of reading the Bible which is appropriate to its character and to its role as the vehicle for God’s Word.

How Shall I Listen for the Word?

The art of listening is the most important part of reading the Bible.

It is not easy to listen to the Bible. Much of this essay has dealt with the cultural problems connected with our listening. But the difficulty lies deeper than our cultural context -- it is the inner inertia of the reader. For one thing, people commonly avoid strenuous reading. Life Magazine has been so successful because it purveys information painlessly and casually. Even though the American Bible Society has published the New Testament with striking photographs so as to create a sort of Life Magazine format, the text still cannot be skimmed if one wants to listen. Because reading it attentively requires a certain amount of discipline, one obstacle to listening to the Bible is the sludge that has accumulated in our minds.

Students of Paul’s letter to the Romans are constantly amazed that he assumed a congregation could endure such a sustained argument. (It was to be read publicly.) Every minister who reads Romans from today’s pulpit knows that even ten verses are an effective tranquilizer for a cushioned congregation. Many serious readers might be willing to put up with a few minutes of listening-reading at a time, but few would be prepared to listen to Paul’s entire argument in the epistle. As a matter of fact, many students in theological seminaries have never read even a single Gospel through at one sitting. Our inertia, then, hinders us also from reading a biblical document as a whole.

As trained counselors know, we do not readily listen to another person, for genuine listening requires skill and disciplined effort. Listening to an author is equally demanding. To be patient with the writer, to hear him out, is not easy. Our tendency is to draw premature conclusions, to think we know in advance what it is all about.

How, then, shall we read the Bible so as to listen to it? To begin with, genuine listening requires paying close attention to the text. The entire battery of tools in the historical-critical kit has been developed to help the reader listen to the Bible accurately. These tools are not peculiarly biblical tools, but are common to all reading in depth. No serious reader wants to unplug his critical faculties when he picks up the Bible; therefore he realizes that some sort of historical knowledge is necessary to hear what the text says. It is a tragedy that so much of the Church’s effort to educate has been a short-circuited moralizing. Such Bible study usually takes the form of reading the text and leaping immediately to "what it means for us." This is a fundamentally important question, but the answer can scarcely come with any force if no one cares what the passage was supposed to mean in the first place.

But we must go beyond historical orientation, for knowing the text’s original purpose may not get the reader to the heart of the matter. The inner core of meaning opens up when one stops taking the text for granted and begins to ask why it says what it does. For example, let us assume we understand that the small state of Judah was threatened by an invasion by Syria and North Israel in the eighth century B.C. Knowing this does not keep us from being amazed that Isaiah insisted that the king will exercise his responsibility not by making astute preparations to defend the country but simply by clinging to the conviction that God will make such preparation unnecessary (Isaiah 7:1-9). A nation which honored a World War II chaplain for shouting "Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition" finds it hard to understand a prophet who says "Praise the Lord and skip the ammunition."

In fact, Isaiah appears increasingly incredible to us. Hence we American readers must ask for an explanation not only of the situation but of what he said. Without this we shall not really hear what he had to say, let alone what he might have to say now. Our deeper understanding of the Bible begins when we see why it says what it does as well as when or how it said it.

Paul provides another example. He carried on a vigorous argument over the problem of religion as Law. In one particularly terse passage (Galatians 2:15f.) he says in effect that we know a person is not set in right relation ("justified") with God by doing what God commands ("by the works of the law") but only by a genuine commitment to what God achieved and promises in Jesus ("through faith in Jesus Christ"). To understand what he is talking about, one needs to know something of the issue at stake in the whole letter, the problems in the Galatian churches to which it is sent, the peculiar meanings words like "law" have for Paul, and similar matters of historical understanding. But beyond this, the reader who really wants to hear what Paul is saying must penetrate the words to the issue: is a right relation to God established by doing the will of God? Paul says "No!" The reader who wants to hear Paul must ask him why he says this. The reader must press the writer to yield the rationale of his statements.

In Paul’s case, the argument runs something like this. Paul sees no salvation on the road of achievement; he had tried it and failed. By his own estimate he had been a zealous, blameless Jew (Philippians 3:4-6). Yet this whole achievement of a religious man was turned into trash (Paul’s own word) when he realized that in the name of God he was trying to root out the Church, for Paul had been its first real persecutor (Galatians 1:13-16). Paul’s zeal for Judaism demanded that the Church and its preposterous claim about Jesus be destroyed. Then in a moment of crisis, Paul saw the risen Jesus as Lord. Now he discovered that what had led him to oppose the Church and the Messiah was precisely his religious devotion. He had been caught red-handed, trying to destroy the work of God in the name of God. Thus Paul’s own life showed the basic bankruptcy of a self-achieved, self-sustained relation to God. Paul does not say all this in so many words but it can be readily inferred from what he does say. Paul repeatedly insists that no one can establish a right relation to God. In fact, he says God’s basic intent was to make men aware that they must depend on God alone for such a relationship (Romans 3:19f.).

Summarizing Paul’s rationale shows how important it is for the reader to question the writer for the inner meaning of the text. The reader should bring relentless pressure to bear on the text until the underlying point is clear. Naturally, not every reader sees the same thing. But this does not excuse anyone from asking Paul the basic questions. The reader must demand that the text make sense. Otherwise, he will not be a listener at all, but only an observer without real understanding, like a Russian watching his first baseball game without an interpreter. But when the reader begins to press the text for its underlying meaning, for the logic of its assertions, then he begins to move from his observation post to a listening post. Then the excitement of hearing the Bible is at hand.

What If I Don’t Agree?

If the reader has penetrated the Bible to the point where he sees both what the text says and its rationale in saying it, then he stands at a decisive juncture. Several possibilities are now open and between them he must choose.

The simplest alternative is to be satisfied with historical understanding of what the author said. That is, the reader’s purpose is achieved when he reaches adequate comprehension. This is a legitimate goal, whether one is reading a Kafka novel, the Dead Sea Scrolls, or the Gospel of John. But if the reader still wants the Bible to be Scripture for him, then a further step is in order.

This second step may be in one of two directions. It may be taken in the direction of the fundamentalist who believes he must accept what the Bible says, regardless of the consequences. For him there can be no disagreement with the Bible. Even if at some points his credulity is stretched to the breaking point, he accepts what he finds because he finds it in the Bible.

But the second step may be taken in another direction, one more appropriate to the kind of Bible we have been talking about. This step engages the reader in a dialogue with the Bible. That is, he begins to question it, even argue with it. Here it is not simply a matter of pressing the text for a clearer understanding of what it really means. It is really a matter of questioning whether what the text says is really true.

Let us return to Paul again. Engaging the Bible in a dialogue means asking Paul directly, "Is it really true that man can do nothing to earn his salvation? Does not salvation consist of doing the will of God? Do you really mean that even ‘a good Christian life’ will not be enough to establish a right relation to God?" When the reader asks this kind of question, he begins to see that in writing to the Galatians Paul rejected the ultimate adequacy of every form of religious achievement, not simply that of Judaism. When this arrow finds its bull’s-eye in the reader, then he finds that the gap of nineteen centuries separating him from the first readers is actually closed. Now he finds that Paul is arguing not only with the Galatians but with every man, with the reader himself. Despite our words of adulation for Paul, we seldom can afford to believe him, because we resist such a radical way of understanding our dependence on God. And so the issue is joined again, as it has been whenever Paul has begun to make his point.

When the Bible is read this way, it is no longer a casual, pious, devotional exercise in which one bolsters his preconceptions. Reading the Bible so as to hear it and respond to it can be a struggle in which the stakes are as high as life and death because the issue is man’s relation to God. Since the dialogue drives the reader to an intensive (shall we say ``existential"?) participation in the issue behind the text, this is the most appropriate way to read the Bible as the potential Word of God.

Since this dialogical relation to the Bible is so important, we should see five aspects of the dialogue in closer detail. (a) The dialogue is not only permissible but mandatory. Some people may shrink from the possibility of talking back to the Bible. But they overlook the fact that this is one of the ways in which the Bible becomes a Word which confronts the reader at his deepest level. A serious dialogue with the Bible is required by the fact that God may speak to the reader more directly in this way. Unfortunately, most Bible reading is listless and lifeless because the readers are too relaxed to think sharply, too pious to argue cogently, too concerned merely to be inspired for the Word of God to accost them. No doubt, the divine Thou can slash through such dullness, but the reader ought not dare him to do it by reading the Bible in lethargy. But reading the Bible with one’s energies committed to a genuine response, be it "Yes" or "No," can be electrifying.

(b) Genuine dialogue requires equal partners. It may be even more offensive to think of oneself as an equal partner with the Bible. One must respect such a stance if it stems from deep reverence for the Scripture. But it may also be simply a shield to avoid the demands of strenuous reading and probing. In any case, we talk about equal partners not to demote the Bible but to demote the reader. One who is armed with historical knowledge may silently slip into the role of a superior modern man who condescendingly reads ancient religious texts. Dealing candidly with the problems raised by our modern knowledge should not foster a superiority complex with regard to the Bible.

Let us return to Paul again. We commonly assume that because we Gentiles no longer have problems with the validity of the Jewish laws and customs (like kosher food and sacred festivals) we are really bystanders watching Paul demolish the fastidiousness of the Jews. But this is not really hearing Paul at all -- it is only eavesdropping. But when we realize Paul is attacking (in principle) the ultimacy of every religion, then we are summoned to a dialogue. This dialogue with Paul can proceed only if we are no more than equal partners in the conversation. This means that just as we can put fundamental questions to Paul, so Paul can put them to us. If we assume we know better than Paul, there can be no real dialogue but only shadowboxing with theological terms. Such an exercise might be interesting if we had nothing else to do, but it is basically a waste of time. In other words, there can be no dialogue unless the reader allows himself to be interrogated by the Bible, and risks being driven to the wall by it. The real danger in undertaking such a dialogue is that the Bible might win. Danger or not, there is no dialogue at all without the possibility of being converted to biblical faith.

(c) The dialogue is continuous. This does not mean that the reader lives on the precipice all the time, for no one maintains psychologically such an intensive personal involvement. But the point is rather that the issues in the Bible are never settled so completely that the dialogue can be dropped. Instead, because one’s understanding of the text constantly changes (unless he becomes an intellectual fossil), and because the reader himself changes (his history affects his reading), the dialogue with the Bible should be sustained, frequently even with the same passage. Besides, there probably will be many attempts to engage in a real dialogue which will fail, either because the text was not properly understood or because the reader was not inwardly free enough to hear what it had to say. In such cases, one should return to the passage from time to time, for often a section which is opaque today becomes luminous tomorrow. In other words, such Bible reading leads to a life of dialogue.

(d) Being a participant in an ongoing dialogue makes one a member of the community of readers. This is because the dialogical involvement puts the reader in conversation with other readers as well as with the author. When the reader converses with the writer, he joins all those who have conversed with him before. Let’s examine this more closely.

At this point it may be helpful to remember that when Protestants emphasize the "inner witness of the Holy Spirit," they refer to the experience in which the reader affirms that God himself has spoken to him. Calvin, whose statements have become classical in this regard, made it unmistakably clear that apart from this the words of the Bible would never be read as the Word of God. (Calvin’s famous passage is in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book I, Ch. 7, Par. 4: "For as God alone is a fit witness of himself in his Word, so also the Word will not find acceptance in men’s hearts before it is sealed by the inward testimony of the Spirit. The same Spirit, therefore, who has spoken through the mouths of the prophets must penetrate into our hearts to persuade us that they faithfully proclaimed what had been divinely commanded." Quoted from the translation by F. L. Battles in The Library of Christian Classics, Vol. XX, John T. McNeill, ed. [Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960], p. 79.) But it is not enough simply to agree with Calvin; we must show what this means in the context of our discussion.

First of all, the witness of the Spirit is a personal experience but not a completely private one. It is not esoteric or secret; rather, it is intensely personal in such a way that others can grasp what happened even though their own experiences differ. Moreover, because the witness of the Spirit is not private, it actually generates a community of the addressed, each of whom has heard the Word of God in his own way, in his own history. The witness of the Spirit does not erase individuality but affirms it by drawing together all sorts of people to share what they have heard God say to them. Consequently, we must not conclude that any one reader’s insight is absolute; rather, when the historicity of the reader is kept in mind, we draw the opposite conclusion -- the witness of the Spirit points to the fact that others have been addressed also. By sharing what each has heard in the midst of his own history, one stretches his understanding to include insights not available otherwise. Thus one must not use the idea of the witness of the Spirit to make oneself an absolute authority with heaven-sent insights; rather, one should use it to prevent unwarranted self-confidence. The witness of the Spirit is not a private religious experience but a personal one for the sake of the community. In this light it is instructive to read Paul’s comments on the variety of results which the one divine Spirit elicits in a given group (I Corinthians 12-14).

Moreover, it is important to remember that this community is not restricted to one’s contemporaries, but includes the whole readership of the Bible from the very beginning. Our understanding may be enriched more by Luther or Augustine than by the latest commentary. The creeds contain the phrase "the communion of the saints." In our context, this means that the readers are related to one another not only at a given point in time but across the centuries as well. Moreover, the phrase also means that the readers are engaged in reciprocal probing and sharing. Without this dialogue the communion of the saints readily degenerates into the conformity of the stultified.

(e) The historical-critical method is an important factor in the life of dialogue. At first glance, one might infer that since the validity of the Bible hinges on meeting God, and since this is not controllable, the historical-critical enterprise is beside the point. After all, it may be argued, if God can meet you as you read, what difference does it make whether you understand what the author intended to say?

Such an appealing argument cannot be accepted. Meeting God is not an experience without content, without understanding. When God says something through the Bible, hearing his Word involves understanding what the text says. Therefore scholarly work has both a negative and a positive function. Negatively, it makes certain interpretations impossible, for it insists that we listen to what the text actually says and not simply to what we think it says or ought to say. Positively, it helps us to hear what the writer wants to say; in fact, this is the only real justification for the whole discipline.

Emphasizing the importance of scholarly study may imply that the untrained, nonprofessional reader might as well close his Bible until he becomes a historian. Actually, the opposite is the case. The real point is that the circle of students must be extended. All readers of the Bible have some kind of historical understanding of it, even if it is exceedingly rudimentary. The question is whether they are willing to give this elemental grasp significant depth and precision. The reader who thinks he does not need to study because he listens only to God’s Word is irresponsible or arrogant (or both) because no one has a right to expect the divine Word to address a reader who thinks getting ready to hear is unimportant. If the Bible is to be our Scripture, it is worth reading properly.