James Hamilton opens the preface to his new book on the theology of Daniel in this surprising and refreshing way:
I don’t deserve to read the Bible, much less write about it. What a privilege to have God reveal himself to us in his word. What a great God, keeping covenant and steadfast love, forgiving iniquity transgression and sin, and everywhere manifesting his power and love. The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars, and yet he also speaks so tenderly that the bruised reed doesn’t break. I join the ranks of the heavenly hosts, the saints across space and time, and everything in this cosmic temple to ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name. Would that I could do so in a way worthy of him. I thank God the Father through Christ the Son by the power of the Spirit for his merciful salvation, full and complete revelation, and gracious provision.
—With the Clouds of Heaven: The Book of Daniel in Biblical Theology, pg. 15
Every Sunday when my pastor finishes reading the text of Scripture he’s going to preach from he says, “This is the Word of the Lord”, and the congregation responds “Thanks be to God.” There’s a beautiful reminder of the nature of God’s revelation as a gift to us. God didn’t have to say anything. He doesn’t owe us any truth beyond what we’ve already heard and suppressed in our ungodliness (Rom. 1), and yet in Scriptures, he gives us his sure word of promise for us to cling to, rely on, by comforted with, and use as a means of communion with Him. This is surely a cause for rejoicing.
I know this in general, but when I read these words, I had to stop ask myself, “How many times have I thought ‘I don’t deserve to read the words on these pages’?” How many times have you? It might have occurred to me once or twice, but there’s something bracing and beautiful about reading it put so bluntly. Even more so, it struck me that these words were penned by a biblical scholar who has written hundreds, thousands of pages, even, about the Scriptures. And here he is opening up his (very careful) work of biblical theology with the admission that he is unfit to the task.
This got me thinking about how I approach the Scriptures, especially as one trained to do so for the ministry of the Church. All of this has been said before, of course, much better, wiser, and likely clearer than I will. Still, in Hamilton’s little intro paragraph, I see him modelling three qualities any scholar or preacher of the text ought to aspire to in their study and instruction of God’s Word.
1. Humility. The first, obviously, is humility. There is no doubt that Hamilton is deeply humbled before the text in front of him. As a word from God, the text has priority and authority in the relationship, as it is a mediation and form of God’s own personal address. I listen attentively to the Scriptures because I want to listen attentively to God’s voice in them. Now one of the corollaries of this reality is that I don’t assume a relation of dominance to the text. The Scriptures are not there for me to pick up and use for my own ends and devices; God has his own purposes to accomplish through his word and so I endeavor to bend my study to his agenda, not the other way around. Also, and I’ve written about this before, I am not the judge before which Scripture is proved true or false. Scripture is true and I am judged true or false in light of it. An attitude of humility before the text will not squelch intellectual struggle and striving, but, in fact, it will drive me further into intellectual striving so that I might be able to understand God’s truth as fully as he allows given then means I have available to me.
2. Piety – The second attitude is piety, by which I mean the recognition of the fact that the Bible is not just some text to be studied like any other. Yes, we use all the means available to us including philological, literary, historical, and philosophical exegesis when attempting to understand God’s word, but we do that in order to understand it as a personal, spiritual, transformative word. Kierkegaard has compared it to a lover receiving a letter from a loved one in a foreign tongue. The work is not over once the linguistics are done and words are translated on the page. To truly hear it, we must then accept it as a word from the great Lover and Author of our salvation. Scholarship is great, but grasping the meaning of the text through these means is ultimately only a means to being grasped by God himself through the text.
3. Gratitude – Finally, there is a clear sense of gratitude. As we already noted, revelation is a free act of condescension. God didn’t have to give us more of the truth we had already rejected. This is why approaching the text with anything less than a profound sense gratitude to God constitutes a failure to recognize its connection to the free gift of the gospel. Union with Christ comes through faith, and faith comes by hearing the word of the Lord now given to us chiefly in Scripture. The Scriptures, then, are not just a record of God’s saving acts, but are themselves a key means by which the Father accomplishes his work through the Son and the Spirit.
As always, more can be said, but this will do for now. May we aspired to read the Scriptures with a heart that says, “I don’t deserve to read this book, but by the grace of my Father in Christ, I can.”
Soli Deo Gloria
Those aren’t just good guidelines for preachers and scholars….they are good for the rest of us as well. Thank you for the reminder.
It’s always good to squash that Old Adam and put that willful, self-idolator back into the box…at least for a little while.
God’s Word attempts to do that for us (to us). That’s why we need to hear it over and over and over…for a lifetime.
A refreshing and decidedly un-“modern” perspective.
We don’t deserve to live, let alone not deserve to read the Bible.