Have you read Scripture (publicly) today? (pt.1)

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What was Paul was expecting of the young Timothy when he said, among other things, to “give attention to the public reading of scripture” [Greek, anagnosei ]? Most modern English translations interpret this word to mean “public reading of Scripture” (NIV, NASB, RSV, NRSV, NLT, ESV), even though the words “public” and “Scripture” are not in the original text. The  KJV and NKJV  simply translate the phrase more literally as “give attention to reading.” While there is no explicit mention in the text that this “reading” was in fact  to be done in a public manner, commentators seem generally to agree that the presence of articles in front of the three main words in 1 Tim 4:13 (“the reading, the preaching, the teaching” or “the reading, the exhortation, the doctrine”) probably indicate that Paul was telling Timothy to carry out the public tasks expected of an overseer ordained (cf. 1 Tim 4:14) to serve a congregation. This is not an exhortation to make sure Timothy kept studying on his own (even if that was and is valuable) nor is this an imperative to engage in “one-on-one discipleship” whereby he sought to engage a few here and there in exhortation and teaching (again, as important as that may be). This is, rather, an imperative to pastor Timothy to ensure, that amidst everything else he had to worry about, that Scripture (and let’s not forget that this was, at Timothy’s time, the Old Testament) was heard regularly by those in his care (reading), that Scripture’s import was delivered to the people (preaching), and that the people thereby were taught to discern truth from error (teaching/doctrine). False teachers of Timothy’s day (cf 4:1ff) were no doubt spreading their divisive didactic wares, and there is good reason to conclude, along with most modern translators, that Paul indeed was encouraging Timothy to carry on the practice of public reading of Scripture to those in the congregation–a practice likely already familiar to those raised in the synagogue. 

So how are we doing here? Evangelicals, oddly enough, for all our insistence about the authority of Scripture, haven’t necessarily done so well in carrying out this task of reading Scripture publicly–though I can happily say that I am seeing some signs of change here. I’m glad to see my own Church in the past few years dedicating time in our services to having increased public reading of Scripture. Nevertheless, do we evangelicals not have to admit that our brothers and sisters in the mainline traditions tend to hear much more Scripture read publicly than in our own churches? In fact, most traditional liturgies require an Old Testament reading, a reading from the Gospels, AND a reading from an Epistle in every service. No doubt, we evangelicals still pride ourselves on preaching and teaching from the Scriptures, but proportionally, we still publically preach from Scripture significantly more than we read Scripture itself.

Not that proportionality of reading to preaching is necessarily the point here. Five words of Scripture is greater than 5000 words of the preacher. As Karl Barth said, “Even the smallest, strangest, simplest, or obscurest among the biblical witnesses has an incomparable advantage over even the most pious, sholarly, and sagacious latter-day theologian.” (Evangelical Theology, 31-2). Yet the question still remains: Why have we sought to master the tasks of preaching and teaching, but have paid so little attention to the reading

Beyond this preliminary question, may I be so bold as to suggest that perhaps part of the reason we are so skeptical that the preaching of the Word is the Word of God is because we have failed to heed what I believe to be this deliberate, Pauline ordering of reading, preaching, teaching. Let me explain.

If we take the ordering of what Paul says to Timothy quite seriously, it may be that Paul is saying, Pay attention to READING, to PREACHING (Exhortation), and to TEACHING (Doctrine)–in that order. Or put in more stark terms, Don’t preach until you’ve read, and don’t teach until you’ve preached.  

Don’t preach until you’ve read, or at least, don’t preach without making it very clear that Scripture stands above and over our preaching. Preaching’s primary source, after all, is Scripture, and the public reading of Scripture helps to ensure that preaching, by itself, does not supplant the Word of God. Preaching in the absence of deliberate and attentive reading of the Scriptures is rootless. But by setting the reading of Scripture and preaching together, the Church invites those who are in hearing range to distinguish between the word of God and the word of man; by publicly reading Scripture, the Church invites the Spirit who inspires Scripture also to help hearers to discern the difference between God’s Word and the human word.

Furthermore, don’t teach until you’ve preached, or at least, don’t teach as if preaching is irrelevant to what it taught. If the Pauline ordering here is significant, Paul may be warning Timothy that teaching done in the absence of public reading of Scripture and of preaching is in danger of being demonically deceptive (cf. 1 Tim 4:1), not to mention the danger of the teacher him or herself being self-deluded.  Such teaching may even be in danger of falling prey to the falsities that the Spirit warns about in 1 Tim 4:2–teaching that proceeds from “hypocritical liars whose consciences have been seered as with a hot iron.” False teachers, after all, have often been characterized by their “lone ranger” style, desiring accountability neither to Scripture itself, nor to their overseers (elders, pastors, bishops, etc.). Moreover, teachers can sometimes view themselves as the self-appointed critic of the preacher. (I know I have to say, “Guilty!”) But the Pauline order may well set preachers and teachers into proper relationship.  Only as a teacher views him or herself as authorized by Word of God and the preaching of the Gospel will his or her teaching be safeguarded from didactic isolation. Granted, the teacher may at time need to serve in the very uncomfortable way of pointing out error to the preacher, but the teacher can never forget that his or her task is in service to the overall priority of the Church in public reading and preaching of the Word.

It is common to hear laments over the “biblical illiteracy” of the average pew sitter these days, and it can be easy for those of us with a theological degree (or degrees) in the theological disciplines, or for us as pastors and teachers, to complain about how we are constantly forced to “dumb down” so that people can understand what we consider to be the simplest concepts of Scripture. But perhaps a good part of the responsibility for the woeful biblical illiteracy needs to be placed squarely back into our court. Obviously a good reason to find ways to incorporate greater Scripture reading into our time of worship is simply to be obedient to this Pauline directive given to Timothy (and to us). But perhaps public Scripture reading may also be contribute in a significant way to reversing the biblical illiteracy we all seem so concerned about. Consider that many people in the pews never crack a Bible open all week. Perhaps we need to admit that they may not do it because they have not see it done regularly even in Church on Sunday morning.

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13 thoughts on “Have you read Scripture (publicly) today? (pt.1)

  1. Cup off coffee in hand I check out a few favorite blogs as I often do in the morning…David has done it again.

    At the risk of a comment that looks like a three point sermon 😉

    (1) I agree with you reading of “reading.” It is interesting to me that in 1 Tim 4:13 there are no conjunctions as there are in other lists such as Eph. 4:11. Each task following the imperative “give attention to” is preceded by an identical article. What is clear is that Timothy was supposed to do all these things. These are not three offices. Whether or not these tasks are intended to be connected in a 30min slot once a week is less than obvious.

    (2) The 30min slot by the way was somewhat tongue in cheek, but we ought to ask if the first problem isn’t our insistence that the focus these activities be contained with in a weekly service. (I happen to know from experience of your own dedication to the reading of scripture in the classes you teach so I can safely assume that you don’t hold to such a limited view.)

    (3) THE SERMON. Perhaps the real challenge is how we presume to preach (proclaim). Does the reading of Scripture form a notable portion of the sermon? Do we in our preaching actually give priority to Scripture or to our own words? Is our exhortation from what Scripture says, or from our own judgments? Do we teach what we want people to hear or do we teach what Scripture says (I am not speaking of over realized literalism). I do agree David, that Paul’s ordering ought to be considered significant. I would push it a little further, however, to suggest that we need to consider how our sermons resolve or harm Biblical literacy.

  2. Dustin

    After finding myself frustrated by the way the lectionary cut out significant portions of the reading of the Psalm for the day (ie., all the stuff about God’s judgment), I made this observaton to my Rector after the service:

    “The difference between a free-church evangelical and an Anglican is that the Anglicans sing all of the verses of the hymns but only read some of the Scriptures. Evangelicals sing only some of the verses of the hymns but read all of the Scriptures.”

    Perhaps it is not quite true in practice, though in theory I think there is something to it 🙂

  3. ScaryBarry

    Thanks for your thoughts Dave.
    I was confronted with a random question the other day (which happens a lot while drinking coffee): what type of “pastor” will I be remembered as? When I read the prophets’ and apostles’ writings and see the reaction their peers or people gave, I was filled with a sense of fear. Largely this fear has to do with my pursuit to keep people happy (pastors have been known to do this). Will I be the pastor that relentlessly visits everyone and is a chatty-go-happy sort? Will I be the pastor that has hundreds of funerals and is known as the pastor of death? Will I be known as the organized and administrative pastor that is known as the walking by-laws? At this point I remembered what the former pastor of this church once said during Sunday morning service (and yes, the former pastor attends this church). He told a story about his excursions and holidays. While attending an Evangelical church elsewhere in the province, he was saddened by the complete lack of Scripture in the service. Then he stood tall, with his chest out and proudly said, “I am so thankful for the amount of Scripture read in our church service today.” He sat down and there I was, stunned. Not only do I fear what the former pastor thinks of my ministry, but when he stands in church, I always wonder what he will say. He gave me one of the best compliments I have ever received. Will I be remembered as the “Scripture reading pastor?” Who knows?

  4. Bill, you’ll notice that the title of the post had “pt.1” in it. I hope to address the question of whether “public reading” is restricted to “ecclesial” meeting in the next post. And yes, it is true that sermons can actually harm biblical literacy, especially, I think, if the sermon is primarily “moralistic” or “motivational” in mode. But even then, if coupled with good amounts of Scripture reading, can we trust that the Spirit will break through even the poor sermon?

    Dustin, nice contrast! But what do you mean that evangelicals read “all of the Scriptures”? Do they?

    Barry, I like the story. Was the comment about the amount of Scripture leading up to the sermon? The amount read in the sermon itself? Or a combination of the two?

  5. God’s Word is for all people, people just are engaging in it. Roughly 65% of self-claimed “Bible readers” have never read the entire New Testament. Only 10% have ever the entire Bible. God’s Word is greatly neglected in these days.

    People may not be reading, but they are listening. In the last two years, more than 10,000 churches from 142 denominations have listened through the New Testament as part of a Bible listening campaign called You’ve Got The Time. Feedback from churches has been excellent as little children hear God’s Word, adults hear passages in context. Marriages are restored, teens get hope and stop attempting suicide, churches get revived and God is glorified.

    All around the world people can not read. In fact, 50% of the world is unable to read and 70% live in oral cultures. God’s Word is for them too. Check out http://www.FaithComesByHearing.com to learn more.

  6. ScaryBarry

    Dave,
    The comment was about the amount of Scripture leading up to the sermon. I had not yet read the passage for the sermon yet.

  7. ScaryBarry

    Forgive me for double posting,
    I just wanted to point out that even though I am “supposed” to be maturing in the faith, I still blush at the reading of Song of Solomon and just cannot read it in the service … yet. 😀

  8. Dustin

    By “all the Scriptures” I mean that evangelicals would be fairly quick to echo Paul that “all Scripture is God-breathed” and that they should, at least in theory, treat every sentence of the Bible as the Word of God. In practice, of course, I have not heard too many evangelical sermons on the striking of children against the rocks, but such passages would still be fair game for the preacher. My priest doesn’t really have to make a choice about whether or not to tackle such passages because they would never come up in the lectionary (at least from what I have seen during my foray into the big tent). There seems to be also an underlying assumption among many mainliners that Scripture is “inspired” (ie., worthy sermon material) if it is “inspiring;” if something in a text conflicts with our notions of morality or spirituality, then we can avoid it or write it off as historical accretion, etc. Present religious experience is a grid for interpreting/filtering the religious experience of the biblical authors. Evangelicals often do the same in practice, but their doctrines of inspiration, inerrancy, and what not, seem to suggest an alternative. But I’m obviously making generalizations…

  9. Yes I noticed it was part one, but that never stopped me before 🙂

    Regarding “public” vs. “ecclesial”. My comment was directed at the tendency to rely on one hour a week for the reading. I would offer that “ecclesial” is “public” and can/should happen on any suitable occasion rather than the concern over Sunday morning. I am not saying that you are restricting it this way, only that concern for liturgy or sermons point in that direction.

    As far as whether or not the Spirit can speak through any sermon is not a question in my mind, the question was the priority of Scripture. I merely posit that Paul would seem to suggest, as you did, a priority of reading scripture over exhortation and teaching, and that this should be manifest in the sermon. I might add that priority does not necessarily = air time.

  10. Dale Harris

    Interesting and inspiring thoughts, David. I fully agree that the public reading of Scripture needs to have a vital place in the worship and life-together as the people of God; and for my own part I have often extolled the virtues of the lectionary and/or other systematic, “non-utilitarian” approaches to the public reading of scripture, only to have my efforts fall on deaf (or hostile) ears. In my experience, most people react to the lectionary (or similar approaches) as though it were doxological broccoli: “we don’t want to try it because we know we don’t like it.” (Dustin: agreed that the lectionary may at times inappropriately truncate biblical texts, this doesn’t mean that we have to when reading the weekly lesson. If the lectionary text of Psalm 137 leaves off v.9, we can still include it in the public reading.)

    All that said, two points stand out to me from your post. First, you suggest that biblical illiteracy may be due in part to the neglect of scripture in church, and that intentional public reading may help to address this issue. Not sure; but I know that as a High School teacher, if I wished to address Calculus-illiteracy in my math class, reading four unconnected passages once a week from the math text book, with little-to-no comment on it other than “hear the word of Newton” would not be an especially effective approach. Or, more to the point, I doubt listening to three brief, randomly selected passages from Church Dogmatics once a week would make me Barth-literate. I say this because in most of the contexts where I have seen leadership introduce systematic scripture reading, the most common (and, I think, valid) feedback is that “the scripture passages are coming at us all out of nowhere, without any background or explanation or context– it’s confusing/frustrating/discouraging.” This is becoming especially true as our culture loses even the dimmest Christian memory as a framework for contextualizing what they’re hearing.

    My second point might be a rabbit trail: your post makes some pretty broad criticisms of “us as evangelicals”– but when I think back over the last five churches I’ve been involved in, only one neglected the public reading of Scripture in a glaring way (and this one was of a more charismatic bent, which some of the evangelical old-guard wouldn’t have let in the big-E club anyways). The other four, for the most part, included specific, intentional public reading of scripture aside from the sermon text each Sunday. My experience may be an anomaly, but from the sounds of things your own church does pretty well in the public reading of scripture; judging from their responses, I’d hazard a guess that those involved in this thread are part of a church that includes some form of public reading. It’s hard to say, really, how “we as evangelicals” are doing, but “we here” seem to be doing pretty-good-with-room-for-improvement. My point: while it is helpful to identify broad trends in church culture that are disconcerting, I sometimes wonder how useful critiques of “Evangelicalism” are, given the term is so ecclesilogically malleable, membership in the big-E club so subjective, and the worship-practice in churches that would call themselves “Evangelicals” so diverse. David Hart in “Deconstructing Evangelicalism” argues that the term itself is so vague, with such a spotted, politicized history, that in effect it is almost useless– don’t really agree with him, but he makes me think: maybe better than taking aim at big, faceless targets that are hard to miss and don’t bleed when we hit them (like “Evangelicalism”), we should aim at or own communities of faith– praising what is praiseworthy, encouraging what needs encouragement, critiquing what needs critique and continually engaging in open, honest, face-to-face dialogue. (Just re-read what I wrote, and it sounds like I’m saying you’re not doing that. Don’t mean that at all. In fact I know you do this in a very Christ-like way in all sorts of venues with students, colleagues, churches and so on. I’m actually reflecting on my own journey here, and a phase I went through where I found it easy and, (frankly) personally gratifying to point out all the flaws of “Evangelicalism,” and use that as a self-righteous smoke-screen for the resentment, pride, immaturity and bitterness that was keeping me from loving engagement with the actual brothers and sisters in Christ sitting in the pews right next to me. Deconstructing “Evangelicalsim” was one of the ways Christ dissipated the smoke-screen for me…)

  11. Thanks Dale. I know I can count on Briercrest Seminary students to keep their professors on their toes. You rightly take me to task about my generalization. We know that generalizations are generally always dangerous. 😉

    Those who have been in classes with me where ecclesiology comes up know that I often argue very much along the lines that you do–that it is easy to critique what is going on in “evangelicalism” but harder to encourage positive action without neglecting to acknowledge weaknesses. My intention (whether clearly communicated or not) was to do the latter, rather than the former.

    I agree with you that simply starting systematically to read Scripture more deliberately in our services won’t by itself solve the problem of biblical illiteracy. I do counter, however, that failure to read Scripture won’t be all that helpful either. Do keep in mind that the post was really a theological exegesis of 1 Tim 4:13 and reflection upon the ordering of reading, preaching and teaching. My point is not so much that evangelicals don’t read Scripture in Church as perhaps we still have some thinking to do about how public reading of Scripture is given priority in the ordering. I know evangelicals preach and teach (and I’m glad for that). My question is, how is our preaching and teaching related to our reading?

  12. justme

    Good point! Thank you. I enjoyed your post very much.

    “So will My word be which goes forth from My mouth; it will not return to Me empty, without accomplishing what I desire, and without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it.” (Is 55:11)

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