Spurgeon famously said that defending the Bible was as necessary as defending a lion. But if the Bible is where the powerful Lion of Judah speaks to us, challenges us, comforts us, changes us, why do we so often find it difficult to slow down and actually listen—even in “Bible study groups” that most of us meet in each week—groups that are supposed to be specifically for this purpose?
In this episode, Tony Payne and David Höhne talk about the challenges of reading the Bible with one another in small groups—in particular, the difficulty of being patient enough to listen closely and humbly to the Word itself, rather than just skipping quickly to familiar answers and applications we already know.
The underlying issue is authority: does it lie in the traditions and common truths we hold in common—even good evangelical traditions and truths—or is it in the Scripture, from which those traditions and truths come?
Links to things mentioned in the podcast:
- Details of our next CCL event on the Psalms in the Christian life
- The Matthias Media page where you can find book specials related to this episode
Runtime: 27:14 min.
Tony Payne: I had a conversation the other morning that was so interesting, I wished I’d been able to record it for this podcast. I was chatting to David Höhne, who was the guest on our first episode of the CCL podcast and a colleague at Moore College, and we were talking about our small Bible Study groups and reading the Bible in those groups, and the challenges and fun of doing that. And the conversation began to veer in a fascinating direction: it became about the authority of the Bible itself—or how God exercises his authority through the Bible—and whether we actually practised what we say we believe about that in our small groups and in our church fellowships.
But, as I said, we didn’t have microphones and didn’t record that fascinating conversation. But I’ve tried to do the next best thing: David and I got together a few days later—this time with microphones—and rewound that conversation to talk about the place of the Bible and what it means for the Bible to have authority in our small groups—in our churches—and whether, in fact, we practice in this area what we preach.
TP: Welcome to episode 4 of the CCL podcast—brought to you from Moore College in Sydney, Australia. I’m Tony Payne, and if you’re new to CCL and to this podcast, thanks so much for joining us! Our aim here at the Centre for Christian Living is to bring biblical ethics to everyday issues, and the everyday issue we want to deal with today is something that most of us do nearly every week: we go to a small group—perhaps in someone’s home or at church—and we open up the Bible, and we read it and discuss it, we pray about it.
But reading the Bible can be hard work, whether on our own or in a small group, and what often happens in small groups is what happened to David Höhne just a few weeks ago.
David Höhne: Uh … yes, the situation was, we were reading a reasonably dense part of the New Testament (in case they’re listening, I don’t want to identify them too specifically!) which required some patience.
TP: What David’s group experienced, and I guess what we’ve all experienced in Bible Study at different times, is a struggle just to pay attention to what’s there in the text and not want to just skip forward to the answer quickly. In fact, in looking at this particular passage, David’s group felt that Paul—
DH: —seemed to be taking a long way around addressing what they thought was a simple question to the Corinthians, but in fact he was addressing it in a way which actually meant that we were being addressed as well—even if the peculiarities of this issue weren’t a problem for our church.
TP: So in a sense, your friends were wondering why Paul doesn’t just give the Corinthians a set of three bullet point answers.
Apologies, by the way, for the sound of my microphone throughout this conversation: it sounds like I’ve got a bucket over my head or something.
But back to David’s group: what they were after—and let’s not blame them—what many of us are after in Bible Study are just some simple answers—some bullet points to take with us. What they want from the Bible—in fact, what they want from the Bible Study leader, often, is just—
DH: —tell us what the answer is and tell us what to do.
TP: But that’s rarely the way the Bible itself reads. And that’s no accident. In fact, what seems to us often like a long answer to a simple question is, in fact, a vital aspect of how the Bible speaks to us today, and how the Bible exercises authority over us today.
DH: Yeah, and how is the Bible authoritative all the time? That is, whether it applies to me or not, how does it address everyone when the issue at hand doesn’t seem to apply to me? And so, I think my friends were … they could see that Paul had something distinct to say to the Corinthians. What I had posed to the group was: “Imagine that our church traded places with the Corinthians: what is Paul saying to us?” And their first reaction was, “Nothing”.
TP: Because we’re not precisely the same as the Corinthians church.
DH: That’s right, and, you know, it’s 2017 and all that sort of idea. But, so the wrestle was for us to actually slow down, be patient with the way that Paul was expressing his ideas, be sensitive to the fact that he is explaining who Jesus is in the context of all God’s promises through the Old Testament, and these are the ones—that is, these are the promises that happen to apply to us now because of this actually arbitrary event that had happened in Corinth.
TP: It reminds me of all those times in Bible Studies over the years where, as a Bible Study leader, you’re trying to get a group to grapple with the text of the passage you’ve got. You ask a question and out come a bunch of answers that are true enough, but actually don’t bear any particular resemblance to that train of thought you’re just describing—that it’s there in the passage—an aspect of that train of thought. And so all the time you’re asking, “Anne, sorry which verse was that in?” or “Sorry, where is that in the passage?”
DH: Yeah, we’ve out—we’ve outlawed “the vibe” in our Bible Study group. Now no one is allowed to say, “It’s the vibe of the passage!”
DH: We want details!
TP: Yeah. ‘Cause it can end up being almost like our own evangelical Christian view of relying on tradition, really, in the sense of relying on our traditions—relying on the commonplace truths that are true amongst us, and that we hear and that we get from our teachers, and we hear in sermons and we kind of … in the air of evangelical culture … And we’ll just pick some truths from there that seem right to us and relevant, and run with those without actually attending to what’s going on in this particular passage.
DH: Yeah, that’s right. We get our … if you hang around with Christians long enough, you’ll pick up their habits. At a superficial level, we call that “jargon”, but I think at the next level of depth, there’s just a common understanding develops in a group of what are the right answers, what are basically the three dot point versions of every sort of problem that you might come across as a Christian, so long as everybody has that understanding, everybody acts the same way, then most issues can be dealt with at that level. No one really knows why they’ve dealt with it at that level, but it rings true.
TP: Okay, things were getting interesting here, because we were getting to the relationship between the beliefs and doctrines and traditions that we all hold and have, and the authority behind those traditions—the reasons that we believe them. The basis for them. And the reason that this is important, of course, is that we’re not the only ones who have traditions and beliefs and ideas. We keep meeting other people with their traditions and beliefs and ideas. And if we don’t have the reasons sorted out—the authority sorted out—behind our beliefs and we why we believe them, then interacting with others can get dicey.
DH: Alastair MacIntyre, the ethicist, speaks about this when he talks about tradition superiority—that is, when a group or a person who represents a group meets another tradition, if that tradition is coherent—that is, you know, all the ideas kind of flow in a sequence—when you first meet it, it will appear to have answers to questions that you can’t answer. And so it immediately becomes a threat. And what you’re supposed to do in that situation is to actually return to your own tradition, dig down a bit deeper to see how your ideas actually all fit together, and then you’re ready to interact with this other position—this other tradition—whatever it is. But if Christians have never really mastered literally digging in deep to the Bible, then when they meet alternative traditions that seem, at surface level, to be thoroughly worked out and coherent, they’ll invariably be knocked over by them.
TP: Or, and this is another thing that MacIntyre says that I think rings very true, in our current modern moral discourse, if we can call it that, because there’s no agreed objective morality or objective moral standard anymore, all there is is basically emotivism: there is my assertion of value—this is what I think is moral, and it comes from me.
TP: It can’t come from anywhere objective outside; it’s something that I choose and value. So if that’s the case—if we’re all emotivists, as far as ethics go—we all choose our own values of what we think is good, what’s the basis for persuading you to come to my position? It can only be manipulation, assertion or some other way in which I impress upon your—sort of overpower your values and what you feel inside, and make you somehow come to see mine as superior.
DH: Yeah, well the—you sort of get the western version of honour and shame—that is, to disagree with me is shameful, so what I have to do, then, is make you feel ashamed of having done so. And then the argument’s over and I’ve won!
TP: David is right: that’s how we do moral argument in our society these days—if you can call it “argument”: we embarrass or shame one another out of the positions that we hold. Or if that doesn’t work, we just shut the opposition down and prevent them from speaking.
But that’s not who we are as Christians. We’re not emotivists; we believe what we believe about the world and about God and about morality and about everything because of the authority of God exercised through Scripture. And what we’re really talking about in this conversation is how to put that belief into practice in our Bible Study groups. How do we dig back into the authority of the Bible and sit under its teaching?
DH: I’m trying a couple of things at this stage. At one level, I’m using the analogy of conversing with a friend, and when you converse with a friend, you give each other lots of information. Sometimes it’s directly about a topic; other times, it’s sort of vaguely an aside, and depending on the depth of your relationship, you can actually cope with quite a lot of that. I can go on about my reactions to things and my feelings about something, and that’s actually my way of helping you get to know who I am. And what I’m saying might not actually have anything to do with you in particular. If that’s how persons interact, then we actually need to bring that back to our Bible reading—that sometimes God will tell you things about himself that are actually about him, not about you. And we all know the experience of being in a conversation with someone for 20 minutes or so, and the only thing that they’ve paid attention to was the things that were directly pertinent to them. The rest of the time, they’ve completely ignored you: they’ve zoned out entirely. So what I say to people is, well, we need to be careful that we don’t do that when we read the Bible—that we’re only just sort of scanning through to find the things that are relevant to us, and the other times when God is talking about himself, and we have the opportunity to get to know him, we’ve sort of zoned out because it doesn’t appear relevant to us.
TP: Yeah, yeah, yeah, enough about you; back to me now.
DH: That’s right. That’s enough about you; let’s talk about me. What do you think about me? That kind of thing.
TP: Back to me now.
DH: Yeah, that’s right! That’s right.
TP: Yeah, in a sense, that’s really why … why the reason we have this problem with this is just because of sin: sin is a giant expression of “Back to me now”.
DH: Yeah, yeah. It’s where I—
TP: Let’s just revolve it around me again, thanks!
DH: I become the black hole in my own galaxy!
TP: Sucking everything into its ravenous maw!
DH: That’s right!
TP: And it means that we don’t come to where God speaks, which is in the Bible, with the right frame or the right attitude. It’s really striking to me that whenever the Bible itself talks about coming to listen to God’s word, the attitudes are things like “Come to it with fear and trembling”, “Come towards the word with humility”, “Come on your knees, as it were, ready to listen”. Coming ready for—almost for authority to happen—almost like authority is an event: it’s something that happens. When you come to the word and listen, and it tells you something about God and the world and yourself that drives you to action. In a way, that’s what I think kind of what authority is: it’s that disclosure of the truth about the world and about God that calls forth your action and response.
DH: Yeah, yeah. Well, there’s so many—there’s so many times in Scripture where the metaphor of a light is used: a light is being shone upon you at this point in time. But our reflex action is to cover our eyes, ’cause we can’t stand the glare.
DH: All those sorts of things. But I think the other thing that’s particular about New Testament communication, especially, is that when God confronts us to grasp our attention, he does it through the cross. That is, the pages of the New Testament are soaked in blood. That’s how we receive them—that God has paid an extraordinary price for us to even hear his voice and be worthy to be addressed—to be worthy to have the light shone on us without it destroying us. And I think if you keep that in mind—do everything you can to keep that in mind—that we’re reading the Bible now because Jesus died for us and we’re gathered together in a small group because Jesus died for us, and we come together on Sundays because Jesus died for us. And all of those things are only possible because Jesus died for us. But that’s the length to which God is prepared to go for us to be ready and able to hear him address us.
TP: David and I will resume our conversation about the Bible and its authority in just a moment. And in particular, we’ll get on to how different parts of the Bible exercise God’s authority over us and speak to us in different ways.
And as it turns out, our next Centre for Christian Living public event—our next CCL event is on just this topic: it’s on how the Psalms bear into the Christian life. Because no book feels more personal to the Christian than the Psalms, in a lot of ways. And in this CCL event, Andrew Shead, from the Old Testament department at Moore College, will be helping us appreciate how the Psalms work and what the Psalms are, and how they are such a wonderful resource for the Christian life. It’s on 30 August at 7:30pm. The venue is St Cuthbert’s Anglican Church in Naremburn. All the details are on the CCL website: that’s ccl.moore.edu.au.
The other thing I’d briefly like to tell you about is that, as usual, we’ve organised some specials at matthiasmedia.com.au/ccl/ that relate to this episode of the CCL podcast—books and resources, in this case, about the Bible—about how we read and understand and sit under the authority of the Bible personally and especially in our small groups. If you go to that website address (that’s matthiasmedia.com.au/ccl/) you’ll see a range of really useful resources, and in particular, a new resource called The Growth Group Notebook, which is especially for small groups—growth groups—to use in their groups from week to week to record and write down and make best use of all the material you discuss together in your small groups. It’s a wonderful little resource that a lot of groups are making good use of. Check it out: it’s called The Growth Group Notebook.
But back to our conversation. We started chatting about how the different parts of the Bible—the different genres—the different voices in which God speaks to us in the Bible—how they each function as God’s authority over us in slightly different ways.
DH: I think the authority is going to be the same every time; it’s the key in which the song is played. So the easiest—yeah, probably the easiest things for us to “hear” are epistles, because it’s a person writing to another group of people to address an issue. Often we can actually resonate with that—that issue in question—and so when Paul or Peter or John say to the Christians, “This is who Jesus is. This is what he’s done for you. Therefore, in order to be worthy of what he’s done for you, stop doing these things; keep doing those things.” It’s easy to hear that.
TP: And you can see the train of thought there. You can see the logic of what’s happening—how he moves from this towards that—and even if the “that” that he’s moving towards isn’t precisely the same as our “that” (which it never is, precisely; sometimes it’s quite different), we can see the way that the flow of the thought works. We can see on the basis of these things, he thinks in this direction to this end.
TP: And we can come to where we’re starting and the issue we’re facing and follow a similar train of thought, even if the situation is different. Now, it’s—and it’s obviously easier sometimes to see those trains of thought in the epistles.
TP: The Bible informs us in other ways—through stories and through wisdom and through all sorts of stuff.
DH: Yeah. But there are rules for that as well. And if you pay attention, the writer of the story will tell you what to do. It’s not in the Bible alone where someone writes a story, has characters in it with whom you’re supposed to empathise. That’s what the gospel writers do: they bring you all these characters to meet Jesus who have a whole range of life experiences, and Jesus deals with them in various different ways, and really it’s a matter of thinking to ourselves, “Well, this is actually a true story. And so I’m a participant in it. And the characters, well, they actually might be more like me than I expect. So what Jesus is saying to them may well be Jesus speaking directly to me too—such that I have to answer questions that the gospel writers often to use, like ‘Who is this man?’ ‘What must we do to be saved?’” All those sorts of things. The gospel narrative—the story—is telling you how to participate in it.
And the fantastic thing about biblical theology—in fact, why biblical theology is so important—is it’s in the text themselves. When you read through, say, the Gospel of Matthew, for example, he seems to stop every five minutes and say, “Oh, remember that prophecy that was given in this verse and that chapter? That’s fulfilled right here.” So there, the gospel writers are actually teaching you not just how to participate in their gospel story, but they’re teaching you how to read the whole of the Bible story in order to finish up at this point where you can be addressed by Jesus.
TP: Which kind of takes us back to where this conversation began, which is to say that a really significant aspect of sitting under the authority of the Bible and the authority of God in Scripture is simply to keep reading it—to keep attending to and peering into its details, to come to it humbly and tremblingly in order to see what it’s saying, and to do that often. Which is why it’s such an important thing to actually have the Bible open—not only in our personal lives—in our own quiet times—but in our small groups and in our church gatherings together. Because when we open the Bible, God himself speaks to us. And not always about the issues and topics and problems that we have in our minds.
DH: Yeah, more often than not, when you come to the Scriptures, they’ll present a question for you—
DH: —to which you don’t have an answer unless you keep reading.
TP: A question you never though to ask.
TP: In fact, a question you need to ask.
TP: But which, for your own blindness or your own purposes, you haven’t thought or wanted to ask.
DH: Yeah, yeah. And … For example, I know that it’s important for preachers to have series where we bring people’s questions to the Bible and try and answer them. You know, that’s often important, say, in evangelism, because people think they have a question that Christianity can’t answer. But really, more important than that is to get people together reading the Bible so that Jesus can ask them questions—that he not only has an answer to but actually has God’s authority to present to them.
But it does bring us back to what I was saying before: the Bible is the way to learn how to relate to this particular person: the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. When we’re ordinarily in conversation with people, we pick up rules: we smile at one another, we frown when we say the wrong thing, all that sort of thing. In relating to God, we’re speaking to an incredibly complex person. So in order to grasp some small part of the complexity of what it is to relate to your creator, he’s provided 66 different versions of a conversation with him so that you can actually develop some skills in hearing when you’re being addressed by this extraordinarily complex person.
TP: Who has placed us in a world—a morally formed and ordered world—that is, a constantly shifting, changing, variegated complex world as well.
TP: It’s not as if the world is a simple place that conforms to three rules, and if you just implement those three rules as you walk around each day … It’s a complex place, where you have to—you come upon each new situation and you have to read that situation. What’s going on here? What is that person doing? What comes into play at this point? What’s really happening in this circumstance? And the Bible discloses because it’s the word of the God who made that world and made that created order, and it’s his—an expression of his relationship and will speaking to us in that order, it constantly in the same way helps us to get to know our world, I think.
DH: Yeah. Yeah, that’s right. Because the world has been made for the glorified Lord Jesus, and so it’s ready for human beings to interact with it. It’s rich and varied because of that—because we worship a great God. But the richness and the variation is poisoned by sin, so that it’s always wanting to be more chaotic than it should be. If it was just sin-free, it would be—still take a lifetime to master. But it’s got that cancer in it that makes straight things crooked, as the wisdom writers say.
TP: Of course, it’s not just the creation that is spoiled by sin and is made crooked when it should be straight; we are too. And that’s why, in many ways, we need one another to help each other read the Bible—to correct each other, to read it in fellowship with one another. And so, I concluded our conversation by asking David how the authority of the Bible works within a church.
DH: In the first instance, what happens is the Bible creates a church through theology, and provided that the Bible has created this church, then the church will be ruled by the Scriptures. It’s easy to get a group of people together for all kinds of reasons, and that may not be anything to do with what the Bible actually says. Once the Bible forms a community (which the Bible tells you is going to happen—that that’s what the story of the Bible is about)—once you have that community in which to read the Scriptures together, you can then test the spirits as people have varying insights: “Oh, I discovered this in the Bible!” Everybody should immediately open their Bibles and say, “Is that what the Bible really says? Is that what God really says about himself? Is the God of the gospel actually being spoken about here?”
TP: And we’re way back to where we started with Bible Study groups—
TP: —and the reason we have Bible Study groups: it’s because the Bible creates groups of people—
TP: —who sit under it. And if our Bible Study group practice is such that we stop actually sitting under the Bible, listening to it carefully, patiently, humbly attending to the text, and actually seeing what’s there, and just become a group of people who happen to have a common set of practices or ideas, then we’ll increasingly become something other than the church the Bible creates.
TP: Well that’s all for this episode of the Centre for Christian Living podcast. Hope you’ve enjoyed the conversation. For more information about all that we do here at the Centre for Christian Living—for video and audio archives of our past events, for articles and essays, and for all the information about our forthcoming events—make sure you zip over to our website: that’s ccl.moore.edu.au. I’m Tony Payne. Thanks for listening today.