This series explores the nature of Scripture (specifically those aspects which many of us find uncomfortable) and what our approach to Scripture should be as a consequence. This exploration is needed because our intrinsic human biases cause us to assume that God's nature / aims / priorities / etc all line up with our modernistic worldview, which focuses on detailed accurate synergistic information. However such an approach to Scripture clashes with many of its properties. Our response tends to be to curate Scripture, or to minimize our engagement with the aspects we find difficult to explain. Instead, we should engage with all of Scripture as God designed it, and challenge our perspective on it when needed. What does it look like when we value the uncomfortable aspects of Scripture?
The series so far:
- Progressive Revelation
- Relationships and Cognition
- Morality and Evil
- Coping with Evil I
- Coping with Evil II
- How to Read (this post)
So far I've spent a long time justifying my belief that God is more interested in the meta-cognitive goals of person-hood, expression, and relationship. Now I want to start exploring the practical aspects of reading Scripture.
Scripture's purpose, specifically, is to be a collection of some of the individual progressive revelations of God's person-hood throughout history, which taken together He has deemed to be the most universally useful expression toward encouraging relationship with Him. It does this in an incredibly dynamic way. If we focus on cognitive information and a harmonious synthesis of theology, we can miss a lot of what the Bible has to offer toward relationship with God, and at its worst it can lead us to minimize aspects of Scripture to the point that they are almost useless to us. How should we approach Scripture keeping relationship in mind, and balancing the usefulness and limitations of cognition toward this ultimate aim? I have some general principles to share, but this is something I'd like to grow in more, so please share your own thoughts!
How to Read Scripture:
1) Immerse yourself in the passage, allowing every aspect of yourself to be impacted by the experience. We don't expect each expression of a person to be perfect and balanced - and likewise with each revelation - but they are unique and beautiful and insightful. By reading Scripture and inviting the Holy Spirit to speak through it, you are touching an aspect God, a deliberately designed expression of Himself! Never let this slip by you.
2) Utilize flawed cognition to your relational advantage. Despite its limitations - which I have emphasized in my defense of God's relational aims - cognition is central to our approach to Scripture for obvious reasons. Firstly, Scripture is written in a language, meaning cognition has to be engaged to even start experiencing it with your other non-cognitive faculties. Secondly, 'Immersing yourself in the passage' is something that's not under much of our direct control, since all our faculties are overwhelmingly influenced by external circumstances, our subconscious, and each other. However, cognition is unique in that it is also (at least partly) consciously controlled, which gives us an avenue to steer and focus our other faculties of experience. If we are discussing how we should control our approach to Scripture, this control has to occur through our cognition.
3) Attempt to cognitively understand what God intended for people to experience from his designed expression in Scripture. How Scripture's designed relational purpose is realized - or whether it is realized at all - varies between individuals. Our cognition needs to understand the intended experience if it is to steer our experience in the right direction.
4) Deliberately consider multiple different experiences of God from the passage in mind. I think this is one of the most productive ways to attempt to properly experience God's expression through Scripture. These different perspectives help us break out of our worldview and so avoid subconscious worldview hijacking of our cognition, so we can consider God's intentions for the passage more clearly. But more profoundly, they help us stick to the first principle of relational experience (rather than cognitive accuracy). If we understand another person's relational experience, it allows us to experience an echo of God ourselves. In addition to the hypothetical 'universal intended experience' we're trying to understand from a passage, it's as if we were experiencing a personalized expression of God by proxy (albeit one with greater potential for error in our understanding, and with less universal benefit than Scripture itself).
5) Start with some 'high yield' perspectives. Perhaps most useful is that of the original intended audience or of the author, since these are clearly going to be integral to God's intended experience of his expression in that passage of Scripture. Also helpful to consider are the experiences of early and/or orthodox church consensus. A final group of helpful perspectives are those of individual saints who you discern to be relating well to God in a holistic sense - these may be dead or living saints, famous or privately known.
6) Allow your cognition to function naturally and form a harmonized view of God as a person. Try to see God through each of the expressions you experience which you deem to be intended by God, or genuine healthy relationships. Remember you are trying to understand a person in the light of all their complex expressions. Don't make a God up who wraps perfectly around all these 'experiences' (this can never take into full consideration the dynamics of person-hood). Instead try to understand the God who expresses Himself in these ways.
7) Don't let our modernistic worldview hijack your cognition and make an idol of it. This is an imperfect process and does not define 'relationship', though it is useful and natural. Do not be distracted away from the aim of relationship with God. Remember that the hypothetical 'universal intended experience' is actually going to be a spectrum of experience, just like any public expression in earthly relationships. Do not become obsessed with the difficulties of forming a harmonized view of God. Focus on God's intentions for Scripture (rather than picking 'the best' interpretation), and focus on God as a person (where Scripture springs from Him, rather than the reverse). Where cognitive perplexity exists, relate to God through this (some perplexity is a normal part of any relationship).
Its more (or less) intuitive
This approach is fairly intuitive and natural - read the passage for what it is, and consider the spectrum of legitimate ways to experience God through it (even if they contain different mixes of cognitive gaps). Despite its simplicity and intuitiveness, this approach IS difficult - because our worldview isn't happy with cognitive gaps, and because this approach requires us to put aside our preferred priorities and seek God as HE wishes to be found.
Reading Scripture should utilize cognition to focus the rest of our faculties and allow our whole being to experience God as He intends. At the same time we need to be vigilant not to focus excessively on our cognition, or elevate its importance above other aspects of relationship. One way to do this is to deliberately consider the spectrum of legitimate experiences of others through Scripture - including the original audiences and authors, church consensus, and individual saints. We should let our cognition form a harmonized view of God, a God who would express Himself through all these experiences. But there will always be perplexities of person-hood and relationship that our cognition cannot 'solve', and we need to be careful not to assume that this means something is 'wrong', and not to let this distract us from relationship.
- Are there any other reading / interpretation techniques that you feel are important to enhance a proper relationship with God?
- Do you agree that considering a variety of perspectives is important?
- Do you agree that considering the whole experience - not just the cognitive aspects - is important?
- When deciding which experiences are useful to consider in your interpretation of Scripture, how much attention do you pay to the cognitive aspects of that experience?
- How do you feel about accepting inevitable perplexities when it comes to forming a harmonize cognitive view of God?
- Next I'll deal with some further issues people have with this approach to Scripture, specifically how it can seem to threaten traditional theological processes and the concept of 'inerrancy'.
- After that we'll explore some specific examples of progressive revelation and how a relational approach to Scripture leads ancient and modern saints to Him, but through different cognitive paths.
[1 - When attempting to understand the experience of the original audiences and authors, it can be helpful to remember how progressive revelation functions to serve relationship with Christ. Each passage was written to enhance as much as possible the revelation of Christ to the intended audience, taking into account their interpretive bias, and the historical processes God intends to drive as part of his expression to mankind. Thus this consideration can be helped a lot by an understanding of the times and cultures and language etc (which can seem daunting), but a lot of this can be gleaned from the Scripture itself. Important things to remember is that these audiences did not have subsequent revelation to balance their cognitive experience of God, that they had different priorities and worldview to us, and that they had genres of language that we aren't too familiar with in our modernistic society .]
[2 - Church 'concensus' is clearly not unanimous, and has also frequently been plagued by political and selfish motivations. However, the greater unity there is among those who seem driven by a desire to relate to the God of Scripture, the more authority this consensus has as a legitimate intented experience of God. After all, the church - functioning this way - is the means by which we trust God to have chosen and preserved Scripture in the first place. This kind of concensus can allowing many doctrines labeled as heretical by the modern American/Western church, and can also be troubled by the influence of the current worldview (e.g. Greek thinking paved the way for modernism and tended to idolise cognition).]
[3 - The more you know a person yourself and are persuaded of there relationship with God, the less 'orthodox' their cognitive views need to be in order to be useful. Conversely, some 'orthodox' saints may have an experience of God that is less than convincing, and so may not be worth considering.]
[4 - Our modernistic mind will search for reasons to avoid worldview reform - e.g. by disregarding it as 'post-modernism'. This view is post-modern in the sense that it recognises the problems with modernism, but it is NOT postmodern in the sense of denying the reality or importance of cognition, absolutes, truth, consistency, etc. This approach relies upon the essential foundation of absolute reality and consistency in the person of God - but our experience of God should not derive all its meaning from how well we grasps all the cognitive details of God's absolute reality and consistency. The incarnation reveals how God is more than willing to 'empty himself', forgoing some aspects of His reality in order to better express others (e.g. His willingness and ability to relate to us).]
[5 - Even if we agree with this approach to Scripture, it doesn't make the difficulties go away! Our preference for cognitive information is deeply ingrained in our culture, and makes us constantly think about how this approach deals with cognition. What a shame to miss the beauty of the big picture, because we are thinking too much about how the picture is bigger than the sum of its parts and can't be contained in a cognitive description of it! What a shame to miss Jesus because we're thinking about how a person can't be described well with words alone! It can be good to understand how cognition and relationship interact - but Satan can use anything to distract us from actually relating to Jesus.]