"Why Read the Bible"
Rev. C. Eugene Sill, D. D.
January 21 1973
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The late Harry Emerson Fosdick describes a typical American travel era Visiting the Holy Land, he suddenly interrupted his tour group with the words, “Why didn't somebody tell me that Palestine is talked of in the Bible? I would have bought one!” There is a reason for reading the Scriptures: The sacred pages provide a map of Palestine, a tour guide? If you would learn about the Holy land, read the Bible.
Of course there is a more pertinent rationale for reading the Old and New Testaments than that: For one thing, there are reasons for Bible-reading that are obligatory. Around the word “obligation” a cluster of reasons gathers. We are obliged to study the sacred pages, for example, because we have a debt to pay. Our fathers knew better than we the extent of that obligation. When Hus, Wycliffe and Luther translated the Bible into the vernacular of their area and century, the people clamored for copies. Sensing the vital worth of the Scriptures, the laity yearned for editions of their own? In England, copies of the Bishop's Bible, for instance, had to be chained to the lecterns of churches to prevent their being stolen?
Although we ourselves are not as quick to recognize the immense worth of the Scriptures as were some earlier generations, the facts are that we owe a debt and ought to pay it. With what bloodshed the Bible has been prepared and preserved for us: Almost every word has been bought with a price. When we refer to a “Red Letter Bible” we normally mean an edition in which the sayings of Jesus are printed in red ink. But we ought, instead, to mean the entire Bible—both testaments. For many of those words are printed in the blood of translators, scholars, preachers and prophets. Hundreds have died for the right to translate, print, and read and interpret the Bible. Here is an immense debt" This book is precious:
Even more, the Bible has been formative of both the German and the English languages, Tyndale's translation of the Bible into English literally fashioned the structures of the language. So with Luther's German edition. Perhaps nothing crystallized the style and grammar of English more decisively than the King James Version of the Scriptures? Once again, all English—speaking people owe an un payable debt to the Bible for providing them with a common language by which to communicate.
The Scriptures are the Tower of Babel in reverse. They build communication. Any mature person accustomed to paying his debts will feel some obligation to read a book bought at so high a price and fashioned into the very structure of his speech. We have a duty to read the Bible
Also, leading to obligatory reasons for Bible reading is the fact that we have a duty to keep up our spiritual muscles. Nothing so consistently challenges our inner flabbiness as disciplined Bible reading. Much such study requires commitment and discipline. Often Bible—reading is hard going. Those who have spent years of their lives trying to understand the Scriptures know that reading them is much like peeling an orange. In order to eat the fruit it is necessary to tear off the thick outer coat, then the thin inner coat. Even when the peeling has all been removed, there is much pulp in an orange, To get at the sweet heart of the fruit much distasteful work must be done.
Similarly, to find the inner spirit of the Bible requires disciplined work. I have spent many hours of drudgery reading what is clearly the "skin" in search of the meat within. But the one can scarcely be found without the other? Thus, there is discipline necessary in all Bible reading? Our spiritual muscles need vigorous conditioning.
If they are to remain firm and useful, those muscles must be toned up by Bible reading—even by tedious and unprofitable perusal of sections that have little light and truth in them» Only thus can the Bible render one of its foremost benefits to us, helping us to keep up our spiritual natures?
Professor Nels Ferre knew this truth when he wrote that the Bible is not a load to be carried but a lever for lifting. First the load, then the lever. With careful study, we move from load to lever, from discipline to delight. When the Bible has disciplined our inner nature—our spiritual muscles-—it can lift loads for use A third obligatory, duty—bound reason for reading the Bible is found in our need for knowledge of the faith? Although we confessed last week that the Scriptures are not the sole text book of Our faith, we must admit that between the pages of these volumes we find the basic facts of the Gospel? Here we are exposed to the persons, ideas and events of the Christian faith. We need knowledge of the Kerygma. We ought to know as much about Moses as about Harry Truman, as much about Jeremiah as about Walter Chronkite, as much about the Psalms as about Jesus Christ Super Star-—and MORE about Jesus than about anyone else in history? If we are to be faithful, we must know at least as much about the Gospel as about Karl Marx, Mao Tse Tung or the John Birch Society.
Surely the Christian will have a better grasp of the Bible than the GI who found himself at dinner in an English home. To his utter horror, the soldier had been placed at the table alongside an Anglican Bishop. What was the hostess doing to him? The GI struggled to find something about which to talk? He tried baseball, only to realize that English clerics know little about America's favorite pastime? Then he tried Wimbledon only to discover that he himself knew little about British tennis. He was in despair.
Then a moment of genius struck him. Excitedly he blurted out, “I just love the Bible.” The bishop came alive. Eagerly he asked, “What part?” The GI had not expected that! He stuttered and stammered. Then he replied boldly, “I like best that part where Lady MacBeth,” looking at the stain on her hand, “cried, 'Out, damned spot, out.'”. “What do you like best?” The bishop did not hesitate. He said, “I like best that part where Scarlet O'Hara, looking at her ancestral estate in ruins, cries, 'I'll never be hungry again.'” Well—we ought to know our Scripture better than that? How can we survive in this world of jelly and meat grinders if we know nothing about our faith?
Yes, we have an obligation to read the Bible? We owe a debt; we must keep up our spiritual muscles, and we ought to have knowledge of our faith. Duty urges us to read, and to read continuously, the Scriptures of our faith. Such study is obligatory. We MUST do it.
Around the word “voluntary” another group of reasons for reading the Bible clusters. At the outset of these voluntary grounds is the fact that the Old Testament and the New Testament both provide the base for a precious fellowship. Bible reading is the key to koinonia. On one hand, I am implying that much fellowship in the church through the centuries has been provided by Bible classes. In most Protestant congregations Bible study has brought together those of both sexes, various ages and different opinions. Such classes offer an in~depth experience of fellowship.
On the other hand I am speaking of a more profound base of fellowship. I am referring to the common vocabulary made possible by biblical studies. As Christians come to know their holy books, they increasingly share a body of idioms, ideas and images that unites them. Common words and concepts draw them together. Christians find themselves with an in—group language that throws open the doors to fellowship.
There is a biblical language, a “holy jargon.”
In our secular world we have an illustration. Some biblical terms have become current in our speech. So, we can speak of “going the second mile,” “turning the other cheek,” and “doing unto others what we would have them do unto us.” From the words of Jesus we have borrowed and implanted into our everyday vocabulary some pointed idioms.
To a far greater degree, than thus far achieved, the church should build its commonality of language. When we do not know the idioms and thought-systems of the one book that unites us-the Bible-—there is a break down of communication? Not because I MUST, but because I MAY, I read the Bible in order to further my fellowship with Christians living and dead. I freely and deliberately spend hours with the Scripture because I look forward to enlarging and deepening my fellowship with other Christians.
Another inducement for reading the Bible grows out of the desire to understand our condition. The Book gives me perspective on myself in the world? I want to study these sacred volumes because they offer persgective on my life. Facing the swirling dervishes of war, poverty. disease, tyranny, injustice and death, how shall I understand who I am and how I should behave? Moses, the prophets and Jesus can really help me here! Careful Bible reading keeps me in focus.
So it has been with millions through the centuries. Benvenuto Cellini could not have found his way without careful Bible reading? Once a favorite of the papal court, Cellini, the silver smith during the Renaissance found himself into serious trouble. Accused of stealing some of the papal jewels, Cellini was thrown into a dungeon in 1539. Although he was later exonerated and found innocent, he was kept in prison. For long months he lived in the foulness of the dungeon.
Realizing that he had been unjustly treated and shabbily regarded by the Pope, Cellini began to read the Bible. Because of the limited light available in the prison cell he could at first read only for an hour and a half. Ultimately, however, as his eyes grew accustomed to the dark, he could study for three hours each day. How carefully he read. So excited did he become that he longed to spend his entire day perusing the Scriptures.
He described his study as providing “deep treasures of delight”. Although he tried to commit suicide, his bible reading prevented it. The Holy Library saved his life. Even in a dungeon, dank and foul, he could keep his perspective through study of the prophets, Jesus and St. Paul. Moses and Jeremiah became his companions.
The Bible rescued him?
A nonchristian made much the same claim. At the age of seventy Mahatma Gandhi wrote that the Bahagavagita had become his mother. The Gita was more than Bible or Koran to him. It was his celestial mother. Though his earthy mother had been gone for years, the Gita had taken her place. It was always at his side, always unchanged, always comfortingo He wrote of his sacred book, “When I am in difficulty or distress, I seek refuge in her bosom.”
How else is it with the Bible? In times of difficulty and distress, the Scriptures are our mother. They comfort us, giving us perspective and balance. Surely I need not be ordered to read such a book? I pour over it voluntarily. I want to. I yearn for time to do it. Whenever I read it, I gain perspective on my condition.
Moreover, I peruse the Bible because God uses it to reveal Himself. Although I can meet the Almighty in the woods, along the California coast, during a concert of the Oakland Symphony—or even on a BART train—I find Him most consistently in the pages of both the Old Testament and the New. He breaks through those words to me. In those hallowed phrases He shouts, whispers, sings and speaks His will to me. I rush to read the Bible in order to meet Him there.
As if this were not enough, I read the Bible because it is the source for liberation. When people have the Bible, their resistance to injustice hardens. Give the Bible to the people and see tyrants topple from their thrones. Give the Bible to the people and see racism flee. Give the Bible to the people and see the poor rise up to demand equality. Give the Bible to the people and see darkness turn to light. The role of the Scriptures in setting people free is one of the noblest chapters in human history.
The manner in which Bible study braced the sagging spirits of German churchmen during Hitler's era is illustrative. Many German clergy who were not great theologians found their inspiration in intensive Bible study. Most of us know the name of Diedrich Bonhoeffer or Martin Niemoller. Their resistance to Nazism became celebrated. But there were others of lesser breed who stood faithfully by the Gospel. One of these was Rev. Paul Schneider. Beginning careful study of the Scripture in 1935, he ultimately became convinced that he must obey God and not man. From such biblical insights, Schneider went on to confront Hitler and become the first martyr among the German Christians. It was the Bible which inspired him to his courageous stand. Give the people the Bible and they will resist the worst of tyranny.
One of the reasons that I read these ancient pages willingly and hopefully is that I see their bracing qualities. The Bible gives courage to the faint-hearted, and makes tall men out of average people. The weak grow strong, the short become tall, the simple become wise. The Scriptures are the source of liberation? Jesus meant it when he said, “If you continue in my word, you shall be my disciples, and you shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free”.
In summary, then, I read the Bible voluntarily because it is so magnificently relevant. It was not only George Bernard Shaw who has seen that the Bible is as current as the morning newspaper. Those who have made it a practice to do systematic study of the Scriptures have been the first to see the contemporaneity and currency of what they are doingo Those words out of a day long ago speak with shocking relevance.
The Russian novelist, Dimitri Merejkowski, has seen this truth “He admitted that he prized a New Testament which he had owned for thirty years. The gilt edged pages had turned gray. The back had come unstuck. The pages were dirty with sweat and tears. But he would not give up that Testament.” He had read every word of it again and againg He once said that there is “always something new in what I read, something unfathomed, and I shall never plumb its depths or reach its end.” Then he said that he wanted to be buried with that book? At last, when he has to give a final accounting of his life and is asked, “What did you do with your life?” he will answer, “I read the book?”
What a Russian novelist found to be true speaks authentically to us all? Merejkowski was not driven like a slave to read this book. He was not bribed into doing so. He was not ridiculed nor scolded into doing it” No, there were no obligatory overtones to his study? He read the Bible because he could do no other. He WANTED to read it. He yearned to do so, Not because he had to, but because he needed to-because everything deep within him demanded it: that was why he poured over those ancient pages.
Yes, there are both obligatory and voluntary reasons for reading the Bible? Each of these should persuade us to get on with ite We, too, ought to be able to say at life's end, “I read the books”.
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