Should We Give up on Private Bible Reading?
Recently I have talked with a number of Christian leaders from various denominations. They have told me they are giving up on any private reading of the Bible. They said it with a bit of uncertainty in their voices, wondering if they were doing the right thing, wondering if they were secret heretics. You see it has been drilled into them that a good Christian has a quiet time every day and part of that includes personal Bible reading.
Now these leaders aren’t giving up on the Bible altogether, they have just concluded that Bible reading ought to be communal practice not individual. They point out correctly that the books of the Bible were not addressed to private readers; the various authors expected these books to be read to gathered audiences of the faithful. Even letters addressed to private persons like Philemon and Titus were supposed to be read publicly. Consider Paul’s admonition that “faith comes by hearing” (Romans 10:17); the apostle assumes one who speaks for God and one who listens to the good news. Revelation 1:3 pronounces blessings upon those who read—that is, those who read aloud to the congregation—and those who hear the words of the prophecy. The one who reads is one; those who hear are many.
These leaders also cite church history, particularly, the development of the daily office and other regular gatherings of the faithful to chant the psalms and read the Scriptures. In particular, lectio divina—the spiritual reading of Scripture—is not intended as a solitary enterprise; it expects that believers gather and listen to the Scripture. It assumes a community of people who are living life together and not just a haphazard collection of people with some common interests.
It’s clear to me these leaders are feeling a bit guilty and are unsure about their decision. They want to be good Christians. They see themselves as good Christians. They want others to see them as good Christians too. It’s not that they have found private Bible reading unproductive; it’s that they have found engaging the Bible publicly more productive. It seems to me they have arrived at this point along their spiritual journey in good faith. They aren’t trying to get out of anything or take any short-cuts. They’ re serious in their Christian commitments.
For my part, I’m not ready to give up on private Bible reading. While I understand and can appreciate the concerns expressed by these Christians leaders, I’m not convinced that private Bible reading is not already a communal event. Let me explain. When I sit down to read, say Mark’s Gospel, I am in a very real sense not alone. Think for a moment where this text has come from and how it has come down to us. Thousands of people have been involved in the process of bringing these books down to us. Though the Gospel itself is anonymous, Christian tradition associates it with Mark, a missionary companion of Peter and Paul. When Mark writes, he is writing to the church of his day. They are the first consumers of this letter. But because these Jesus-followers valued it for what it communicated about him, Mark’s Gospel was copied by hand for 1400 years along with all the other books that make up our Bibles. Think about all the monks and scribes who took part in that process. Along the way, it was translated into dozens of languages we know of and many more we don’t. Beginning in the 14th century–and indeed before–courageous Christian scholars began the difficult process of gathering these texts together and translating them into English, my mother tongue. Protestant reformers took the churches of Europe back to the sources (ad fontes), collecting and sorting texts of the Greek and Hebrew Bibles. That process of discovering manuscripts, transcribing them, relating them to other manuscripts, and translating them for the church today continues. In a real sense when I sit down to read the Bible I meet the church. When I work through Mark’s Gospel or Paul’s letter to the Galatians or a psalm, I think about all the saints painstakingly and carefully at work to make sure later generations like ours have the Scriptures in our language. Bible reading, even private Bible reading, involves “the communion of the saints.”
So, what do you think? Have you given up on private Bible reading? Or do you think it is time you did? If so, why? If not, how would you convince these leaders that private Bible reading is a practice worth pursuing?
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