Monday, March 19, 2012

The Word of God for the People of God - Book review

The second-to-last section of the Gospel of John is a discussion between Jesus and Peter.  They have a bit of back-and-forth conversation, with Jesus asking Peter if he, Peter, loves him, to which Peter offers a heartfelt, “You know that I love you.”  This exchange happens three times, with Jesus’ response to Peter’s affirmation of love being, “Feed my lambs,” “Tend my sheep,” and “Feed my sheep.”  One of the things happening here is that Jesus is highlighting the importance of the task being given to Peter of providing ongoing care for Jesus disciples. 

The task of “feeding God’s sheep” remains among the primary responsibilities of those in pastoral ministry today, and the food that God has given for the task is his word, as contained in the Old and New Testaments of the Bible.  In The Word of God for the People of God: an entryway to the theological interpretation of scripture, J. Todd Billings provides those who would teach and preach God’s word with an understanding of their own particular entry-point as they open their Bible and he gives them some things to be mindful of as they study, so that they can bring the fullest possible understanding to those in their care.

(Disclaimer: I studied systematic theology with Prof. Billings, where he taught several of the concepts he writes of in this book.)

Billings is well aware of the many different ways people approach the Bible, recognizing that the point of entry often shapes what is found and how it is used.  The goal of his book is “to introduce readers to the practice of interpreting Scripture in the context of the triune activity of God, the God who uses Scripture to reshape the church into Christ’s image by the Spirit’s power.” (xiii)  He believes that Scripture should be approached in an integrated manner in order to best hear and follow “God’s powerful and transforming word…a word that is not under our control.”  Ministry leaders are not called to read the Bible as “religious managers or religious customer service agents.  They are called to read the Bible as disciples of Jesus Christ.” (xvii)  To which I respond with a hearty “Amen!”

In six chapters Billings explores basic issues to understanding one’s entry point to the Bible.  Chapter one considers the importance of reading scripture as part of the essential task of theology, i.e. “Faith seeking understanding.”  Chapter two gives an overview of the place of historical and biblical criticism in reading scripture carefully. Chapter three addresses basic questions regarding the nature of scripture and its source.  Chapter four considers the importance of understanding one’s own context as they study scripture, while chapter five highlights the importance of looking back to see what other students throughout church history have gleaned from the same texts being studied today.  And chapter six concludes with a consideration of the interpretation of scripture within the practice of Christian faith, with one eye on the essential role of a Trinitarian outlook to the expression of faith. 

This book is filled, from beginning to end, with valuable wisdom for the biblical student, teacher and preacher.  It is written for an audience that has a working familiarity with the vocabulary of theological studies but the points that Billings articulates can, and should, all be developed for teaching within congregations. 

One example has to do with how we understand scripture to be received.  One of the decisions we make concerning scripture, which is critical in how we read and apply it, is its source.  “Either revelation is grounded in inherent, universal human capacities or in the particularity of God’s action with Israel and in Jesus Christ.” (74, italics authors)  We may or may not consciously consider these questions but our answers to them give powerful shape to what we receive from scripture.

With the first option we may view Scripture as something that was written by a diverse group of people and collected by another group of people, each imposing their own particular biases on their task.  As we read it from this point we are free to take and keep what we want and to discard that which we feel is no longer relevant.

But if we take the second option then we recognize that while what we have received as Scripture may have come through human hands, it is inspired by a divine source.  In receiving revelation this way “Christians enter into a world that they did not create.” (80)  As a result of Scripture coming from God’s particular action, “Believers in Jesus Christ do not “own” the truth as much as they are owned by the one who is the truth.” (82)  To borrow from Robert Frost, our decision regarding the source of revelation of Scripture “makes all the difference.”

A theme that runs through the entire book is the work of the Trinity in the reading of Scripture and the living of Christian faith.  That may seem to be a “no-brainer,” given that virtually all orthodox Christians in the world believe in the triune nature of God, beliefs that are clearly stated in the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds, as well as the confessional statements of many denominations and individual congregations.  But in practice we often worship and serve a somewhat generic God and/or Jesus, paying little heed to the person of the Spirit or the intimate interconnectedness of Father, Son and Spirit in every activity that God is involved in.  In the final chapter Billings emphasizes that anything less than Trinitarian reading and practice will leave large holes in what we know of God and the ways in which we serve him.

Billings does an excellent job of advocating for a heightened articulation of the Trinity as we read, teach and preach the word of God, saying, “The Bible is the instrument of the triune God to shape believers into the image of Christ, in word and deed, by the power of the Spirit, transforming a sinful and alienated people into children of a loving Father.” (199)  In The Word of God for the People of God Billings graciously invites and guides all Christians into a rich and transforming encounter with God’s word, to God’s eternal glory.  

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