How you see something—what experiences and expectations you bring—really matters. Take a look at this image. I first saw this in Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (an oldey-but-goody). What do you see?
Do you see a young woman?
How about an old woman?
This may be a high-school level example, but it still holds true: our perspective governs what we see and experience.
This is no different with the Bible.
Like it or not, we all bring “ourselves” to the Bible, in the form of expectations, baggage, hopes, and various experiences. All of these frame the questions we ask of Scripture. Sometimes these questions are obvious, and we’re aware of them, while other times we aren’t quite clued into what we are asking the Bible “to do” for us as we read it. For instance, it’s easy to approach the Scriptures with the desire to have them
+ make us feel good about ourselves…
+ justify our beliefs…
+ tell us how to get to heaven…
+ tell us about Jesus…
… and on and on. Over time these can change, but we almost always bring SOMETHING to the Scriptures as individuals, and furthermore the church collectively brings questions as well as it goes through time.
I wanted to lay out four broad perspectives that we can bring to the Bible, and make a couple comments and suggestions about them. There are certainly more perspectives (and questions) than this, but somehow I feel like these are the big ones that are shaping our faith today (and starting to shape it for tomorrow).
Reading the Bible with a Soteriological filter means that we are asking, “How can I get saved?” (soter is Greek for “save”). This paradigm maintains that the point of Scripture is to (in older parlance) “tell us how to get to heaven.” Obviously Scripture has a lot to say about the state of our souls, and about God’s desire to save us, but a lot of explicit “saving” language is actually absent from the even the Gospels, and though Paul, for instance, writes a lot about it, he seems to talk about community just as much (if not more).
When we read the Bible with a Christological filter we are reading it through a lense that asks, “What does this tell me about Jesus?” In so many ways, Jesus is the fullest revelation of God’s work on earth: He is Messiah, Son of God, Emmanuel. The Bible is obviously concerned with Jesus’ identity and vocation on earth. The challenge of this paradigm is that frankly it can be difficult to find Jesus in some of the pages of the Old Testament in particular, and when it’s difficult to find “answers” to the question we are asking (“Tell me about Jesus”), it can be easy to simply put down the book and decide that it’s irrelevant.
In my opinion, these two paradigms and filters have dominated the church’s approach to Scripture in our recent age. However, two other paradigms are now entering the discussion that I believe have the potential to really expand our understanding of Scripture.
Reading Scripture with an Ecclesiological filter means we are asking, “What does this tell me about the Church?” In contrast to the both the soteriological and Christological filters, this paradigm starts with community. It assumes that the Church—the People of God—is central to God’s work in the world, and that Moses, Isaiah, Jesus and Paul (along with everyone else who wrote and assembled the canon of Scripture) want to convey that importance. In our individualistic society, coming at the book of Romans, for instance, from the perspective of learning about community can radically change our understanding of Paul’s point. (I believe we actually find that Paul is JUST as concerned with unity and helping us all to get along” as he is in telling us how to be saved, largely because he knows that the unity of the Church between Jews and Gentiles is actually one of the signs that PROVE Jesus was who he said he was. But I digress.)
Lastly, and similarly, we can read Scripture Missionally. This means we are asking the Bible to tell us about the mission and work of God in the world. This paradigm is grand and epic; it does a great job of tying everything together, and runs from Genesis 1 (well, 3 at least) to Revelation. Stated simply, this paradigm maintains that Scripture is telling us how God plans to redeem all of creation and restore it to its original status of being reflection of His character. A missional reading of Scripture unifies the story of Israel, Jesus, Paul and the church along one strong “spine”, and actually thrusts the story forward into our age.
These paradigms are not simply big words to throw around. They really do impact the way in which we read the Bible. We miss so much of the story when we engage in only one way to read it. If you’ve never thought about the Church when you read the Gospels, simply write the question, “What does this tell me about living together as the Church?” on an index card and keep it in your Bible as you read.
The point of all of this is, quite frankly, is to expand the way in which we read and interact with the Bible. It’s too grand a story to be contained by the narrow perspectives that have contained it.