The essence of ministry is the ability to grasp the Bible as God’s special revelation of himself and use it to edify Christians and evangelize the lost. Glorifying God through handling Scripture is a skill that develops over a lifetime of following Jesus. Therefore, understanding something of the basic nature of the Bible is critical to the church. This may seem obvious or elementary, but the Bible is a historical book. That is, it was written in history by actual historical characters. Yes, the Bible is a spiritual book. Yet, that does not negate or cancel the fact that it is an actual historical document.
I am not just a pastor and a theologian; I am also an historian with a few academic degrees to show for it. But even if a pastor or layperson is not credentialed as an historian, that person still does the work of an historian by handling God’s historical Word.
I cannot emphasize enough the need to approach Scripture with some common historical sense. If we do not, we are in danger of misinterpreting God’s Holy Word for us today. As contemporary people who seek to apply the Bible to our present needs and situations, the historians’ craft can help us in our quest. John Fea, professor of American History at Messiah College, has rightly explained that the historian’s task is not first to find something relevant in history, but to initially do the work of helping to explain the past. The goals of the historian, Fea says, are: to observe change over time; to interpret the past in context; to be constantly interested in the causes for an event; to keep the big picture in mind by seeing how events are influenced by other events; and, to realize that the past is complex by resisting simplistic explanations that can be put into sound bites.
If we rip biblical characters from their historical context and roots; if we try and make them just like us; if we ignore their understandings and motivations; if we ask first what something means for us before asking what it meant for them; if we seek to selfishly use biblical persons as tools for our own propaganda in the present; then, we have done a disservice to the church, not to mention a disservice to the God whom we seek to honor. What I am insisting upon is that we eschew cherry-picking from the past and the Bible in order to get positive accolades with the people for whom we minister to. The biblical word for that is “Pharisee.” The Bible is not to be used to get our point across; it is God’s revelation to us so that we can know him better – so that we might grow in the grace and the knowledge of the Lord Jesus.
I am not saying that one needs to be a scholar in order to effectively learn or communicate Holy Scripture. What I am pleading for is some intellectual hospitality, some basic human decorum in handling the Bible so that we can learn to listen to both the characters of the Bible and the people in our lives with views that differ from our own. Someone might argue that all we need is the Holy Spirit. And I would argue that only the narcissist thinks he/she can independently handle the Bible, as if the Holy Spirit speaks only to individuals and not the community of the redeemed as a whole.
We need to examine the Old and New Testaments not to give ammunition to our personal and cultural agendas, but because they have the potential to change our lives and transform us in order to serve the church and the world. May it be so.