As we engage Scripture we must constantly be on guard against the subtle temptation to reduce the Bible to an object of study. The iconic temptation scene in the Garden illustrates this danger. In Gen 3:1, the serpent begins by asking, “Did God really say….?” Dietrich Bonhoeffer called this the “first conversation about God” (Creation and Fall: A Theological Exposition of Genesis 1–3, trans. Douglas Stephen Bax, ed. John W. de Gruchy, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works 3 [Fortress, 2004], 111). In the previous chapter, God had enjoyed unfettered fellowship with the first humans and conversed with them. Now, at a pivotal moment, God’s previous command becomes the object of study and reflection rather than a natural part of a subjective ongoing relationship with humanity. Imagine how this story would have turned out if the woman had said, “Great question. Let’s invite God into this discussion.”
The distinction between subjective and objective in the study of Scripture flows from the first family’s objectification of God. Philosopher and writer Peter Rollins tells the story of an infantry unit preparing to launch an attack during World War One. As the battle opened, the men hunched down, sheltered by a trench. As the moment arrived for them to join in the assault, their commander yelled out the order, “All right lads. Over the top!” The men failed to follow the order. A second time he bellowed, “Lads, over the top!” Still there was no movement by the troops. Finally, a third time the commanders yelled out in a deep guttural tone, “All right lads. Over the top!” The men looked at each other, looked at the commander, and said, “What a wonderful voice he has! What a wonderful voice!” (“An Introduction to Love”). Clearly the commander expected a response to his order rather than commentary on its delivery.
This comical anecdote reminds us that the interpretation of Scripture for the church can never remain merely an objective or descriptive task. Action by the reader is required. The goal of interpretation is to understand the message of the Bible and respond to its teaching and the expectations it has for our lives. In short, Scripture desires to convert us in every encounter that it has with us. In his classic Eat This Book, Eugene Peterson wrote, “Exegesis is simply noticing and responding adequately (which is not simple) to the demand that the words make on us, that language makes on us” ([Eerdmans, 2006], 51).
As interpreters, we must use all of the skills and techniques honed throughout the history of biblical interpretation. This means defining terms, navigating ancient cultures and customs, and understanding classical genres and rhetoric. But observing, translating, and transmitting this information is never enough for the nourishment of God’s people. Pastors and commentators must avoid merely teaching their audiences interesting facts about the Bible. Scripture desires to shape us by molding our thinking, changing what we care about most deeply, and driving us to action in God’s mission. Of course, our subjective response to Scripture must be rooted in our objective study. But Scripture desires to craft and unleash God’s holy people as a missional movement to share good news across our planet.
How do we achieve a robust conversation with the Bible that is both objective and subjective?
First, as interpreters we must remain open to astonishment. Thomas Merton wrote, “There is, in a word, nothing comfortable about the Bible – until we manage to get so used to it that we make it comfortable for ourselves. But then we are perhaps too used to it and too at home in it. Let us not be too sure we know the Bible just because we have learned not to be astonished at it, just because we have learned not to have problems with it” (Opening the Bible: With an Introduction by Rob Stone [Liturgical Press, 1986], 37). I’ve found it helpful to begin by praying, “Lord, astonish me anew with the riches of your word. Speak to me I am listening. Amen.”
Second, let us remember that the goal of interpretation is not to master the text but to open ourselves to the text’s mastering us. We must be the first convert to each text before we share its demands and message with others. If we remain only engaged objectively with the text, our attempts to share its subjective demands with others will lack bite.
Last, take delight in the work Scripture does in our lives and share it with the world. Psalm 19 ends memorably with a prayer, “May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be pleasing to you O Lord my Rock and my Redeemer” (v. 14). How does this prayer relate to the rest of the psalm? It flows from the psalmist’s recognition of the profound prescriptive power of the Scriptures in vv. 7–13. Unlike the witness of the heavens (vv. 1–6), Scripture alone contains the Lord’s Instructions and is capable of bringing about transformation in its hearers. This transformation leads the psalmist to join in God’s mission by speaking the good news to others. This mission remains ours as modern readers of the Bible.