Tolle, Lege: The Bible and Spiritual Practice

St. Augustine tells the story of his conversion in The Confessions. In Book 8, Chapter 12 he relates the following pivotal moment:


I was speaking and weeping in the most bitter contrition of my heart, when, lo! I heard from a neighboring house a voice, as of boy or girl, I know not, chanting, and oft repeating, “Take up and read; Take up and read.”[1]


This is the Tolle, Lege of our title. Take up and read- the reading of Scripture is central to the life of the Christian. Perhaps, like Augustine, the practice has even been central to our conversion. And yet, if we are honest, reading the Bible is often not what it should be: Is it, as the story goes, the most purchased and unread book around? Even when we do commit to reading it, it can somehow disappoint- rote, boring, incomprehensible, pointless and outdated are all words I’ve heard used. In this article, we will look at a variety of methods and resources that can help us use the Bible in ways we may haven’t have tried before, hopefully restoring some passion and purpose to the prompting to take up and read.


The Study of Scripture


When we struggle with the fact that the Bible can seem foreign to our day and age, it may well be that the practice of studying Scripture is in order. For it is the case that the Bible comes from a different culture than our own, and encompasses thousands of years of writings in a variety of styles. Just like when we learn a foreign language, we cannot expect to hear the words of the Bible clearly without at least some basic study of the “rules and grammar.” There are many good texts to help with this task, however for our purposes in this article, let me suggest just two. First, invest in a proper study Bible. This is an edition designed for a serious student of the Bible. It provides scholarly information to help the reader gain a better understanding of and context for the text. Many are available these days- although remember its a good idea to try and get the translation that your church or community uses. Secondly, I’d like to recommend the following book: How To Read the Bible For All It’s Worth, by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart. It’s an accessible introduction to things like context, style and history. Understanding these ancient writings in their human settings can actually help them speak God’s Word to us more clearly today.


Get the Big Picture- Historically


One-year Bibles- where you complete the entire text in a year of daily readings- are very popular. There is, however, a way to make this even more enriching to our appreciation of the story. A chronological Bible re-arranges the texts into a historical narrative, so we get the idea of the flow of salvation history. A more challenging, but very fulfilling, approach to this method is to attempt to read the books of the Bible in the chronological order they were actually written in. There is some dispute as to this, of course, but the general outline is agreed upon, and it helps us see the development of a history of themes and ideas rather than just the development of history.[2]


Get the Big Picture- Christologically


Jesus once said, “You have your heads in your Bibles constantly because you think you’ll find eternal life there. But you miss the forest for the trees. These Scriptures are all about me!”[3] Given that this is the case, another way to get the big picture is to read the Bible Christologically- looking for how the central message of the Bible is always Jesus Christ. Some resources to help with this include: The Jesus Bible (published by Zondervan), How to Read the Bible through the Jesus Lens by Michael Williams, and The Christ Key: Unlocking the Centrality of Christ in the Old Testament by Chad Bird.


Once we get a handle on the Bible, what it is and who it is pointing to, there still remains the question of use. The following approaches are less academic and more day-to-day forms of practice:


Reading The Bible With the Church


Many communities have Bible reading plans. If yours does, why not join in? Or perhaps try the Losungen[4], the “watchwords” of the Moravian Church which have stood the test of time. Use of a daily lectionary can also help us to stay connected with the one church throughout the ages and the seasons of the church year. Many communities use the Revised Common Lectionary for this purpose.[5] I am personally quite taken with schemes that make the most of dwelling in the rhythms the liturgical year.[6]


Reading The Bible With Those Who Have Gone Before


Devotionals featuring the writings of saints and scholars of ages past abound, why not try one of those? Series such as Thomas Oden’s Ancient Christian Devotional can also link us to the thoughts of those who made this journey before us. When we read with them, we are free both from the dangers of novel interpretations and from having to understand particular passages and concepts in isolation from the church’s teachers.


Rumination: Lectio Divina


To ruminate is what certain animals like cows do- they chew their food over and over in order to make it more digestible. Chewing during rumination is slower and more consistent than during eating. Sometimes we need to do the same thing with the Bible! The practice of Lectio Divina, originally developed by the monastics is a slow, consistent form of meditation on scripture that has grown quite popular over the years. A simple explanation of the method can be found at: https://www.contemplativeoutreach.org/lectio-divina-contemplation. Unlike with Bible study, in Lectio it may prove useful to use a translation of the Bible you do not normally use, so that the words can strike you in fresh ways as you meditate.


Memorization


I know, what could sound more boring? More outdated? Yet we do well to remember two things about this old practice: first, for the majority of Christians throughout history, memorization would have been the key way they incorporated Bible passages into their lives; and secondly, it may well be a practice whose time has returned, in that it allows us to “fit” the Bible into our hectic schedules. As Gretchen Ronnevik says


When we memorize his word, it’s like we hold the Bible ever in our hands. Memorization offers time in Scripture to those who have no time to sit alone with their Bible.[7]


Maybe a good way to begin again with the Bible is to begin again with memorization- to place the Word of God in our heart where it can actively counter the stresses and strains we face every day.


Conclusion


There is no way to be exhaustive as to approaches to the Bible in a short article such as this. The important thing, however, is not which method we use- or that we have explored them all. Rather, we simply need to begin again, to “Tolle, Lege.” That requires some honestly, as the problem may not be with the Bible and using it at all, but rather with us. To quote Ronnevik again, “Developing daily habits of Bible reading starts with the admission that we are horrible at it.”[8] As Augustine found, God dwells in his Word and is there both for our edification and comfort. Perhaps some of the methods we have discussed can inspire and encourage you meet him there again in a fresh way.

 

Les Martin is a participant in the A300 program and a long-term missionary in Nigeria. An Anglican priest, he is an Archdeacon and serves in the office of Canon Theologian for the Anglican Diocese of Pankshin, while lecturing at Archbishop Vining College of Theology, Akure. He lives in Lagos with his wife Kate, and he believes that his marriage to her is far more important than anything else mentioned above.

 

[1] - Augustine, S., Bishop of Hippo. (1996). The Confessions of St. Augustine. (E. B. Pusey, Trans.). Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc. [2] - this link has a good introduction to the concept: https://www.biblegateway.com/blog/2016/02/when-was-each-book-of-the-bible-written/ [3] - Peterson, E. H. (2005). The Message: the Bible in contemporary language (Jn 5:39). Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress. [4] - found in German: www.losungen.de, and in English: https://www.moravian.org/daily_texts/ [5] - see https://www.dailylectio.net for the RCL daily readings [6] - this old article gives an idea of what such a pattern might look like: https://biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/scripture/07-3_077.pdf [7] - Ronnevik, G. (2021). Ragged: Spiritual Disciplines for the Spiritually Exhausted. Irvine, CA: New Reformation Publications, p. 112. This book’s whole chapter on Bible Reading is excellent. Indeed, I would recommend the whole book for anyone interested in spiritual practices. [8] - Ronnevik, p. 101.

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