“We read Scripture to do God’s Word”

For the first half of my fall sabbatical in Virginia, my primary goal is to finish the manuscript for the book I’m writing with Mark Pattie: Hope for Better Times: Pietism and the Future of Christianity, which should come out from InterVarsity Press next year.

Mark is primarily responsible for writing the chapter on how Pietists read the Bible, but I’ve been thinking about that topic myself as part of a project for our denomination, the Evangelical Covenant Church.

This fall and then again during Lent, Covenanters around the country will come together for the Covenant Community Bible Experience (CBE). It features a customized Bible, a 40-day reading plan, daily videos, and small group discussions.

I’m glad for the campaign, but especially because the designers tried to keep in mind the distinctive way that we approach Scripture. In the denomination’s first resource paper (2008), the authors likened the Covenant way of reading the Bible to musical performance:

In order to be faithful to Christ and the Scriptures, Covenant people have specific convictions about how we read the Bible, even while recognizing that not all Covenanters read Scripture with the same result. We are well aware of both the diversity of readings and the value of that diversity. It is like playing a musical piece—no two performances are exactly the same. Differences arise from the skill and experience of the players, the instruments they use, the key in which they choose to play, the rhythm and style they prefer, and the setting in which the music is played. There is freedom in interpreting a piece of music. Yet the music remains determinative and pulls together the individual differences of the players, instruments, and settings into its own unity and reality.

Yet, within the diversity of performance, there are still rules for playing music well, and some players will be better than others. The analogy does not suggest, “Anything goes.” Musical interpretation is determined primarily by the musical score itself and to a certain degree by the traditions of the musical community and by the audience who hears it. Thus not all interpretations of a piece of music—or of Scripture—are equally faithful to the score or the text.

Hauna Ondrey
Hauna Ondrey – North Park Theological Seminary

The Covenant has grown considerably in the last quarter-century, both in numbers and in diversity. So to help CBE participants understand the “traditions of the… community,” four Covenant scholars were invited to write historical reflections on how Covenanters, inspired by their Pietist heritage, have read the Bible. I joined Hauna Ondrey (North Park Theological Seminary), Michelle Clifton-Soderstrom (NPTS), and Mark Safstrom (Univ. of Illinois) as authors.

Given how the resource paper continued, I was especially glad to be tasked with writing three reflections on the theme “We read Scripture to do God’s word”:

One important aspect of this analogy is that music must be played. Performance is not merely explanation; it is text translated into life. If a musician does not perform the music, the music is merely notes on a page. So it is with Scripture. If the text is not acted out in our lives, even though it is the word of God, it is left as merely words on a page ( James 1:22-25).

…Our pietist heritage emphasizes that what we did was for both God’s glory and neighbor’s good. We continue to be friends of God’s mission today. We make the leap off the page in order to be changed and to live out the words we read.

In the first reflection, I went back to Martin Luther (who defined faith as a “living, busy, active, mighty thing… doing good works incessantly”) and the Pietist pioneer August Hermann Francke, whose famous institutions in Halle, Germany not only included a publishing concern that printed millions of Bibles and New Testaments, but a pharmacy, orphanage, schools, and university.

Then in the second reflection, I turned to one of my favorite stories from the origins of the Covenant itself:

Mor i Vall buildings
Preserved buildings from Mor i Vall – Karlskoga Municipality

As they gathered in small groups to read their Bibles in the 1850s, our spiritual ancestors soon learned that they were to be “doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves” (James 1:22). As Covenant pastor Glen Wiberg wrote of one such group, meeting in the Swedish province of Värmland, they “gathered…around the gospel and made the remarkable discovery that because of grace they were also bound to the needs of neighbor” (This Side of the River, p. 75). Inspired by their encounter with the Bible, members of this small group pooled their scarce funds to buy the freedom of boys and girls forced to work off their parents’ debts as farmhands and servants. Like Francke in Halle, they founded a children’s home and school. As followers of Jesus, the living word, the members of this conventicle learned “to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (James 1:27). But what’s most remarkable is that the leader of this initiative to care for children in distress was herself a widow, with six children of her own: Maria Nilsdotter (also known as Mor i Vall, or “Mother at Vall Farm”). Better than most, she and the other women in her group knew that reading the word kept them from conforming to the world, by prompting them to care for those the world neglected. At Maria’s funeral in 1870, her son Carl Johan Nyvall, an early Covenant evangelist, preached from the Gospel of Matthew: “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me” (18:5).

I then closed with the story of 5000 Pies, a social enterprise founded two years ago by a multi-ethnic Covenant church in Long Beach, California. Through that restaurant and its ESL and tutoring initiatives, I concluded that “the people of Fountain of Life seek to do the word they read in Scripture: to live out Luke 4:18 by ‘proclaiming good news to the poor’ in their community.”

You can read my reflections in full, and those from Hauna, Michelle, and Mark, by downloading this PDF.

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