How Pietists Read the Bible

I’m now halfway through my four-week Pietist Option for Baptists class at Central Baptist Church in St. Paul, Minnesota. Besides reconnecting with senior pastor (and former Bethel Seminary professor) Joel Lawrence, one of the chief pleasures of the class is that I have a chance to delve more deeply into chapters of The Pietist Option that I didn’t write. For example, Mark did a terrific job with our first proposal for renewal, but this past Sunday I was glad to get my own shot at arguing for a more extensive and attentive use of Scripture.

I’m subtitling the class, “Advice from a (Mission) Friend,” so I thought I’d introduce some of our Baptist cousins to the literature of the Covenant Church — specifically, a 2008 resource paper that sketches how and why Covenanters — as Pietists — read Scripture. To be honest, I wish more Covenanters would take its advice, which I’ll summarize as follows:

Pietists read the Bible faithfully

There are actually several adverbs folded in under faithfully, including humblysensitively, and prayerfully. I particularly like the last one, because it underscores the older Pietist/Covenant idea that the Bible is “an altar where one meets the living God.” As Roger Olson and Christian Collins Winn have argued, Pietists love the Bible not as a source of intellectual propositions, but as “the principal medium for the Christian’s relationship with God, helping to guide and develop a deep and genuine intimacy.”

But too often, Christians try to mediate a less faithful kind of relationship with God and each other through their use of Scripture.

A week earlier, Joel had preached a sermon on Mark’s account of James and John asking Jesus for power. “Teacher,” they began, “we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you” (10:35). And Joel had pointed out that we often pray in such a way.

Likewise, how often do we approach the Bible demanding of it, “we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you”?

It’s why Christians who claim their position as the “biblical” one so often seem to wield the Bible as a weapon, a club with which to clobber their theological opponents into submission. While a “faithful reading must… be in line with God’s intent,” write the authors of the 2008 resource paper, “the Bible has often been misused as a means to protect a way of life or maintain a hold on power and resources.”

But the Bible is not a status quo book, a way to reassure the certain and secure the powerful. It is a means of profound change. More on that to come…

Pietists read the Bible communally, holistically, rigorously, and charitably

I’ll cluster these because they’re all ways to help us approach Scripture more humbly, all checks on our tendency to let our interpretation of God’s Word be the authority, rather than that Word itself. “None of us has the breadth of experience, intellectual skill, social sensitivity, or spiritual depth to interpret the Scriptures alone,” continues the resource paper, so we read those texts communally, as congregations and (being Pietists) conventicles.

And I do mean texts, not proof-texts:

When early Covenanters asked each other “Where is it written?” they were certainly looking for specific scriptural texts, but they also wanted to know what the entirety of Scripture said on a topic or specific issue. No single Scripture passage is by itself the word of God; each passage is the word of God only as part of the whole scriptural story of God’s election of Israel and the fulfilling of God’s promises in Jesus Christ.

Not just communally and holistically, we also read the Bible rigorously. While the original Pietists inherited the Protestant belief in the clarity (or perspecuity) of Scripture in essential matters, they also were pioneers in biblical scholarship. (See ch. 8 of Douglas Shantz’s Introduction to German Pietism on this topic.) In that tradition, the “missional Pietists” of the Covenant Church bring “All our intellectual capacities… to the task of interpretation, and we make use of available information and scholarly tools to bridge the gap between the ancient text and our own lives”

But perhaps most distinctively, “we read Scripture charitably with regard to differing interpretations on matters not central to our core beliefs” (emphasis mine). Why? Not “in uncertainty of thought, but in humility, mutual submission, and concern for the unity of the church,” we see disagreement on non-essential matters far from the core of our faith as “an opportunity for reaching out to each other, for growth and for mutual instruction.”

As I argued in our book, that desire for diverse unity is inseparable from our mission as the church. And that takes us to one last distinctive…

Pietists read the Bible for transformation and mission

“If the text is not acted out in our lives,” the authors write early on in the 2008 paper, with an eye to James 1, “even though it is the word of God, it is left as merely words on a page.” So it’s important that we not regard reading, discussing, studying, praying about, or meditating on the Bible as somehow disconnected from our overarching commitment to see our faith actively working in love. “We do not just read the Bible,” they continue. “The Bible reads us. The Bible is ‘living and active,’ and we should expect to be changed. We should expect the Bible to do something and to make a difference both in readers and in their communities.”

Gehrz & Pattie, The Pietist OptionWe should expect to be changed. I’ve said it many times (paraphrasing my friend Christian): Pietists expect new life for individuals; through them, revival for the church; and through it, renewal of the world. Inspired by God, the Bible is indeed “useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” Not in order that we can determine correct doctrine for its own sake, but “so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:16-17).

So I’ll give the last word to those wonderful authors of the Covenant resource paper, then encourage you to read that document in its entirety:

We make the leap off the page in order to be changed and to live out the words we read. In this we follow the example of Jesus himself, who began his own mission as a fulfillment of the words of the prophet Isaiah in Holy Scripture (Luke 4:16-21). Jesus’ mission is ours. Scripture calls us to join him in the work he is now doing in our world: finding the lost and helping the hurting, restoring the wounded, working for the advance of the good news, and extending God’s kingdom in our world. Such action in turn continually reshapes the lenses through which we read. This leap off the page becomes an interpretive rule for Covenanters: valid reading of Scripture leads to obedience and service. At the end of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “Everyone who hears these words and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on a rock” (Matthew 7:24). When we together enact the mission and life to which the Bible calls us, we become more faithful readers of its words and we give witness to and demonstrate God’s grace in our broken world.