Richard Sibbes, my favorite 17th century mentor, shared, “Whatsoever we do [in our responding to the Scriptures] if it be not stirred by the Spirit, apprehending the love of God in Christ, it is but morality” [in “A Description of Christ”, Works, 1.24].
By “morality” he meant Pharisaic goodness: it may look good to us but God isn’t thrilled. Sibbes’ larger point is that the Bible can be misused and misunderstood if the Spirit isn’t present in the Bible reading or study.
What can we take from his warning? A reflection on how we use the Bible is called for. Three approaches, each with differing motives, come to mind.
First we may use Bible study as a collecting exercise to buttress belief in support of our doctrinal values. This is usually part of a creedal development for Calvinists, Arminians, Wesleyans, Dispensationalists, and more, meant to help in theological debates.
I first learned this collecting skill from preachers and church home group leaders who offered topical or doctrinal studies. Later, at Bible College and in my graduate theological training, it was honed to scalpel-like sharpness in a comprehensive set of theology courses.
In collecting a reader brings a question to the Bible and then—as in diamond mining—digs through the Bible for its treasures: the topics or doctrines to be developed. If, for instance, I want to know about God’s immutability I can either read through the entire Bible to find texts in support of the doctrine; or, to save time, I can use Bible software to find every use of the word “change” in order to trace all the texts that say God does not change. I would soon discover Malachi 3:6—“For I the LORD do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed.”
Of course many scholars have already done all this sort of Bible tracking and the final product is called Systematic Theology (ST). ST offers nearly exhaustive coverage of every topic the Bible might touch, and then some. STs compress the information into interpretive summaries, usually in support a given church tradition. The approach has an awkward side, however, in that the System, not the Bible, is the end in view, and Sibbes’ critique may well apply.
Second is the cooking option. Here we see the Bible as a source of tasty spiritual lessons for life. The preacher or teacher is a cook who prepares a weekly feast for us. So, too, any home groups that feature a Bible study may be exercises by an amateur cook.
The main feature of Bible cooking is the product. The preacher finds a Bible text he knows to be good as a main course and shapes it as a single meal. But it can be awkward as well: certain texts are guaranteed to taste good while others may be avoided—viewed, perhaps, as too bland, too spicy, or too hard to chew.
There’s more. The star of the cooking is either God, the ultimate source of the food, or the preacher who selects and cooks the portion. Ideally the two—God and the preacher—are well aligned and God gets the glory. Yet a problem comes when some of what God offers in the Bible isn’t seen to be attractive. If, for instance, a preacher knows his listeners have an appetite for sweet dishes—the spiritual pastries of health, wealth, personal security and eternal blessings—he may rotate among these topics each Sunday. And with that the spiritual diet may lead to malnutrition and ill health over time. Sibbes, again, would find this to be a problem.
Communion is the third option. It treats God as a devoted and caring communicator who gives us the Bible for the sake of relationship. In it he shares his heart—his values, ambitions, sensitivities, and delights—with a purpose to draw us into the eternal conversation of the Father and the Son by the Spirit.
In this the Bible isn’t a pragmatic resource. Rather we come to it because we love him: the point Sibbes made when he wrote of our being “stirred by the Spirit, apprehending the love of God in Christ” in our Bible reading. The alternative is to be like the religious leaders in John 5 who, as Jesus told them, completely misread the Bible on the doctrine of the Messiah because they lacked any love for God.
What both collecting and cooking have in common is their vulnerability to consumerism: of making personal creedal preferences a focus, on the one hand, rather than an open response to the Bible taken on its own terms; or of only cooking favorite meals while avoiding the broader nourishment the Bible offers.
Both these faults can be corrected by communing. If collecting is a secondary feature of communion—shaped and guided by God’s heart—it can be remarkably fruitful. And if cooking is done out of a love for God—to reveal his heart in the wide range of what he shares of himself—we can be assured of real spiritual growth. But any emphasis that gets in the way of communing love fails.
So, proper collecting, cooking, and communing may all be fine, but the greatest of these is communing.