“Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.” (James 1:21)
In his oft-cited work The Religious Life of Theological Students, B. B. Warfield begins,
A minister must be both learned and religious. It is not a matter of choosing between the two. He must study, but he must study as in the presence of God and not in a secular spirit. He must recognize the privilege of pursuing his studies in the environment where God and salvation from sin are the air he breathes. He must also take advantage of every opportunity for corporate worship. . . . Ministerial work without taking time to pray is a tragic mistake. The two must combine if the servant of God is to give a pure, clear, and strong message.
Thus Warfield addresses what is perhaps the pastor’s single most pressing spiritual question: What is the connection between my ministerial duties and the practice of my faith?
Prep the Mind, the Heart, or Both?
This article addresses one element of the question—the connection between study of Scripture for personal edification and the study of Scripture for proclamation. Some advocate the greatest possible separation of the two. Others say it is neither possible nor desirable to separate personal and public reading. The argument for separation claims that the preacher must leave aside his interests and first read Scripture analytically. Then he can assess its meaning for the church. If a pastor reads Scripture with his needs in mind, some say he blinds himself to its whole message.
Krister Stendahl said interpreters must keep application, for oneself or others, distinct from exegesis: “When the biblical theologian becomes primarily interested with the present meaning, [he] loses his enthusiasm . . . for the descriptive task.” It is better to retain a sense of “the distance and the strangeness of biblical thought,” and accept “that our only concern is to find out what these words meant,” using methods agreeable to “believer and agnostic alike.” When interpreters refrain from mingling the two phases the Bible can “exert the maximum of influence.”
Whether this is desirable or not, hardly anyone can practice this approach. Pastors perceive the spiritual value of a passage as we go. When we see possible applications, we focus our exegetical work and examine a passage more closely to see if a hunch is valid or not. More importantly, Jesus linked interpretation and edification. Jesus rebuked Jewish leaders for reading Scripture without seeing its significance. He asked them “Have you not read?” even though he knew they read Scripture. He meant: If a reader can’t apply Scripture to the issues of life, he hasn’t really read it (see Matt. 12:1-5, 19:4, 22:31).
John Frame wants to erase the distinction between interpretation and application. He said, “The meaning of Scripture is its application.” Proper reading of Scripture always seeks faithful practice. We understand Scripture when we know how to use it. Take “You shall not steal.” Suppose someone reproduces copyrighted music and cheats on taxes. We could say he failed to apply the commandment, but we could also say he didn’t understand it.
Frame and Warfield agree, therefore, that the faithful believer should never study Scripture in a detached way. I wonder if a sensitive reader could turn off interest in godly practices, even if he or she wished. Suppose a seminary professor tells his students, “Many a doctrinal deviation, many a heresy, began with an ill-advised quest for originality in a thesis.” Wise students will ask, Am I guilty of such a foolish quest? One can hardly comprehend the words without beginning to apply them. If that holds as we hear lectures, how much more when we read Scripture?
So then, leaders ought to read the Bible with an eye to apply it both for the church and also for themselves. How is it, then, that Warfield had to exhort his students to read spiritually? How do pastors grow dry, at least occasionally, as they study to teach and preach? We may find an answer if we consider the timeline of a believer with Scripture.
How Passionate Believers Read Scripture
As a new Christian, the future pastor’s reading is naïve and devotional. He devours Scripture, underlining virtually every word in his new Bible. He feels that God speaks directly to him.
After a few years, the budding leader’s reading becomes sophisticated and devotional. He still feels that God speaks to him in Scripture, but he has learned to read texts in their contexts, to attend to genre and more. He reads Bible dictionaries and commentaries. He knows the translation strategies of Bible versions and may use that knowledge to get at the original text.
The future pastor decides to go to seminary, where he becomes a technical reader. He studies Greek, Hebrew, and scholarly sources. He respects the distance between his world and Scripture’s. But as technical skill grows, edification declines. The Bible used to read him, now he reads it, even dissects it, grammatically and linguistically. As seminary students gain technical skill, as they should, a shift occurs. As they master the text, the Author’s mastery of them fades. The sweet simplicity of devotional reading, of hearing God’s message “for me, today,” ebbs away.
Eventually, the future pastor remembers that he aims to edify the church. He continues to read technically, but now shares his findings with believers. He becomes a technical and functional reader. His reading may be rather detached personally, but he treasures and organizes his discoveries so he can teach others. While this is an improvement, the student still doesn’t profit personally from Scripture.
A wise pastor wants to become a technical, devotional reader. Every technical skill remains, but he reads like a child, letting the Word speak directly to him again. He gains what Paul Ricoeur called a “second naiveté.” He is both technically astute and meek. He both receives God’s Word and also expounds it. He grows in faith and godliness again. Suppose he reads Matthew 5:22: “Anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin.” The pastor will explain what “Raca” meant: “’Raca’ expresses contempt for the mind—You brainless idiot!’” He will apply this to his people several ways, but he will see his temptation too. Pastors typically have a graduate degree. As intelligent, trained adults, as knowledge workers, pastors are especially tempted to despise the ignorant. He tells others how they can express contempt, and he watches himself too.
Questions remain. Should a pastor try to read Scripture devotionally every day, apart from his teaching for the church? Some will say that is edifying, others will say it’s impossible to read Scripture and block out the needs of the flock. When pastors study before preaching, should we look to appropriate it personally at the start, or should we try to wait till the basic exegesis is complete? Each of us will have to answer these questions privately. But Warfield is right, we should “recognize the privilege of pursuing his studies in the environment where God and salvation” are in the air we breathe.