How Christians engage with the scriptures

Paul Gateshill presentation at ‘The Words of God’ held at the Focolare Centre of Unity (Special Interfaith Edition issue 65 March 2019)

(Originally published on Issue 60, June 2018)

I have divided this brief introduction into three parts:
.The ways in which Christians understand and approach the Bible (Minds)
.The ways in which Christians use the Bible (Hearts)
.The effects of living the Word (Hands)

The ways in which Christians understand and approach the Bible

Different Christian denominations approach the scriptures in a variety of ways. This might range from a fundamentalist view that every word in the Bible is the unerring word of God that cannot be questioned – to a more liberal perspective: that the Bible is inspired by God but written by humans and needs to be understood within the culture in which it was written.
So, if we take, for example, the story of Creation in Genesis: A fundamentalist view is that the world was indeed created by God in six days and therefore science has got it wrong. Mainstream Christianity, on the other hand, would see Genesis as an attempt to answer more ‘why’ questions rather than ‘how’ questions such as: Is creation an accident or was it planned by God? What is the place of humans in this creation? Why do we suffer etc?
I’m going to focus on the way mainstream Christianity approaches the scriptures.
It sees the Bible as the inspired word of God, which has been written and compiled over many hundreds of years by different groups of people grappling with their understanding of God and of his work throughout history.

Biblical scholarship
The Book of Isaiah
Before the advent of biblical scholarship, most people would probably not have been aware that this popular book was written by different people over a period of around 200 years. In fact, Isaiah comprises three separate collections of oracles:
Proto-Isaiah (chapters1–39), containing the words of Isaiah; the words of the 8th-century BCE prophet Isaiah ben Amoz.
Deutero-Isaiah (chapters 40–55), the work of an anonymous 6th-century BCE author writing during the Exile (586 BCE).
Trito-Isaiah (chapters 56–66), composed after the return from Exile. (515 BCE)
This understanding has emerged due to:
l The Historical Situation: Chapters 40–55 presuppose that Jerusalem has already been destroyed and the Babylonian exile is already in effect – they speak from a present in which the Exile is about to end. Chapters 56–66 assume an even later situation, in which the people have already returned to Jerusalem and the rebuilding of the Temple is already underway.
l Anonymity: Isaiah’s name suddenly stops being used after chapter 39.
l Style: There is a sudden change in style and theology after chapter 40; numerous keywords and phrases found in one section are not found in the other. Of course, most Christians would have little knowledge or interest in any of the above! They would be more concerned with what Isaiah has to say to them in their daily lives today.

The ways in which Christians use the Bible
The Bible is central to Christians, especially so since it was translated into their vernacular – one of the cornerstones of the Reformation. The Bible is used collectively in worship and study and for individual meditation. In worship, Christians use readings from the Old and New Testaments, with a special emphasis on the Gospel reading. Respect is shown in a variety of ways – eg standing when the Gospel is read. The readings usually provide the basis of the sermon. In Free Churches, the Bible is placed on the communion table to symbolise the importance of the Word of God.
In individual study and meditation. Many Christians will use the Bible for meditation and prayer. This is often accompanied by notes helping the reader to go into depth.

The effects of living the Word
There is a definite focus on living the word in the Focolare. At the beginning of the Movement during the chaos of World War II, Chiara Lubich and her companions took the Gospel and read it phrase by phrase. It shone with divine wisdom in every passage. Every word became a light in their lives.
They not only read it but also put it into practice. They focused on one sentence and meditated on it, and then applied it to their daily lives. They discovered that living the Word had various effects:
The Word makes us free – in the Gospel St John says ‘The truth will make you free’ (Jn8:31)
The Word brings about union with God.
I’m sure many of us have experienced that at the end of a long day when we have really tried to live the Word – to love, we can experience a deep sense of union with God. We may feel tired but experience the fullness of joy and peace which can only come from God.
The word produces the hatred of the world and the holiness of the disciples ‘John Chrysostom said: ‘The sea is raging and you will calmly sail over it. Your pilot is the reading of the Scriptures and your rudder will not be broken to pieces by the temptation of worldly affairs.’

The Word makes us one
Chiara Lubich wrote: ‘The word of Life is like a little pill which contains in concentrated form all that Jesus brought to earth, the Gospel message’
The Word brings about a complete change of mentality
St Paul says in Ephesians: ‘Be renewed in the spirit of your minds and clothe yourselves with the new self.’
When I met the Focolare I met people who lived the Word – who loved. Sometimes with very simple gestures which really challenged me: I realised that I was actually a very selfish individual. I remember once a close friend told me after a social event that I had been quite arrogant and that I had put another friend down. I was really shocked by this – because it was true. I had already met the Focolare then and I was trying to put love into practice. I realised then that it wasn’t about trying to be nice to everyone – living the word demanded a complete change of mentality. To live the word means to become another Jesus – the Word.

We might also add that the Word:
. makes us see the truth.
brings comfort.
gives us joy.
produces works.
gives wisdom.
preserves us from human worries
.obtains everything

Islam Today issue 65 (Special Issue) is dedicated to the interfaith work undertaken by the Islamic Centre of England over the past few years. Download the full pdf here:

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