I love Craig G. Bartholomew’s description of Scripture as that “field in which is hid the pearl of great price” (5). Scripture is a treasure-filled-trove since in its’ authority it “adequately renders Jesus Christ and thus God to us” (8). If that is true, then WE (both academics and ordinary Christian readers) should learn how to plow the ground, together and even for one another. That is, our goal in reading Scripture is nothing less than cultivating a communal “obedient attention to God’s address through his Word” (12). A proper hermeneutic will allow the reader to really catch God’s address, to facilitate true, real communion with God. This reading, its not a game. It’s a chance to encounter the God of the universe. So, how should we do it? Enter: The Task of Hermeneutics!
Chapter Two gives us a good start. Titled “Listening and Biblical Interpretation,” it was my favorite chapter of the entire book. Bartholomew believes our approach to Bible reading should be described more than anything else as fundamentally a kind of surrender – a way of listening. Bartholomew’s “philosophy of listening” includes reminding us that before we can attempt to analyze this text-of-beauty, we must first “LISTEN!” as the imperative sema in Deuteronomy 6:4-9 instructs. What is primary is our embrace of sustained humility. Our respectful listening. Our trembling, open receptivity. The vocative “Israel” in Deuteronomy 6:4 alerts us to the fact that God’s Word is addressed primarily not to individuals, but “to his gathered people” (33). This means listening doesn’t just include my own ear, it includes all of us hearing with our ears, together. Of course, analysis of the Bible has a vital place, but only after our acknowledgment of God’s presence. After all, “How can one answer without listening?” (31) We need to slow down, we need to be in the presence of one another, and we need God’s Spirit BEFORE we can even BEGIN to think about properly understanding what God’s Word is saying to us.
This has implications for preaching. A preacher shouldn’t simply illumine (much less “analyze”) what a congregation doesn’t already know, although certainly this is part. Preaching is more: It is primarily to “enable us to encounter again and again the living God who has come to us in Christ” (35). Here we are looking for what Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones also looked for, “preaching that ushers us into the presence of God” or as John Stott asserted, “what we need in our pulpits is truth on fire.” Karl Barth notes that since this encounter can only be created by God himself, our hermeneutic must always be pneumatic and prayerful since it is the delight of the Spirit to use the Word to bring us to God. If we read and preach this way, then the hearing of God’s Word allows us to take possession and apply in our hearts that which God ALONE has for His people.
An illustration: This hermeneutic process, this attentive, contemplative stance with Scripture is much like taking a hard candy into one’s mouth and slowly letting it circulate as one’s tongue explores its surface (41). This is a distinctive clarification. Bartholomew notes that “In my library, as I glance through major books on theological interpretation and biblical hermeneutics, it is rare even to find a reference to prayer in their indexes” (43). How sad!
Bartholomew returns to the subject of preaching in part 5, in pages 487-585. Chapter 14 (pages 487-522) includes an example of what this can look like if the book of Hebrews were the focus, and chapter 15 (pages 523-585) highlights the primacy of preaching – as well as its’ main challenge today: application. His question is one I ask myself in particular ways almost every week: “How does one preach a biblical text for all it’s worth so as to allow its full force to address a contemporary congregation?” (535) How can a sermon amount to “Christ walking amid his people and addressing them“? (537) If we want Scripture to act as a “spectacle” of reality (Calvin), then Bartholomew reminds us to seek wisdom, to utilize prayer, practice lectio divina, and to rejoice in the wounds of our work so we can be formed more like Christ as we ingest the words of Christ in our hearts. This allows us in our reading and preaching of God’s word – to bless the whole world! To joyfully and boldly proclaim God’s whole truth, to the whole of God’s creation! As Psalm 19 reminds us, this world is “drenched with God’s speech” (33) – so why not join the choir? We should and can gift to others through our reading and preaching not just a “church-view” but a truly comprehensive, Trinitarian “world-view.”
Granted, this proposed contemplative stance, this pneumatic hermeneutic, this comprehensive world-view… it is meant to be a learned, informed one. In-between chapters 2 & chapters 14-15 lie some 400 encyclopedic pages of “history of hermeneutics” as it relates to philosophy, history, literature, theology, and even the university. All of it was helpful for me. We become better readers of Scripture when we learn how other giants have read it before us. But more than anything else, what will stick with me from this book is the importance of surrender. listening. praying. slowing down. meditating. trusting. gazing… after all, what I’m looking at in Scripture is “The field in which is hid the pearl of great price.” I may-as-well slow down and stay awhile.