Holy Book, Sacred Journey
Reading the Bible as a pilgrim
The metaphor of pilgrimage is one that has been used in the Scriptures (Ps 84:5 and Heb 11:9) and in the history of Christianity to describe the call to the spiritual life. The early Church taught that life is like a journey, that this world is not our ultimate destination, and that we are all on our way back to God who is our truest home (see Heb 11:13).
How has the Church understood the practice of a pilgrimage? Husband-and-wife team Michael and Maria Ruiz Scaperlanda in their book, The Journey: A Guide for the Modern Pilgrim, describe a pilgrimage as, "the journey of those who, deliberately seek answers to the questions of meaning, purpose, and eternity. Instead of seeking fulfillment in things that will never satisfy, the sacred pilgrim sets out to find that which the heart truly desires: God's very presence."
This erudite description of a "sacred pilgrim" could easily be used to consider the mission of the serious follower of Jesus who is intent on seeking diligently for answers to the questions of meaning, purpose, and eternity. If Christians are then indeed pilgrims on the way to understand and practise truth, what are the tools they carry with them on this adventure of (re)-discovery?
There is a inspiring story told by the authors Duane Arnold and George Fry about the twentieth-century missionary and author, William McElwee Miller, that might help us to think clearly about the travel necessities required in our journey of truth-seeking: "While travelling along the border of Iran and Afghanistan, Dr Miller had encountered a Muslim sage. Together, the missionary and the mullah rode along the narrow path. In the course of their conversion, the Persian asked the Presbyterian, 'What is Christianity?' Dr Miller said, 'It is like a journey. For that trip I need four things – bread, for nourishment; water, for refreshment; a book, for direction; and opportunity, for service. These are my pilgrim fares. Jesus provided me with these things. I trust Him on my way. That is Christianity."
This book that we have been given on our journey for direction is a collection of sacred Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, the Bible; through which we are invited to respond to the reality of our Creator and omnipresent God with a love and devotion that includes not only our body and heart, but also our critical faculties (see Jesus' use of the great "Shema" of Deut 6:5 in Mt 22:37) and the context in which we serve our broader communities.
One of the most important, yet often forgotten, tools of the followers of Christ is the discipline of faithfully reading and interpreting the inspired text of the Bible. Exegesis, the technical term used for this pivotal discipline, is the interpretative process of finding, seeing and hearing God in the sacred Scriptures, the collective history of those faithful pilgrims that have come before us in the journey, and applying those truths in our own world.
The question remains - how do we interpret the inspired Scriptures? Often much is said about understanding the original languages of the text or utilizing interpretative tools such as technical commentaries and concordances. As helpful as those tools might be (and we will get to them) – are there any practical steps that the daily reader of the Bible can use to faithfully interpret this sacred text?
Richard Foster, in a recent book on reading the Bible for spiritual formation, proposes four steps in reading the Scriptures that are helpful for those that deeply desire to understand God’s Holy Word. I would like to expound on his practical proposals of reading and understanding the Bible:
A. Read the Scriptures literally: The Christian reader uses all the tools of our common and human facilities to enter into the words and worlds of these sacred texts. These texts were inspired by the Holy Spirit and written by the original authors with the intent to be understood. Our best interpretative key remains our common humanity that bridges the world of the first authors and today’s readers. The Holy Spirit that inspired these Scriptures aids us to bridge these time-removed worlds. We place ourselves in the “sandals “of the authors, characters and first readers of the Bible and thus enter that holy moment when God spoke through His prophets to the world.
B. Read the Scriptures in its historic and social contexts: The Christian reader avoids anachronistic and ethnocentric readings of the sacred texts by utilizing the disciplines of history, theology, sociology, and anthropology to enter into the world of the people of the Bible. For instance a fuller understanding of the Jewish contexts of the books of both the Old and the New Testaments will open a new world of meaning to the reader. This is when we consult the many, many good commentaries that have been produced by Christian and faithful scholars to help us understand the original context of the Scriptures. A quick journey to your friendly Christian bookshop will introduce a wealth of information and helpful guidance to every book in the Bible. There is much to be gained from understanding the journey and quest of the original authors of the text to find God in their own world.
C. Read the Scriptures in conversation with itself: The Christian reader allows Scripture to interpret Scripture and forms conclusions and interpretations based on a constant reading/rereading and application of the principles found in the text. Understanding the full witness of the Scriptures will help us understand the larger, metanarrative of God’s redemption action in this world through His Son, Jesus Christ – whom the Scriptures declare is the very Word of God (see Jn 1:1-14 and Heb 11:1-3).
D. Read the Scriptures in conversation with the historic witness of the People of God: The Christian reader joins the theological, philosophical and practical discussions of two thousand years in a continued quest to enter into the truths of the Sacred Texts and its implications for our world. Scores of Christian leaders, ministers, scholars and authors have pondered what the “incarnated” Word might look like in every sphere of our world. Here we consider reading the many and rich ancient commentaries and homilies on the books of the Bible (one can think of the sermons and commentaries of Christian leaders such as Augustine of Hippo, Benedict of Nursia, Martin Luther, John Calvin, G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis to name a few). Again, a quick visit to your church or neighborhood Christian bookshop will help you discover these historic treasures.
We are a pilgrim people on a sacred journey in a quest to "incarnate" God's truths in our world. But we do not walk blindly. We have been given a book for our journey, a sacred book that is God- breathed and "useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness" (2 Tim 3:16); a book that provides direction for us as pilgrims on the way of truth. It is my growing conviction that a clearer understanding of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures holds the promise of a new revival of perpetual intimacy with God, a renewal of the family and a resurgence of moral and values- based approaches to leadership today. Only when our understanding and practice of all that we know and do are utterly informed and fueled by the eternal and inspired Word of God will we have the kind of Christianity that could change our world.
Dr. Corné Bekker joined Regent University in 2005. He previously served as the associate dean for academics for Rhema Bible College in Johannesburg, South Africa, as a professor of Biblical and Ecclesial Leadership for the School of Business and Leadership as well as the chair of the Department of Biblical Studies and Christian Ministry at the College of Arts & Sciences. He was
appointed as the Dean for the School of Divinity at Regent University in December 2015. He is the 2010 recipient of the Chancellor’s Award at Regent University for outstanding scholarship, teaching and service. He has also served as an extraordinary professor for the Research Unit for Reformed Theology at the Northwest University in South Africa. When asked, he describes himself as a sinner saved by grace, a follower of Christ, a husband and a father.
Arnold, D W H and Fry, G. C. (1988). Francis: A Call to Conversion. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.
Foster, R (2008). Life with God: Reading the Bible for Spiritual Transformation. New York: HarperCollins.
Scaperlanda, M., and Scaperlanda, M. R. (2004). The Journey: A Guide for the Modern Pilgrim. Chicago: Loyola Press.