So, I ‘ve been writing a book on biblical interpretation, tentatively titled Scripture and the Life of God. (Incidentally, this is why I haven’t blogged for the last month.) I say that this is the tentative title because I have learned from experience that publishers rarely call books what the authors think they should be called. Nevertheless, I’m getting close to wrapping it up, and I thought I’d publish a snippet here to solicit feedback. This is a brief segment from a larger chapter called “Guides into the Life of God.”
Many Christians today practice a deeply individualistic form of the faith. Faith is personal. It is about my relationship with Jesus Christ. It is about my personal salvation and my personal walk with God. Indeed, these descriptions of Christianity are true. The Christian faith is personal faith. It affects the way a person thinks, speaks, and acts. It involves a relationship of love between a man or woman and the eternal God. While these descriptions are true, however, they are also inadequate. Christian faith is personal, but it is not only personal. There is a communal aspect of the faith that is crucial to our participation in the life of God. When we have questions about our faith or face tough moral problems, it is important that we consult the community of believers, both those with whom we share this earthly life and those of years, decades, and centuries past. The wisdom of the saints, both past and present, is one of the great treasures of the faith. When we are confused about matters of faith, we can seek help from others around us. When we face times of doubt, it is well for us to confide in and seek the wisdom of fellow travellers on this journey into the life of God. And when we read the Bible, we are helped by the insights, prayers, and wisdom of other believers.
Once you become a Christian, you are explicitly no longer your own. Of course, each of us belongs to God from the day we are born until the day we die. Becoming a Christian, however, is a public acknowledgement of this fact. We are God’s, and by accepting Christ we become a part of God’s household. There was a time when we were estranged from God and his household, but now God has brought us near. As it says in Ephesians 2:19-22,
You are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.
Likewise in 1 Peter 2:9-10 we read, “You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”
Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God. You share a baptism. You share a faith. And you share the sacred Scriptures. The Bible is not simply yours or mine. It is ours. And as such, when we come to read the Bible, we come not simply as individuals, but as members of the household of God interpreting the Bible as it was meant to be interpreted: in community. Our faith was never meant to be a primarily individualistic affair. Jesus created a community of followers around himself. He left his closest followers to carry out his mission, and he sent the Holy Spirit to guide the Church. Corporate worship and discernment has always been a part of the Christian life. Yes, time alone, say, in prayer or meditation, is indeed valuable, but it is equally important that we return to our community of faith.
Paul tells us, “work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” Indeed, this is good advice, because working out our salvation is no less than ordering our lives so as to be in right relationship with the God of the universe. That is no small thing. It shapes both our present lives and our eternal destinies. Thankfully, we don’t have to do this on our own. In fact, we should not even try to do so. If we read this passage in Greek we will see that the word “your” is plural. We don’t have a plural form of “you” in English (except for “y’all”), so we may easily miss part of what Paul is saying here: the working out of our salvation is something we do together with other Christians, not something we do in isolation from one another. A document created by the World Council of Churches puts the issue very nicely: “The Church is not merely the sum of individual believers in communion with God, nor primarily the mutual communion of individual believers among themselves. It is their common partaking in the life of God (2 Pet 1:4), who as Trinity is the source and focus of all communion.” Our journey into the life of God is not one we undertake on our own. It is a communal process.
Surely reading the Bible is an important part of the working out of our salvation, a key element of our journey of faith. As we travel along this pathway, we will miss important landmarks, life-giving springs, beautiful scenery, and rest stops if we travel alone. The pathway, moreover, is not always clearly marked. The proper way to interpret the Bible is not always obvious to us, either as individuals or as a community. Therefore we need the wisdom of our brothers and sisters in the faith to help us along, to keep us from heading down rabbit trails, into dead ends, or off of cliffs. Our individual interpretations do matter, but we should be ever mindful of the wisdom of others within our community of faith. The Bible is, in fact, a product of communal Christian reflection. As Achtemeier has put it, “If it is true… that the church, by its production of Scripture, created materials which stood over it in judgment and admonition, it is also true that Scripture would not have existed save for the community and its faith out of which Scripture grew.” The very origins of the Bible are within the believing community.
Any thoughts? I’d love to hear what you think….
 World Council of Churches, The Nature and Mission of the Church: A Stage on the Way to a Common Statement (Geneva: World Council of Churches Publications, 2005, 15.
 Paul J. Achtemeier, The Inspiration of Scripture (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1980)