Since moving back to the states after both getting Masters of Divinity degrees from Regent College, my wife and I have attached ourselves to an Evangelical Covenant Church. We have begun to really love the Covenant for its stances on justice, the ordination of women, its sacramental theology and the value it puts on scripture. In many ways we feel like we have found a theological home with the Covenant and we are not kicking against the goads.
Recently my wife has taken a job at our church, and though I have yet to find a ministry job anywhere, I sense that God has led us here and I am in the right spot. Late January I took a couple of classes in Chicago (hence the blog hiatus) and am still really happy with this church.
One of the things about the ECC, is they really own their Pietist heritage. The denomination grew out of a Swedish Pietist revival movement and it is pretty central to who they are as a denomination and how they understand themselves. I know that in some theological circles, Pietism is looked down upon for its navel-gazing interiority and legalism. It is true that Pietism has at times devolves into an unhealthy mysticism and legalism but at its core there was a spiritual vitality which manifested itself in graciousness and social justice. The early Pietists met in coventicles (small groups) to study the Bible; these groups themselves were not culturally monolithic but broke with social conventions and broke down socio-economic and gender barriers. Likewise many of the early Pietists were social activists and not mere mystics. This is a great heritage.
Phillip Jacob Spener is credited as the founder of Pietism (though he drew on earlier spiritual writings). His Pia Desideria is the classical work of the early movement. As I have read some of the writings of the early Pietists I came across an essay by Spener titled The Necessary and Useful Reading of Holy Scripture. I went to seminary and know how to read my Bible well employing various exegetical tools (translation, word studies, discourse analysis, historical and cultural background studies, etc.), I can synthesize insights from various hermeneutics perspectives (patristic, higher criticism, feminism, post colonial, literary, structuralist, poststructuralism, etc.) but Spener doesn’t address the tools as much as he the disposition of the Bible reader. He argues that to read with understanding the following are necessary components(my paraphrase):
- 1. To understand scripture we need heartfelt prayer. The act of reading and praying belong together.
2. To understand scripture (and pray effectively) we need a repentant heart. An unrepentant heart doesn’t really want God’s will and so can’t understand scripture
3. To understand scripture we need to take what we read and practice it. Sometimes we only understand scripture when we get it into our bones.
4.To understand scripture we must read attentively. Spener is saying by this point that there are treasures in scripture for both the simple and the wise, but they will not show themselves to the person who is not really looking for them. If you aren’t looking you won’t really see.
5. To understand scripture we need to listen for God’s general word and his immediate word. That is, what does this scripture say in its original context and to people across time and space and what does it say to me in my context. I find myself wanting to quibble with Spener’s language on this point, but I think his point holds true. The Spirit who inspired the text has a general meaning and ‘word for today’ for the one who reads it.
This disposition was not explicitly taught to me in seminary though I think in general my professors would affirm a prayerful,repentant, active, attentive, and discerning disposition. Okay they all would affirm that, though they might argue with Spener’s specific articulation of that. Certainly the tools of exegesis and various insights into the nature of the text help shape our understanding and these are important, but not instead of reading expecting to hear God speak.
One of the exciting things for me about church these days is I am part of a church which approaches scripture with this sort of reverence and expectancy. As we prayerfully attend to the Word, our own condition and faithfully seek to live out what we read there, God reveals himself to us.