Reading St. Paul

There’s a lot I don’t understand when I read the Epistles of St. Paul.  This shouldn’t surprise me, given his background.  The man was utterly brilliant, and he had what sounds like the equivalent of a doctorate in his Hebrew studies, as well.  I don’t, I can’t operate on that level.

But what I do understand grabs me and won’t let go.

I’m rereading the Pauline epistles for the first time in a number of years.  I keep going back and reading portions of Philippians and Ephesians again and again – and Romans 12. . .   so I decided it’s probably a good idea to just start with Romans and read through.  I’m keeping a journal as I read, and my color pencils are by my elbow as well (although I’m really not using them as much as I’d thought I would).

Frankly, most of the first half of Romans zooms right over my head.  Paul gets into some pretty heavy theology there, and while the first two chapters are vividly accessible to me, only bits and pieces grab me from the beginning of Chapter 3 into Chapter 8.  I’m trying to use those bits and pieces, and a general sense of background as I know it, to construct a clearer sense of Paul’s teaching.  After all, this is an epistle — a letter! It’s not supposed to be his dissertation! even though that’s sometimes how he feels.

Paul was writing to the Romans, here, and it seems so apt that this epistle begins the succession of all his works. Rome ruled the world, politically, militarily, and culturally. It was a place of tremendous sophistication. It was also a hotbed of depravity.

Amazing that a core group of Romans rejected the strength, the power, the luxuries and excesses of Roman culture to become followers of that still-obscure cult, Christianity.

In fact, this is the whole point of the Pauline epistles: to teach a formerly pagan people how to adapt to the radically different paradigm of Christian discipleship.

More soon. — God bless you.


Thoughtful Bible Study

I don’t suppose anyone actually pays attention to this blog.  I certainly have a feeling of nattering to myself whenever I post…. which I haven’t done in quite a long time because… well, several reasons.  Working on some other projects, feeling my mind drying up…  having the nagging feeling it doesn’t make a bit of difference to the Grand Scheme of Things what I think so why bother?

Still, here I return, again and again.

Today I want to talk about getting your teeth into your Bible reading. Commonly, and erroneously, called “Inductive Bible Study,” is a method of going beyond the surface of a text into its heart, using a series of basic questions  —- the good old Who? What? When? Where? Why? How? we learned in school, back in the day.

Now, I say this is an erroneous label.  Actually, Induction starts with a premise, then seeks the details to support it.  Kay Arthur of Precept Ministries coined this phrase and made it a brand name for her own Bible studies.  Kay has some good stuff going, and I’m going to recommend some of her study techniques and notations — but keep in mind that, when you start with a point and seek to prove it (inductive reasoning), you can get all the points right and still reach an incorrect conclusion.  Kay’s an evangelical Protestant, which means she misses the Catholicity of the Scriptures; she often has wrong conclusions of a passage; she too often misses the subtext. For example, II Corinthians is predicated upon the practice of Sacramental Confession — but as a Protestant, Kay would say that we confess our sins only to God, not to a priest; that the priest is extraneous to the Reconciliation process.  She’s missing much of what’s actually happening underneath and behind the text and what it means for us.

I can say that without malice because I was blind to the Catholicity of the Scriptures for more than 25 years, myself.  It’s just one of the weaknesses of Protestantism as a culture.

No, what we want to do is a bit different.  I’m starting with a premise:  the Scriptures are the Inspired Word of God (His written Word, since Jesus is also the Word, the Logos) — and it’s up to us to carefully, thoughtfully pull out the life lessons from there.  What those lessons are is what we’ll be doing with our study.

Now — here’s how it works.  I’m going to start with the Pauline Epistles of the New Testament (from Romans through to Philemon).  Right now I’m re-reading the Book of Romans, which is a very good place to demonstrate a few ideas.

Now, let me point out one other thing, here.  You will develop your familiarity with the Scriptures in LAYERS — I’d use an analogy, like building a Cornish pasty, but I’m typing with a Benadryl hangover and analogies are a bit beyond me right this minute.  If you’ve read the Scriptures before, you’ve got a foundation, and you’ll build on it, and go deeper and see more every time you thoughtfully and prayerfully re-read.  I’ve lost track how many times I’ve read some of these Books, so don’t let my enthusiasms or any of the points that follow daunt you.  Okay? Promise?


The Book is Paul’s Epistle to the Romans

WHO — who wrote this? to whom did he write it?  (MUCH of this will carry through as the introduction to all of Paul’s epistles.)
Okay, that’s easy.  The Epistle to the Romans was written by Paul.  WHO was Paul?  Well, we see in the Book of Acts that he was a Jew, a Pharisee, who’d been persecuting the Christians out of zeal for the Lord… and God blinds him and gives him this amazing revelation that Jesus of Nazareth really was/is the Messiah…. and he went and studied and then after 3 years was approved by Peter to take the Gospel to the Gentiles…. etc., etc.  — Paul tells us a LOT about himself in his letters.  Why he does this is important, and we’ll look at it as we go.

So… who were the Romans? Well, the Romans were citizens and residents of Rome who’d converted to Christ.

And so it goes.

In the interest of brevity, let me move to a new post for what I have on my mind and think is important enough to write about it:  Who were the Gentiles? And What difference does it make, anyway?

Continuing our Bible study –

Yikes! Nearly 3 months since I last posted!  My most sincere apologies.  No real excuse for my negligence, only procrastination (time is passing so much more quickly now that I’m really middle-aged) and chronic lack of energy.

Now that three months have passed, I’m going to work on the assumption that you’ve been browsing through and are beginning to get a sense of the arrangement of the Bible.  Chances are also good that you might have begun reading at Genesis 1:1 and just kept on reading until…. WHAM!!!  Where’d the story go?

Remember — the Bible is not just one Book, it is a library, a compilation of shorter works, or Books.  These are arranged as follows:

The first five Books are called the Pentateuch (penta=”five”  You’ll remember from high school prefixes and suffixes, right?).  Genesis and Exodus are narratives of God’s creation of the world and the beginnings of His working to redeem mankind from their sins.  These two books make for some pretty exciting reading, but…

When you hit the third Book, Leviticus, you are suddenly in new territory.  In Exodus, Moses went up on the Mountain to receive the Law of God.  Leviticus is that law, detailed in the extreme.  And there’s a lot of repetition. Leviticus (and Deuteronomy, the 5th Book of the Pentateuch) are well worth delving into — but for the time being, you might want to wait until you’ve read more of the narrative, gotten more under your belt.

After the Pentateuch come the History Books, outlining the history of the development of the Nation of Israel, from the earliest battles to secure the Promised Land, the cycles of faithfulness, followed by compromise followed by deterioration into abandonment of God…   followed by punishment, followed by repentence, followed by renewed faithfulness….   The writers of these books are tough and gritty and although some of our modern translations want to make some of the grit a bit more polite, the stories in these Books are the sort that grab the imagination and pull you forward.

The Book of Job sits with the Poetry and Wisdom Books.  It’s not really a history, per se, or a prophecy… although it contains both.

After the Wisdom literature (which probably should be read a bit at a time, interspersed with the other readings — I’ll outline that soon) come the Prophets.  A “Major'” prophet is not more important than a “minor” one — he’s just had a lot more to say!  The Prophetic books fit in with the narratives of the Histories, but they also stand alone.  (Note: in reading the Book of Isaiah, if you’re a musician, you’ll recognize many of the texts from Handel’s Messiah.)

The New Testament is divided:

Four Gospels
History (The Book of Acts)
Pauline Epistles
General Epistles
Prophecy (Revelation)

Having a sense of the genre of a particular book will help you have an greater ease in its writing and style.

Next up: reading for meaning.  Inductive Bible Study.

Prayer before reading

There are lots of prayers before reading the Scriptures.  I just did a quick Google search, and I found dozens, probably hundreds.  Pick the one you like best.

I talk to God rather plainly, and I say something like, “Father, come to me in the Scriptures, and help me to know You better. Make me tender-hearted to what I learn here, so I might be more fully converted. Amen.”   It varies from day to day.

Point is, do ask God to “open the eyes of your heart” and increase your receptivity to the Message.  The fancy words don’t matter. The intention of the heart does.

Lectio Divina – baby steps

Please, please read through to the end of this post, because I’m about to open with a very controversial statement, here:

I am not a biblical literalist.

The reason for this is simple:  I’m an American, steeped in a culture that still clings to vestiges of Puritan legalism and narrowness of perspective. Puritans left the Church of England because they thought all the splendor retained after the break from Rome was an insult to God — never mind that the Bible is chock full of descriptions of the extravagant beauty associated with worshipping Him. Ignore the beauty and splendor associated with worship of God from time immemorial. We have a purer way … 

The writers of the Bible, however (and remember, the Bible is a collection of Books, not just one Book), were not Puritans. They were Middle Easterners, a people whose culture and manner of speaking and writing are colorful and poetic and… probably quite antithetical in many particulars from our Puritan forebears.

An example of that poetry that no one, not even the most rabid fundamentalist, takes literally is found in the Psalms — 17 and 91, to name two — where God’s love and provision for His people is described through a hen covering her chicks. No one thinks God is a chicken or any other type of bird.  But the first thing a fundamentalist will ask you is whether you take the Bible literally.  He forgets that powerful truths are conveyed through the poetic devices which are never to be taken literally.

Even the anthropomorphic representations of God as a man with hands, feet, eyes, and so on, are metaphor.  But the metaphor gets the point across. That’s what metaphor does.

Much of the biblical narrative is metaphorical.  There are bigger truths to be gained behind the word pictures we read.  So when we read the Bible, we’re going to look at a literal context, yes – but we’re also going to look for a spiritual meaning.  When Israel battles a particular enemy, we may be reading an account of a war that might have actually occurred…  but there’s a spiritual significance to this story, it’s included in the text for our benefit — and our benefit goes far beyond an isolated literal event.  So we’re going to be conscious of that, and we’re going to look for that deeper meaning.

In other words — I may not take the Bible literally, but you can bet your bottom dollar I take it seriously.  Very seriously.


Next up: some tips to get more mileage out of your reading.

Meet Your Bible

You’ve got your new Bible, you’re in your favorite chair and you’re ready to get started. Now, I’m going to go on the assumption you’re completely, totally new to this whole business — so many people are wholly unfamiliar with the Bible, these days. If you know more, count your blessings and get to reading. Otherwise..

The Christian Bible is divided into two sections: The Old Testament and the New. The Old Testament tells the history of Creation, the workings of God through His Chosen People, the Hebrews, through their earliest days as a small family, through the various stages of their history, up to about 300 years before the birth of Christ.  The New Testament contains the biographies of Jesus (the Gospels), a history of the very early Church (The Acts of the Apostles), and various letters (Epistles) written to encourage the Church in the various cities where it took a toehold in those earliest days.

The Old Testament contains 46 Books, or 39 if you bought a Protestant Bible.  The difference is a set of works called the “deuterocanon” or the “apocrypha.”  These works were written in a language other than Hebrew, and were eventually ejected from the Hebrew canon for that reason — but they were part of the canon at the time of Jesus’s life, and they are quoted, paraphrased, or alluded to more than 100 times in the New Testament.  In fact, the earliest editions of the King James Bible were required by law to contain these books!  And all Protestant translations contained these books (and sections of a couple of prophetic books still in the Protestant Bibles) until the 1880s!

(A word of warning: the second source, above, is Protestant, and isn’t exactly honest about what motivates or inspires the Catholic Church. But I figure an admission about their own history has to be taken seriously, so I’ve included it.)

Each Testament is divided into Books. You see, the Bible isn’t one Book, it’s a small compact library: history, law, poetry, prophecy, biography, letters…   Each Book has its own author (or authors), and its own purpose.  But there is an overlying theme to the whole: God’s revealing Himself to humankind, and calling them to sanctify themselves to Him.

Take a little while to thumb through your Bible. Begin to get a sense of where things are.  The Book of the Psalms are about as close to the center of the Bible as it’s possible to get.  The histories and Law come before; the prophetic works follow, and the New Testament.  Let your eyes wander through the pages. Read a few verses here and there.  You’ll notice that different books have a different tone or voice.

By the way – those chapter and verse divisions are a relatively new invention. They aren’t perfect markers for divisions of thought and topic in the text, but they do help us keep our place. Just be aware you don’t have to be slavishly confined to them when you read, okay?

So for a couple of days, just relax and browse, and develop a sense of how your Bible is arranged, and what it “sounds” like as you read.

Remember: lectio is not a competitive sport.