A Review of Reading in Communion
Dr Marion L. S. Carson, Active Member, Queens Park Baptist & New Testament Lecturer, International Christian College, Glasgow
When prospective students come for interview, we ask them why they want to come to College. Most say they want to know more about the Bible. When we ask why, the frequent reply is that they want a closer walk with God, to get to know Him better. I have always found these answers interesting, for they reveal something of what people understand their relationships to God and the Bible to be.
The first answer tells us a good deal about how people view the place of the Bible in the Christian living. Usually, when people say they want to know more about it, they mean they want to learn facts. For example, they want to know (apart from what the book actually says) about the history of the Biblical world, or what the numbers in Revelation mean. This interest in facts is intriguing. It seems to assume that to be armed with knowledge means that our walk with God will be a closer one. If, for example, we know something of Roman law in the time of Jesus, we may be able to understand his ministry and teaching a bit more. If we know something of first century slavery, we may be able to understand what Paul was saying to Philemon in his letter.
This assumption is a curious one, however. For very few students seem to spot that while an understanding something of the Graeco-Roman world may help us to know what the Biblical authors might have been saying in the first century, it can only go so far in helping us to see what they might be saying to us today. For our world is very different from that of the Graeco-Romans. We no longer have slavery in the form in which it was familiar to Paul and Philemon, and we certainly do not all live in a rural middle-eastern country whose economy is based on agriculture and fisheries.
The second answer is also interesting. It tells us something of how people view their relationship with God, and suggests another underlying assumption – that the Christian faith is about the relationship of individuals with God; it is about one’s own spiritual life. Now of course, this is a crucial part of our faith, but there is more to the Christian life than this. Individuals live in communities; we cannot flourish without other people, and our task, as Scripture itself tells us, is to learn to serve and worship God together.
All this raises a third question, one which we encourage students to explore throughout their time at College. How can the Bible help us to grow in our faith and in our relationships with others? In other words, how can we “embody Scripture” in our lives and communities? This is the question which Stephen Fowl and L. Gregory Jones ask in their book Reading In Communion: Scripture and Ethics in Christian Life (London: SPCK 1991). In order to answer it they question the second assumption – that Christianity is about individuals. We must, they argue, “recover the centrality of Christian communities”, and try to interpret Scripture together, as communities of faith, discerning what is being said and how we might live. Convinced that “living faithfully before the triune God” is a communitarian exercise, and drawing on ideas from virtue ethics, they urge us to see Scripture not as a repository of do’s and don’ts for the well-intentioned, not as a book of facts to be learned, but a treasury of stories and wisdom produced by faithful communities over centuries. It is the responsibility of our believing communities to discern what Scripture might have to say to us today. As they rightly remind us – we are not the first people to have heard the word of God.
But what about the inevitable arguments of interpretations which will arise? Even in the healthiest communities, problems can arise when groups are so inward looking that they become blinkered. When this happens we must look to other communities to help us, listen to their ideas and be open to prophets whose voices we may be “unwilling to hear”. There is much to be learned from traditions and communities different to our own.
Fowl and Jones remind us that being is intimately bound up with doing – our doing is an expression of our identity and our character. Viewing Scripture as the voice of God speaking through and to faithful communities helps us to be people of character, who do not become “puffed up” with knowledge, but live lives of devotion to God and service to others. Their book is a good introduction to ways in which we can develop our understanding of the place of Scripture in our walk with God. We incude it on our reading lists for students – and I commend it to you.