By Terry Maples
How might reading the Bible formationally empower transformation for Fellowship Baptist?
I loved reading and teaching Scot McKnight’s book The Jesus Creed. The entire volume unpacks what is most important for Christ-followers, i.e. learning to love God and others. Jesus’ response to an expert of the law who asked about the most important commandment yielded what McKnight calls the Jesus Creed:
“Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.” The second is this “Love your neighbor as yourself.” There is no commandment greater than these (Mark 12:29-31).
Jesus expands the Shema of Judaism (Deuteronomy 6:4-9) by adding Leviticus 19:18, showing us the path to spiritual formation is found in loving God and others. For Jesus, love of God and other people is paramount. McKnight defines love as “unconditional regard for a person that prompts and shapes behaviors in order to help that person become what God desires.” This statement is very close to my long-time personal definition of love: the active willing and working for the good of another.
Jesus’ words in the Lord’s Prayer provide a framework for conversation with God. In prayer, we are challenged to think more like God thinks—Thy will be done. Jesus knew his followers would be tempted to lapse into utterances focused on what we want or need. Richard Foster says one of the most transformative experiences of his life was learning to pray, “so my experience conformed to the words of Jesus rather than trying to make his words conform to my impoverished experience.” The Lord’s Prayer is an effective summary of the Gospel.
One of the most powerful questions McKnight raises in The Jesus Creed is, ‘How might we attend to Jesus so we have constant access to his love and life?” He answers by saying we best attend to Jesus by listening to the Word, participating in worship, and engaging in Christian fellowship. Let’s focus on the first way of attending to Jesus: listening to the Word.
We spend time with Jesus by reading the Bible and studying his teachings. Robert Mulholland in Shaped by the Word distinguishes between reading the Bible for “information” (to learn more) and reading for “formation”(to be changed), i.e. how we read the Bible vs. why we read the Bible. I believe this difference is key for Fellowship Baptists.
Muholland offers these comparisons between informational and formational reading of scripture:
|In Informational reading we:||In Formational reading we:|
|Cover as much as possible||Cover what we need to|
|Read line after line||Read for depth, perhaps only a word|
|Have a goal of mastering the text||Have a goal of being mastered by the text|
|Treat the text as an “object”||Treat ourselves as the object of the text|
|Read analytically||Read receptively|
|Solve problems||Are open to mystery|
These distinctions are important. Reading for information fuels our desire to know more, not in and of itself a bad thing, but reading for formation deepens capacity for personal and kingdom transformation in addition to gaining more knowledge.
Conditioned by our life experiences, what we’ve been taught, and interpretations we’ve heard preached, all of us come to reading scripture with preconceived ideas about what biblical texts mean. As such, we are in the position of control over what we understand. Our agenda (what we are looking for) is firmly in place. This human and very common tendency can block a formational reading of scripture where the primary goal is giving up control and allowing scripture to read us! Mulholland says shifting toward formation allows us to move from being our own production—false self and all—to being God’s creation!
Mulholland suggests: 1) make listening for God your top priority, 2) respond to what you read with your heart and spirit rather than your rational mind, and 3) let your response to what you read take place in the deepest levels of your being.
Certainly we need to read the Bible for information. There are facts like context and what was said to original hearers we need to know. We must, however, reach a time and place in our formational reading of scripture when we invite sacred text to reveal truth about ourselves. Awareness of truth leads to transformation of our attitudes and actions. Most importantly, formational reading shapes and forms us into disciples who are known for our capacity to love God and neighbor!