Monday, September 5, 2011

Excerpt from Self-Examination – How to Read the Bible

I have not commented on the Bible in quite a long time. I have been focusing much on doctrine and differences between churches. I want to return to the Scriptures, however, I thought to first post an excerpt from Søren Kierkegaard's edifying discourse Self-Examination. Here, he uses the metaphor of a lover attempting to read a love-letter from his beloved to explain to Christians what it really means to read the Bible. Biblical scholarship has contributed positively to our understanding of the message contained in the Scriptures; however, there is a growing group of scholars who don't study the Bible to understand what God is telling them, but try to disprove it. I find that I too have a tendency to read the Bible as a history book or as a book addressed to people living thousands of years ago rather than read it as a the Word of God addressed to me. I must read the Scriptures to hear what God wants me to do today and then I must go off and do it right away. The excerpt is below. 

Imagine a lover who has received a letter from his beloved – I assume that God’s Word is just as precious to you as this letter is to the lover. I assume that you read and think you ought to read God’s Word in the same way the lover reads this letter.
Yet you perhaps say, “Yes, but Holy Scripture is written in a foreign language.” But it is really only scholars who need to read Holy Scripture in the original language. If, however, you will not have it any other way, if you insist upon reading Scripture in the original language, well, we can still keep the metaphor of the letter from the beloved, except that we will add a little stipulation.
I assume, then, that this letter from the beloved is written in a language that the lover does not understand, and there is no one around who can translate it for him, and perhaps he would not even want any such help lest a stranger be initiated into his secrets. What does he do? He takes a dictionary, begins to spell his way through the letter, looks up every word in order to obtain a translation. Let us assume that, as he sits there busy with his task, an acquaintance comes in. He knows that this letter has come, because he sees it on the table, sees it lying there, and says, “Well, so you are reading a letter from your beloved” – what do you think the other will say? He answers, “Have you gone mad? Do you think this is reading a letter from my beloved! No, my friend, I am sitting here toiling and moiling with a dictionary to get it translated. At times I am ready to explode with impatience; the blood rushes to my head and I would just as soon hurl the dictionary on the floor – and you call that reading – you must be joking! No, thank God, I am soon finished with the translation and then, yes, then, I shall read my beloved’s letter; that is something altogether different. But to whom am I speaking…..stupid fellow, get out of my sight; I would rather not see you – how could you think of insulting my beloved and me by calling this reading a letter from her! And yet, stay, stay – you know very well I am only joking. I would ever so much like to have you stay, but, to be honest, I have no time. There is still something left to translate and I am so impatient to begin reading it – therefore do not be angry, but please go so I can finish.”
So, then, with regard to the letter from his beloved, the lover distinguishes between reading and reading, between reading with a dictionary and reading the letter from his beloved. The blood rushes to his head in his impatience when he sits and grinds away at reading with the dictionary; he becomes furious when his friend dares to call this learned reading a reading of the letter from his beloved. Now he is finished with the translation – now he reads his beloved’s letter. He regarded, if you please, all these scholarly preliminaries as a necessary evil so that he can come to the point – of reading the letter from his beloved.
Let us not discard the metaphor too soon. Let us assume that this letter from the beloved contained not only an  expression of affection, as such letters ordinarily do, but that it contained a wish, something the beloved wished her lover to do. It was, let us assume, much that was required of him, very much; any third party would consider that there was good reason to think better of it, but the lover – he is off at once to fulfill his beloved’s wish. Let us assume that after some time the lovers met and the beloved said, “But, my dear, that was not at all what I asked you to do; you must have misunderstood the word or translated it incorrectly.” Do you think that the lover would now regret rushing off straightway that very second to obey the wish instead of first entertaining some doubts, and then perhaps getting the help of a few additional dictionaries, and then having some more misgivings, and then perhaps getting the word translated correctly and consequently being exempt – do you believe that he regrets the mistake, do you believe that he pleases his beloved less?
Now think of God’s Word. When you read God’s Word in a scholarly way – we do no disparage scholarship, no, far from it, but do bear this in mind: when you are reading God’s Word in a scholarly way, with a dictionary etc., then you are not reading God’s Word – remember what the lover said: “This is not reading the letter from the beloved.” If you happen to be a scholar, then please do see to it that in all this learned reading (which is not reading God’s Word) you do not forget to read God’s Word. If you are not a scholar, do not envy him: be glad that you can start reading God’s Word right away! And if there happens to be a wish, a command, an order, then – remember the lover! – then off with you at once to do what it asks. “But”, you perhaps say, “there are so many obscure passages in the Bible, whole books that are practically riddles.” To that I would answer: Before I have anything to do with this objection, it must be made by someone whose life manifests that he has scrupulously complied with all the passages that are easy to understand; is this the case with you? Yet this is how the lover would respond to the letter – if there were obscure passages, but also clearly expressed wishes, he would say, “I must immediately comply with the wish – then I will see about the obscure parts. How could I ever sit down and ponder the obscure passages and not comply with the wish, the wish that I clearly understood.”

Excerpt taken from For Self-Examination, translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, Princeton 1990

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