Almost everyone approaches the Bible in a way that he has been taught or in a way which he thinks is right, or both. What the majority does, however, is not the certain way toward truth. Krister Stendahl, former Harvard Professor of Theology and President of the Society of Biblical Literature, once listened to three theologians deliver a paper each on the same subject. They were of different denominational backgrounds.
When they were through, Stendahl, who was to give the response to the papers, stated that they had done what he thought they would do. Each had simply defended their denomination’s point of view. Why can we not, he pleaded, approach the Bible with foremost regard for what is right?
What are the main approaches to the Bible? How do these main ways differ? Let us look at the four main ways in which denominational people read the Bible.
First, there is the Confessional Reader
The confessional approach to reading the Bible is mentally assenting to stated, institutionalized interpreters.
The Pope, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Bishop, or some committee, etc., claim the right to determine the official doctrine. Catholics, Lutherans, and Anglicans are examples of this point of view.
One man told me that he left the Methodists and became an Episcopalian because he did not like all the spontaneous prayers in the Methodist Church (Instead, he liked the idea of all of the prayers being written down). Winthrop Hudson, church historian, once said that “when a man’s financial income reaches the six-digit figure, the more serious thoughts he has about apostolic succession.”
The confessional approach to reading the Bible is the choice of those who want a religion of convenience. It does not require much effort to be a member in good standing.
This type of Bible reader is like the farmer who said the same prayer for years. He got tired of saying the same prayer again and again, so instead of saying a different one, he just wrote the prayer on a piece of paper and nailed it to the headboard of his bead. Each night when he jumped into bed he simply pointed to it and said, “Lord, them’s my sentiments.”
Second, there is the Covenantal Reader
The covenantal approach is agreeing to walk together with others before God by a set of guidelines in addition to the New Testament.
All who read the Bible like this have a church covenant. This covenant may even differ from the Bible. Scholars from this tradition cannot write much without mentioning the term “covenant.”
Perry Miller, a noted authority on Puritanism, has shown that the Puritans invented the church covenant to fill in the gaps left by John Calvin. Puritanism, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and the Reformed Churches are examples of those who read the Bible through the eyes of a “covenant.”
Third, there is the Mystical Reader
Those of this view try to observe the spirit of the New Testament and forsake all outward forms.
Quakers are a good example of this type of Bible reader. They do not practice any outward baptism but claim to practice an inner baptism. Quakers never observe the Lord’s supper outwardly but claim to observe it inwardly.
This type of reader emphasizes that Christianity is “caught not taught.” They claim to be “led by the Spirit.”
Last, there is the Restorationist Reader
This type of reader seeks to return to apostolic Christianity as recorded in the New Testament Scriptures.
He has a straightforward way of doing this: he obeys the direct commands, approved examples, and necessary inferences of the Bible. He is like the Corinthian Christians who followed Paul’s inspired instructions and returned (“restored”) their belief and practice to what he had originally taught them.
Several in history have been restoration oriented. The Waldensians, Anabaptists, the General Baptists, the original Christian Churches and Disciples were restorational in differing degrees. Dr. B. R. White, a noted English Baptist historian, has said that the early English Baptists believed:
[…] that there was one divinely given pattern for the church’s life in every generation and that that pattern was to be found exemplified in the Apostolic church as recorded in the New Testament. They further believed that it was an essential part of their obedience to God to reconstruct that apostolic pattern.
Restorational Bible readers have avoided the state church system and numerous other major doctrinal pitfalls in Christian history.
Churches of Christ are perhaps the most consistently restorational Bible readers today.
* Sam E. Hester is a professor of Bible and church history at Freed-Hardeman University in Henderson, Tennessee.
- B. R. White, 1968, “The Task of the Baptist Historian,” Baptist Quarterly 22 (Oct.): 405.