If you have spent any time with the practice of “devotions,” regularly reading the Bible, you have probably found yourself exactly where I had many times. After reading a text, you are puzzled about how it applies or what it is saying. You simply cannot figure out what you are supposed to learn, think, or do because Jesus healed a blind man by smearing spit-formed mud on his eyes. Given enough of these moments, maybe you have doubted the effectiveness of devotions. You simply are not getting anything out of reading your Bible regularly. Perhaps it is the fault of the Bible, it is just not relevant, or maybe you don’t have the education to understand it. I confess that I have found myself in this place dozens of times. However, over the last several years, God has opened my eyes to the wonders of His Word in a different way, a way not common among the Bible-loving, Reformed Evangelical circles I call home. Many contributed to this awakening, this new appreciation for what the Bible is and how it functions in our daily life—and the pulpit. There was Phil Long, with his labours to show how Biblical narrative teaches us, and John Piper, who so clearly articulates how God’s glory is revealed in Scripture. But above all, I think I owe much to Martin Kähler (d. 1912), a man who shares a very different view of Scripture than Piper, Long, and I do.
Martin Kähler and his book The So-Called Historical Jesus and the Historic Biblical Christ are hard to categorize. He was a German theologian and New Testament scholar living in the 19th century. On the one hand, he was no conservative: he vehemently opposed the dogmatic approach of his conservative contemporaries, rejected propositional revelation, and denied inerrancy. However, on the other hand, he was no liberal: he hated the way Liberalism eviscerated the Gospel. His concerns were many, but primarily, he was concerned that both Liberalism and conservativism in his day separated the Bible from the average Christian; they made it impossible for the average Christian to have confidence in and knowledge of Jesus whom they worshipped. His concern is one I sympathize with greatly— though I am a staunch proponent of verbal, propositional revelation and inerrancy. I likewise am concerned with the ways many approaches to the Bible put it far away from those it was intended to lead. Kähler rejected the liberal historical method and the dogmatics of the conservatives and adopted a somewhat enigmatic approach to Scripture. He argued that the New Testament doesn’t teach us about Christ—that it is not intended to tell us certain theological and historical truths—but it shows us Christ. He argued that as we read the New Testament and all the Scriptures, we find a portrayal of Christ that is compelling and sufficient for our faith.
There are many things we could say in criticism of Kähler’s position. For one, the Bible clearly gives a law, commands and precepts to be obeyed, and has much explicit and implicit proposition content—statements about God and His World that must be either true or false. Regarding these teachings, the Bible unequivocally claims that it is the very words of God and absolutely true. We could also criticize the idea that the New Testament could adequately show us Jesus without making true claims about history. These criticisms can and must be made. However, to stay there is to miss the profound insight Kähler had into the way Scripture functions in the Christian life.
Why does Paul insist on the public “reading of Scripture” (1 Tim 4:13; Col 4:16; 1 Thess 5:27)? Why is so much of the Bible narrative, hardly the most economical way to teach truth and morality? Why is Scripture so redundant? I only need to read of Jesus healing one person to know that God can heal or that God has healed in history. If our view of Scripture is that it primarily or exclusively tells us what to believe and what to do about it, we have to confess that the Bible is a miserable failure. This goal could have been achieved with a lot less space and complexity. I don’t mean to suggest that the Bible doesn’t do these things—it surely does! However, this is not all the Bible does. It is clear, for example, that Psalms shape the way we feel about and respond to God; they give us a grammar for expressing our faith, worship, and doubt and they correct our failures to respond to God correctly. But Kähler points us in a new direction.
Kähler’s brilliant insight, made before epistemologists discussed “personal knowledge,” was that Scripture communicates to us a personal knowledge of the Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Though in his book The So-Called Historical Jesus and the Historic Biblical Christ, Kähler was only concerned with the Son. We could define “personal knowledge,” in the sense I am using it, as the knowledge of a person, not a fact. The knowledge I have of Nicole, my wife, cannot be reduced to facts about her life and our interactions, though these facts are an irreplaceable part of the personal knowledge I possess (I could not say I knew her if I did not know a single thing about her). In addition to telling us about God, Scripture shows us God: by weaving a tapestry of God’s actions and words, Scripture leads us into the knowledge of God, the person. We are not acquainted with an abstract divinity, but we are introduced to and get to know a person. As we witness God in action, we come to understand what “love,” “mercy,” “kindness,” and “wrath” really mean. We understand what they mean in their fullest and purest expression, in God. We come to know what it means for God to be a father as we receive His discipline addressing us through Paul’s epistles, witness the extents He goes to call and welcome the prodigal in the Gospels, and as we hear over and over His tender assurance that He will protect us through every storm and trial. As we learn about God—that He walked the earth in the early 2nd millennia BC with Abraham—we meet God: we witness His mercy as Jesus cries out “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me” and tremble at His might as we read of the mountain quaking, the thunder. smashing, and fire burning on Mount Sinai
With this insight, Kähler helped me to see that as I read my Bible every day, I am not seeking to learn some tidbit of theology or receive concrete application—though I am continually rebuked in my sin and learn something new about God and His ways. Each day I get up early in the morning and read about my King, I hear stories of God’s faithfulness, justice, and mercy and get to know a little more about the God I worship. I am reassured that no matter how faithless I am, He is faithful. I am encouraged that no matter how bad our world gets, the God who faithfully exercised justice in the past will soon bring full recompense upon all evil when Jesus returns. I have learned from Kähler that we often teach too much and fail to listen enough. That is, when our sermons focus more on telling us about the text rather than displaying the text, we put the focus on the wrong place.
The apostles to command us to teach and exhort each other on the basis of the Word, yet we must not forget that it is on the basis of the Word. God’s Word is primary: our teaching and exhorting are secondary. When a sermon can allude to a text without displaying it—can preach on a chapter without ever reading it in full—we have misplaced our priorities. God wants us to learn from His Word—so we need to teach through difficulties and exhort obedience—but He also wants us to listen and be shaped by the tapestry Scripture weaves. If we miss the reading aspect, we will fail to show our congregants God whom they worship; if we lose the reading element, we will fail to teach them the language and worldview of Scripture, the way its idioms and expressions shapes us to better understand it and the world around us.
It appears to me that for all we might say about the Bible’s clarity, we don’t believe it in practice. Narratives, for example, don’t need a detailed explanation; they need to be read well, tied into the greater work God is doing, and often applied with a carefully contextualized exhortation. As it regards our devotions times; it is okay to walk away without a theological tidbit. As we read regularly, we see and are comforted and challenged by God who we meet in Scripture. We also will find—if we are using a good translation—that we will be shaped by the Biblical worldview, which will often lead to concrete and clear application as we live out our faith. So read your Bible and read it again. Read prayerfully, read carefully, yet read to know and delight in the God who has perfectly revealed himself there.