Bible reading has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. The funny thing is, it’s hard for me to imagine a Bible without chapter and verse numbers marked into it. Why is this funny? Because these divisions were only added in the 1500’s. Think about it: for about 75 percent of church history (not to mention a few thousand years of Israelite dealings with the Old Testament before that), people didn’t look up Bible verses.
Bible study is made so much easier by having numbers to communicate exactly where in the text you are referring to. In fact, it seems that it makes reading portions in community much easier, since it helps everyone get on the same page (metaphorically speaking, since invariably people will have different editions, translations and study Bibles that make the page number that contains the text different). But I think there are some potential hazards to the way it makes us think about the Bible. Avoiding hazards begins by becoming aware of them, so here I go:
Dividing the text into verses makes it easier for us to think of the Bible as a bunch of little pieces to be pulled out and used independently. Thus we get athlete’s devotionals and business motivation seminars claiming that Philippians 4:13 gives the power to win championships and build Fortune 500 companies, when actually, if we read carefully around it, we find an example not of accomplishing great changes in our circumstances that bring money and fame, but of having joy and contentment in any situation. But in light of the current economic situation, we wouldn’t want to do away with this mindset, because then the companies that sell verse-a-day calendars would go out of business and jobs would be lost, and those people would have to be reeducated for green-collar industries... I’m still waiting for the Bible verse Demotivators calendar to come out, with verses like James 4:9 on every page. Somebody should make one, with big pictures of hilariously tragic incidents: I’d buy it and give it to Dr. Vreeland to put in his office.
Lest we think that the problems that comes with picking out individual verses occur only among the lowly common-folk (tongue-in-cheek) of Christianity, let’s talk about systematic theology for a moment. My peers in the Donald Miller-Rob Bell-Brian McClaren generation seem to love throwing mud at the whole idea of doing systematics. And they have some very good criticisms. Sometimes theologians take neat logical systems and nicely organized charts, pick some verses that fit into them, publish it as truth, and hold tenaciously to it as the truth. The verses are selected apart from their context, obscuring tension, paradox and uncertainty. And using professional words doesn’t make this any better than the verse-a-day calendars.
But can we please remember that systematics being done poorly sometimes doesn’t mean systematics should be done away with? Systematic theology allows us to ask the questions our culture is asking, and seek what light the Bible sheds on these topics. It is part of the process of contextualization. The thing I like least about systematic theology is how much work it takes to do it right. Grappling with the author’s intent in a passage’s meaning, developing a Biblical theology of that author’s writings, then looking for how those teachings fit consistently into a framework that helps us live our lives well and make sense of the world around us is a lot of work. But if we never go through the whole process, do we have anything more than just some interesting literature and sermons intended for audiences that lived centuries ago. And without thinking about coherency, we can teach exactly opposite things that make our worldview unintelligible and unlivable. (Not paradoxes, but contradictions)
I don’t want to only go as far as detailed exegetical analysis and never think about how the message of the Word transforms my life. And I don’t want to look at the Bible based on a system of ideas that only sees the pieces of it affirm the way I already view the world. But I want careful interpretation of each text that takes into account how the message of that text contributes to a cohesive view of life. I want a Biblically-derived system that teaches me how to approach my life and look at the world.
I need to read the Bible, not just verses.