"Holy Bible, Human Bible: Questions Pastoral Practice Must Ask" and "The Bible in Pastoral Practice: Readings in the Place and Function of Scripture in the Church"

Jennifer Davis Sensenig

The Conrad Grebel Review 25, no. 3 (Fall 2007)

Gordon Oliver. Holy Bible, Human Bible: Questions Pastoral Practice Must Ask. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006; Ray Gingerich and Earl Zimmerman, eds. Telling Our Stories: Personal Accounts of Engagement with Scripture. Telford, PA: Cascadia, 2006; Paul Ballard and Stephen R. Holmes, eds. The Bible in Pastoral Practice: Readings in the Place and Function of Scripture in the Church. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006.

Gordon Oliver began ministry as “a rather fundamentalist evangelical” (xviii), but he intends Holy Bible, Human Bible: Questions Pastoral Practice Must Ask to spark renewal among “conventionalized adults who dominate the biblical gate-keeping leadership of the churches” (149). After decades of ministry Oliver is convinced that “treating the Bible as some kind of literary pope that utters holy truth without regard to…context will only serve to close some issues that should be left open to the speaking of God” (43). Instead, reading the Bible should take us to the boundaries of our lives and show us the way forward.

Many culturally Western pastors will recognize the various reading settings that open this volume: among inter-religious community organizers for justice, amid an adolescent’s digital devotional life, within a seminary New Testament class, at a home Bible study, in a high church liturgical setting, and in a theological dispute between ordained leaders. Oliver labors on behalf of Christians encountering the Bible in these settings who may wonder how it relates to the Word of God, who owns the Bible, how it witnesses to Jesus Christ, and whether it is a bridge or a boundary. These and other hermeneutical questions form the book’s chapter titles.

Oliver affirms many of the “pre-critical” and experientially-based ways that scripture is used today, while aiming to bring critical scholarship to bear on pastoral practice in ways that create a desirable “disruption” (15). Congregations can strive for a more adult relationship with the canon of scripture “instead of the Church speaking on Scripture’s behalf like a parent on behalf of an inarticulate child” (13).

In order to hear the gospels and the “trajectories of truth” they offer for pastoral practice, the author suggests five features of our reading. First is receiving the Bible as a holy inheritance, both deserving our best questions about how it fits and does not fit with contemporary concerns, and able to guide us into holy living. Second is the gradual discovery process of discipleship as well as the moments of profound disclosure that communities of Bible readers experience. Third is the reflection process of discerning “what to do next” in light of an encounter with God’s word. Fourth is disillusion: here Oliver wisely notes that in the gospels the disciples very often question, misunderstand, and confuse who Jesus is and what he means to do and be. Likewise, much pastoral practice includes not knowing the precise connections between the gospel and current pastoral issues. We should not assume we always know what is going on and how Christ is leading us. Jesus “calls his disciples to become literally disillusioned with all that is expected of the Messiah as they encounter the horror of his crucifixion, and then as they come to terms with their experience of him risen, alive and still calling them to follow” (102). Finally, for pastoral faithfulness, this disillusionment must result in commitment.

For Oliver, Christians must receive the canon of scripture into the life of their communities in such a way that God can speak into situations never anticipated by the biblical writers. Credible pastoral practice will acknowledge the weight of difference between biblical and contemporary contexts, but also the deep resonances between the world of the Bible and our world today. The author suggests that intercultural and theologically diverse reading groups might serve as a guard against “increasingly static and conventional hearing and readings of Scripture” (112). Arguments arising from reading in the context of differences are ultimately bridges for the people of God across the swirling issues of homosexuality, militarism, and religious tolerance, among others.

At his pastoral and biblical best, Oliver describes what it means to be fully human in a biblical sense. Using scriptural themes of calling, covenant, wisdom, reconciliation, and maturity, the final chapter sketches a portrait of humanity in the image of God. “To be human and biblical at the same time involves living with the discomfort and the protest that arise from the connections and the disconnections that come from taking part in the living tradition and the active remembrance of the speaking and actions of God” (153).

Telling Our Stories: Personal Accounts of Engagement with Scripture includes just such discomfort and protest. In this volume 23 Mennonite leaders (scholars, pastors, and administrators) share their personal journeys with scripture. While my personal acquaintanceship with most of these leaders may contribute to my enthusiasm for the stories, I commend them because they record the stirrings of the heart, the boiling blood, the search, and the sweat of true engagement with the Word of God. Those of us whose aim is to preach, teach, and live the scriptures in faithful and winsome ways will be strengthened and supported by Telling Our Stories.

This book was published as an outcome of a non-traditional conference. In Part One the editors commend the conference process as one that could be useful in many other settings. In Part Two, the contributors, prompted with an essay by Walter Brueggemann (republished as an appendix) and the controversial topics of militarism and homosexuality, tell their personal stories of living with scripture. Part Three includes chapters in which four storytellers state their “presuppositions” as they read and interpret the Bible, and four others share their “theological grids” for reading it. These are helpful statements for students to examine, and invaluable for teachers and church leaders to review. There is an invitation to consider one’s own story, assumptions, and theological perspective so as to hear, better and more often, the good news of scripture.

Many of the contributors narrate childhood understandings of the Bible that are renegotiated in adolescence and young adulthood. A young Owen Burkholder on a camping trip hunkers down in a tent reading his New Testament while other boys are chasing rabbits. Liz Landis narrates the pain of church division over biblical interpretation regarding women’s roles in the church. Jo-Ann Brandt admits once being more familiar with big-screen versions of the Good Book than with the Bible itself. An Amish-born man goes to college, serves abroad, earns a Ph.D., and persists in interpreting the Bible as Jesus did, through the eyes of the prophets. A gay man sees his story reflected in the eunuchs of biblical times and soars with the Spirit who inspired these words. Also described is the loss of households like the childhood homes of James Krabill and Marilyn Rayle Kern, which were steeped in scripture. Another contributor resists this assignment a bit, noting that one’s experience with scripture may not easily conform to the logic of story.

Comparing these personal accounts with our own and those of our Bible-reading companions will release some of the tension we may feel to get it right, to win our case, or to prove our next point with the Bible. Paths toward adult faith and intellectually satisfying appropriation of scripture, as represented here, are varied. For a great many of the storytellers (and this reviewer), seminary education was an asset in learning to read the Bible. Yet seminary is not intended to supply all the answers, and the next stages of life – particularly community and vocation – seem to govern subsequent growth for these Mennonite Christian readers.

In contrast to the confessional voices in Telling Our Stories, contributors to The Bible in Pastoral Practice: Readings in the Place and Function of Scripture in the Church use their professional voices. And what Gordon Oliver pursues as an individual scholar, roughing out a bridge between academic biblical studies and pastoral theology, this book does through a multi-voiced project. The Bible in Pastoral Practice is divided into three parts. “Listening to the Tradition” includes six essays on the history of Biblical interpretation, including a chapter on interpretation of scripture prior to canon formation and one on Eastern Orthodox appropriation of scripture. For brevity, authors choose rich examples to illumine broader themes in the historical periods treated, as when one author compares Christmas sermons by Friedrich Schleiermacher, John Henry Newman, and Karl Barth.

The second section, “The Problems Posed by Contemporary Biblical Scholarship,” charts the academic territory since the historical critical method was dethroned. John Rogerson roots the interpretive concerns of biblical scholarship in scripture and Christian liturgy. He encourages church leaders to share the insights of current scholarship with their congregations for the purpose of enhancing Christian discipleship. This section takes scripture readers beyond the text as “material for scholarly adventure” (154) and toward contextual, theological, and churchly readings that take into account the whole scope and narrative of the Bible. These post-liberal, post-colonial directions are attentive to non-dominant voices in history (Anabaptists) and in the church (women, persons in the global South).

The final section, “The Bible and Pastoral Theology and Practice,” deals with pastoral care, ethical discernment, worship, preaching, eucharist, spirituality (both classically evangelical and Roman Catholic Ignatian exercises), community building, and singing. Many of the essays demonstrate a satisfying interdisciplinary wholeness. For example, David Lyall in “The Bible, worship and pastoral care” traces the teaching, proclaiming, and nurture functions of preaching as well as the contemporary forms these functions take. “Biblical good news should be shared in diverse ways,” he writes. “The Church lives within the tension of proclamation and pastoral care. It needs preachers who represent the ministries of both prophet and priest” (233).

If these three books have a common claim, it is that the essential critical distance required for reading our ancient Scripture should never be used to stifle the living conversation between God and God’s people. Let anyone with ears to hear, listen.

Jennifer Davis Sensenig, Pasadena Mennonite Church, Pasadena, CA