This is the third post in a series from Dr Les Hardin, the first post “An Open Letter to Christians Who Don’t Read the Bible Calling to The Deep from The Shallows: For Christians Who Don’t Read The Bible” can be read here. The second, “Jesus, The Word, and “A Word” can be found here.
Dr. Les Hardin
At the turn of the year, two pictures appeared in my social media feed. Two preachers were each posting a snapshot of their reading material for the new year, signaling for their respective congregations what they’d be consuming as they prepared to preach and lead. The contrast between the list of books struck a chord in my mind. One of them was a list of commentaries and exegetical resources of the NT books that comprised the preaching calendar for the year. The other was a list of leadership resources, devotional material, and Christian living books.
I caught myself having a reaction to these two photos, privileging one over the other. (Jacob I have loved, Esau I have hated.) I’m a Bible professor, so of course my first reaction was to privilege the deeper study of the text. But I’m also a pastor, and I recognize that much study of biblical backgrounds wearies the mind. I also know that the purpose of exegesis is to help the Body understand what Godly living looks like. These lists illustrated the tension between two competing values in preaching: the historical realities that inform the text and the cultural relevance the text might have in the modern world. What the Bible says and what the Bible means.
The People of God have wrestled with this tension for eons. The Pharisees hammered Jesus about what the Law said, while Jesus reminded them what the Law meant (while still being faithful to the text of it). The Ten Commandments outlined what God said, but lengthy sections of Exodus and Leviticus clarify what the Ten Words meant in Israel’s corporate spirituality. In the early church period, Origen made a name for himself by suggesting that Scripture had four senses: literal, moral, allegorical, and eschatological. But his attempt to draw out the original wording of Scripture irrespective of its moral and spiritual relevance had the unintended consequence of separating the two, leaving a vast chasm in the Church’s interpretation between historical realities of the faith and the modern significance the faith brings.
There’s so much disparity between “faith” and “knowledge” in the modern church, with the former (“faith”) given primacy of place among those who claim to be spiritual, and the latter (“knowledge”) placed on a pedestal among those who claim to be wise. “Faith” is often esteemed for those of the Spirit, while “knowledge” demeans and diminishes the work of the Spirit. After all, Paul said, “We walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor. 5:7). I preach and teach in a lot of churches, and in several of them I’m deemed to have a lesser faith because I have gifts of knowledge. Two millennia from the time of Origen, the tension between the historical realities of the biblical text and its modern significance still lingers.
But in Paul we find a man gifted with both knowledge and sincere faith. A man whose vocation was to build faith among the people of God, but a man who did so from a thorough, well-grounded, informed, historical, linguistic, and critical knowledge of the Scriptures.
The Third in a Series
This is the third in a series of posts on the vitality of a profound, serious, and devoted reading of Scripture. In the first, “An Open Letter to Christians Who Don’t Read the Bible,” I noted that while we all have Scripture at our fingertips, most of us don’t have it close. In the second, “Jesus, The Word, and ‘A Word’” I examined the Bible reading habits of the God-man Jesus. Jesus knew the words of Scripture, the context in which those words were set, and the driving force the Word had for the People of God.
In this final piece, we turn our attention to Paul’s devotion to Scripture. For in The Apostle we find a man who, like Jesus, had a deep and thorough knowledge of the Bible. A man who didn’t favor selected texts, but understood the breadth of Scripture. And a man who didn’t assume that the Word of God was only for Jews, but expected his Gentile converts to know, understand, and live by those same oracles that pointed to life in messiah Jesus.
In short, Paul refused to privilege either faith or knowledge. He valued them both and found them mutually co-dependent, serving one another to build up the body.
Paul’s Upbringing in Scripture
Paul’s contact with the Old Testament started in childhood. Paul grew up in a Scripture-centered home, the son of a Pharisee (Acts 23:6), rooted in both faith and knowledge. He learned to recite the Shema (Deut. 6:4-10) twice daily and faithfully worshiped in the synagogue, where the main element of worship was the recitation of Scripture. As a Pharisee who studied under the eminent Gamaliel (Acts 22:3), he likely knew the OT in its original Hebrew. But his citations of the OT in his letters suggest he also knew the Scriptures in Greek, revealing his comfortability in both the original language of Scripture and in the translation that was culturally relevant. His training in text and interpretation was well-known and his knowledge surpassed that of many of his colleagues (Gal. 1:14).
Paul’s saturation in Scripture shines on every page of his letters. There’s hardly a chapter that doesn’t contain an allusion to, a quote from, or a thought formed by the OT. (There are over a hundred citations and allusions from the OT just in Romans 9-11.) Paul didn’t include these because his Jewish converts to Christ would have found them useful. He expected his Gentile readers to become conversant in these OT ideas. Abraham (Rom. 4:1-3; Gal. 3:6-9, 15-18, 4:22-30), Adam (Rom. 5:12-19; 1 Cor. 15:22, 45), Eve (1 Cor. 11:8; 2 Cor. 11:3; 1 Tim. 2:13-15), and Moses (Rom. 5:14, 10:5; 1 Cor. 10:2; 2 Cor. 3:7, 13-15) all appear in his letters as icons of Jewish history, and he expected his Gentile readers to be familiar with them. Paul found in the Scriptures life for all those who put their faith in Christ, for Israel’s Scriptures tutor us in the Way of Christ (Gal. 3:24).
Knowledge was only one side of Paul’s scriptural coin. On the other side was Paul’s understanding of the purpose of Scripture—what I’m calling “faith.” Paul thought that a proper reading of Scripture brings more than knowledge of or even about the text. It leads to holiness (Gal. 3:24), training in righteousness (2 Tim. 3:16), teaching about sin (Rom. 7:7) and keeps us “from setting our hearts on sinful things” (1 Cor. 10:6). His prayer for the Philippians was for both faith and knowledge—that they would “grow more and more in knowledge and depth of insight” so that they could be “pure and blameless until the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness” (1:9). Knowledge and depth of insight, leading to holiness. Or, “knowledge and faith.”
Between Two Seas
When it comes to faith and knowledge, it’s difficult to keep a meaningful balance. Our tendency is to privilege one over the other. When we privilege “faith” (i.e. the spiritual, the “things of the Spirit”) over knowledge, we miss out on the riches of Christ, treasures revealed in the historical backgrounds, vocabulary, and syntax of the texts that teach us about Christ. We miss out on the significant teaching of Scripture when we favor only that which has relevance for our own culture, our personal desires, and our fleeting emotions. In so doing, we miss the true character of the Spirit of God, which Isaiah says is the Spirit of wisdom, counsel, understanding, and knowledge (11:2).
We make a similar mistake when we privilege knowledge over faith. We err when we place more emphasis on knowing the text than faithfully embodying it. We err when we pride ourselves on knowing the literary context of every parable, but in hearing fail to really listen (Matt. 13:13; cf. Isa. 6:9). When err when we memorize texts apologetically, ready to recite them in defense of our portrait of God, but then use those same texts to destroy people made in the image of God. Peter would be proud that we’re ready to give a defense for what we believe (1 Pet. 3:15). But Paul would also remind us that “the gramma kills” (2 Cor. 3:6) and that knowledge without faith puffs the metaphorical chest (1 Cor. 8:1).
The place that Paul found the greatest challenge in integrating these two aspects of life in Christ (knowledge and spirituality) was undoubtedly among the believers in Corinth. Corinth lay on a narrow strip of land that separated two seas: the Ionian to the north and the Aegean to the south. Enamored with manifestations of power, professional rhetoric, self-sufficiency, and the so-called wisdom of this world, Paul demonstrated the power of cruciform, Christ-like spirituality. He engaged their culture, arrested it, and pointed it to Christ. And he did so by pointing them to Israel’s Scriptures and history.
Paul stood on the shores of two vast oceans: the knowledge of Christ as revealed in the Scriptures, and the faith he hoped to instill in Christ-followers. Two vast oceans—historical realities that inform Jesus’ identity and vocation, and the authentic eternal-kind of life that comes from embodying them—neither of which have been fully explored. Paul planted himself on that tiny strip of land and engaged them both. For he knew that God was constructing with his people a temple of holiness, a dwelling place for his Spirit, and that such a temple—all-inclusive as God’s vision for it is—is built on the foundation of the prophets and the Apostles (Eph. 2:20-22).
Dr. Les Hardin
Professor of New Testament
Johnson University Florida
 For a way forward, see my “Searching for a Transformative Hermeneutic,” in Journal of Spiritual Formation and Soul Care 5 (2012): 144-157.
 M. Silva, “Old Testament in Paul,” in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, ed. G. F. Hawthorne and R. P. Martin (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1993), 634.
 1 Cor. 1:19, Isa. 29:14; 1 Cor. 2:9, Isa 64:4; I Cor. 2:16, Isa. 40:13; I Cor. 9:9, Deut. 25:4; I Cor. 14:21, Isa. 28:11-12; 1 Cor. 15:32, Isa. 22:13; I Cor. 15:55, Isa. 25:8, Hos. 13:14; I Cor. 15:45, Gen. 2:7; 2 Cor. 6:2, Isa. 49:8; 2 Cor. 6:16, Lev. 26:12, Jer. 32:38, Ezek. 37:27; 2 Cor. 6:17, Isa. 52:11, Ezek. 20:34, 41; 2 Cor. 6:18, 2 Sam. 7:14; 2 Cor. 9:9, Ps. 112:9; 2 Cor. 8:15, Exod. 16:18.
 1 Cor. 5:6-8, 7:818-19, 9:13, 10:1-10; 2 Cor. 3:7-15.