Jonathan Pennington on the Importance of Posture in Reading Scripture Well

The following quotes and excerpts are taken from chapters 7 and 8 of Pennington, Jonathan T. Reading the Gospels Wisely: A Narrative and Theological Introduction. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012 (emphasis mine).

[T]he most important and determinative aspect of reading Holy Scripture well is not our method or theory but our posture and our goal.

… [T]he most important avenue for reading Holy Scripture involves practicing a posture, or habitus, of reception to the divine Word. Our goal in reading Scripture is not merely to understand what God is saying (via helpful exegetical tools) but to stand under his Word.

… Unfortunately the scientific methods that we have developed in recent centuries tend to ‘objectify the text—that is, they turn the biblical materials into an object to be examined.’ [Joel Green] Rather than emphasizing a separation and distance between us and the texts of Scripture—a distance that can be transcended only by an elaborate set of exegetical tools—we must come to see that the biggest difference is our lack of knowing and loving God; the real divide is between us and God in the text.

… I am not suggesting, however, an either/or choice (rarely is this helpful) between a humble, faithful, open reading and a skilled, rigorous, exegetical reading. Both are to be sought in full. But the priority is the posture. A person who is deficient in skills—and who is not?—but seeks to read with an openness to learn from the otherness of the text (and the God behind it) can be a better reader than a methodologically skilled exegete who reads without a posture and disposition of humble teachability, the greatest of the intellectual virtues. … Our disposition and our willingness to learn from the otherness of the text are the necessary starting point to progress in understanding.

… We as trained exegetes and theologians can and should also have this posture, but honest self-reflection reveals that for most of us, our learning often creates layers of distance between us and hearing the Bible as God’s Word to us. Although it was obtained for the supposed goal of bridging the gap between us and the biblical text, our training in fact often creates in our hearts and minds an elaborate structure of paper walls and divisions that create a maze of distance between us and Scripture. … to read Scripture is to seek to hear and obey God now in very practical ways. Anything less is not reading Holy Scripture according to its purpose.

… And herein lies a beautiful balance worth pursuing: developing skills as readers (whether professional or lay) while also keeping the true goal always in sight—hearing, reading, and applying the Holy Scriptures to our lives. This is understanding. This is wisdom. … Good exegetical skills, reading for the authorial/Authorial intent, are important guidelines for our reading now and in the future, and thus they should be learned and taught to others. But we must never mistake these means for the real end—developing a posture and practice of love for God and neighbor. … [T]he skills that we should develop in our reading must all be subsumed under the greater issue of our posture and goal in reading Scripture.

… [T]he single most determinative and essential element of reading Holy Scripture well is having a proper posture toward God. To read Scripture as God’s Word requires that we approach the Triune God with humility and with a willingness to be read by the text, to stand under it, not simply to seek to understand it.

… [Timothy] Ward rightly states that “the most appropriate question to ask ourselves when we open Scripture to read it is: What is God wanting to do to me, and in me, through the words I am reading?” He notes that this does not mean that the text means simply whatever it means to me, because Scripture is God’s speech acts. Therefore, the semantic content is important. However, interpretation of this content is not an end in itself. “Reading the Bible is not fundamentally a comprehension exercise. Interpretation should serve only to lead us to an encounter with God as he actually presents himself to us in Scripture.” If our reading of Scripture stops at the comprehension stage, we have “made the mistake of exalting Scripture’s content over its purpose. It has ripped apart in Scripture two things that ought not to be ripped apart. Therefore we must also ask: And what, in this part of Scripture, is the Lord wanting to do with that teaching, to me and in me?”