How is the sacred text studied and used?
by Kendra Hotz
primary use of the Bible for Christians is as a source for worship.
The Psalms, for example, formed the first “hymn book”
for Christians. Passages from throughout the Bible are appropriated
for liturgical use. A Psalm may be read responsively as a call to
worship. I John 1:8-9, which says that “if we say we have
no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. But if
we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive us
our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness,” may be
used as a call to confession.
biblical texts may be used to offer an assurance of pardon after
the collective prayer of confession. Prayers of illumination, offered
before scripture is read in worship, may also be derived from scripture.
Other passages, such as Matthew 10:8—“Freely you have
received, freely give” —may be used as the offering
is taken up. Words drawn from the Gospels may be used as an invitation
to come to the table for communion, and a passage from 1 Corinthians
is always used as the “words of institution” for the
Lord’s Prayer, which Jesus taught his disciples, and which
is recorded in the Gospels, is offered nearly every Sunday in most
churches. The words, images, and stories of the Bible provide a
rich set of resources from which the language of worship is derived.
use, closely related to the first, is homiletical. Because
the Bible is understood as an authority for Christian belief and
practice, it is read and proclaimed in weekly worship.
Sermons usually focus on one or more biblical passages, explaining
what they meant in their original context and drawing lessons from
that meaning for interpreting the contemporary context. The sermon
is understood as an act of worship that frames, interprets, and
illumines the meaning of Christian life now in light of the meaning
of the Bible.
churches organize their reading of scripture around a lectionary,
and the sermon will focus on one or more of the lectionary readings
for a particular Sunday. The lectionary specifies which texts are
to be read each Sunday, usually including a reading from the Old
Testament, a Psalm, a reading from one of the four Gospels, and
a reading from elsewhere in the New Testament. The readings are
spread out over a three year cycle and include portions from every
book of the Bible. Christians who regularly attend worship over
a three year period, then, will hear most of the Bible read.
Christians study the Bible in a more academic, critical mode, and
the insights gleaned from this mode of study often work their way
into sermons. The academic, critical study of the Bible strives
to understand the text in its original context. Christian scholars
of the Bible strive to uncover the most reliable manuscripts of
the Bible in its original languages of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek
so that they can make good translations.
also compare literary forms used in the Bible to literary forms
used by non-canonical sources during the period of its production.
This makes it very important to discover when different parts of
the Bible were written down, and to understand how ancient the oral
traditions behind those written texts might be. Understanding that
parts of the book of Isaiah were written before the tribes of Judah
were sent into exile by the Babylonians, and other parts were written
during the period of exile, for example, has shed much light on
the meaning of different passages from Isaiah.
Christians fear that the critical study of the Bible requires treating
the Bible as though it were simply a human work and ultimately undermines
its authority for Christians. Other Christians,
however, find the critical study of the Bible crucial to a proper
understanding of it and its authority. Many preachers draw on the
critical study of the Bible in their sermon preparation, trusting
that a clear understanding of how the Bible was understood in its
own time will help them to hear the “word of God” for
their own time.
the Bible is used and studied as a devotional text. As individuals
and in small, informal groups, Christians
read the Bible as a resource for deepening their spiritual lives
and renewing their relationship with God. Many Christians
set aside time each day to read the Bible and to pray. Monastic
communities have traditionally set aside seven times each day for
the “liturgy of the
hours,” when the Bible is read according to a daily lectionary
cycle. During these times, the Psalms take on a central role as
they become the prayers offered by the community.
©2006 Kendra Hotz
G. Hotz serves as Adjunct Professor of Theology at Memphis
Theological Seminary. She formerly taught at Calvin College. Hotz
is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and coauthor
(with Matthew T. Mathews) of Shaping
the Christian Life: Worship and the Religious Affections
(2006) and coauthor of Transforming
Care: A Christian Vision of Nursing Practice (2005).
from What Do Our Neighbors Believe?: Questions and Answers on
Judaism, Christianity and Islam by Howard Greenstein, Kendra
Hotz, and John Kaltner are used by permission from Westminster John
Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky. The book will be available for
purchase in December 2006.