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Perspectives from Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism

Christianity FAQ



  What Do Our Neighbors Believe?  

CHRISTIANITY Islam | Judaism
How is the sacred text studied and used?
by Kendra Hotz

The 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.

Other 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 Supper.

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.

A second 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.

Many 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.

Thirdly, 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.

They 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.

Some 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.

Finally, 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.

Copyright ©2006 Kendra Hotz

Kendra 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).

Excerpts 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.


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