Reading the Bible Like Christians: The Symbolic Implications of Bible Covers

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Christ Pantocrator (ca. 6 – 7oo) Saint Catherine’s Monastery

The Bible encourages symbolic thinking. For example, faith lives, moves, and has its being in the images and metaphors of the Bible. Like our ancient fathers, we journey under the cloudy pillar toward the New Jerusalem. Through word and sacrament, we continue to drink water from the rock and eat true bread from heaven. With the Psalmist, we frequently gather to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord, longing for the day we see his glory in a renewed cosmic temple. The Bible beckons our faith to appropriate profound truth through image and symbol, yet many of our imaginations remain underdeveloped in this regard. For instance, how many of us appreciate the symbolic value of Bible covers? I suggest they should stir within us at least three convictions significant for reading our Bibles like Christians.

The Bible is One Book with One Author.

Despite their unifying achievement, Bible covers actually house a large amount of diversity. As engaged readers, we quickly recognize the voices of multiple authors, a span of historical and geographical contexts, a rich array of literary genres, and perhaps even the underlying presence of multiple languages. Beyond this formal diversity we may also recognize a substantial variety of theological perspectives. Often, we believers inadvertently flatten the Bible’s diversity and ignore its theological variety because we assume these subvert its Divine unity. Yet figuratively speaking, it’s only after learning to appreciate the diverse parts played by each musician in a symphony that we marvel at how the pieces coalesce into a beautiful whole, reflecting the brilliance of a single composer. Just so, appreciating the Bible’s rich diversity prepares us to marvel all the more at the glory of its unified Authorship.

Like lips, the covers of our Bibles proclaim the church’s ancient conviction: “What the Bible says, God says.” We simply echo the conviction of the apostles when they site renown figures form the OT, but then introduce their words as the speech of the Holy Trinity (Acts 1:16; 4:25; Heb 1:5; 2:10-13; 3:7, etc.). Crucially, this remains the catholic confession in full view of the diversity just noted. The church didn’t hear God’s voice in Tatian’s flattened Harmony of the Gospels, but in the diverse witness of the Four Evangelists. We came to recognize God’s speech in James as well as Paul, and ultimately receive God’s word about Rome from Romans 13 as well as Revelation 18. We continue to perceive God’s voice speaking through the rugged persona of Moses, the soaring emotion of David, the passionate intellect of Paul, and the unique visionary imagination of John. As God’s flock, we hear the voice of the Shepherd in the rich throng of these human authors corralled within the sheepfold of our Bible covers. From faith to faith, deep calls to deep.

The Old Testament is Christian Scripture.

Its common knowledge the Bible remains the best selling and yet least read book of all time. I wonder how this would change proportionally if the two Testaments were sold separately. It’s easy to surmise how the Old Testament might just drop out of print. A typical modern parable styles the OT as the estranged Older Brother (Luke 15). He’s not very amiable to Christian conversation, we’re told, because he stands aloof, speaking cryptically through long, complex narratives, and opaque oracles. He’s got strange customs too, not to mention questionable beliefs and practices. He’s definitely not one to reconcile with his Younger Brother. At the bottom of it all, we hear, his Father is a moral monster.

This familiar parable raises important questions about the OT as Christian Scripture. Yet as Augustine reminds us, true understanding comes only when we seek answers from within the faith (Heb 11:6; 1Cor 2:14). There’s only so much we can say about the stained glass windows of a medieval cathedral until we go inside (Bockmuehl, Seeing the Word, 74). The insider’s perspective is the only thing the door of Bible texts opens to, that is, when we share their basic worldview, as Karl Barth reminds us (CD 1/2: 533). Questions may remain, but faith imparts a glorious new perspective. How we approach the OT, then, depends on with whom we read it. If we read with the church, the question is not whether the OT is Christian Scripture, but rather “How should we read it as such?” For answers to this question the church looks to Jesus and his apostles.

The Emmaus Road marks the genesis of the church’s reading of the OT as Christian Scripture (Luke 24:13-35). Our eyes scan the account with wonder and frustration. We wonder at Jesus rebuke of the disciple’s slowness to see him in the OT. Our frustration arises because Luke bars us from hearing just how Christ explains himself in “all the Scriptures.” Yet, Jesus didn’t leave us without the necessary illumination. His apostles teach us to read the OT as Christian Scripture through typological exegesis. Typology, broadly defined, keeps the text’s linear-historical sense in view, but perceives Christ patterns in the OT’s people, events, structures, and words.

For example, David typifies Christ as God’s anointed king, a man after God’s own heart, whose throne will remain forever (Ps 1; 2 Sam 7:15, 16; Heb 1:8; Luke 1:32, 33). Furthermore as a prophet, David not only speaks about Christ in the Psalms (Ps110), but Christ speaks through David, and is prefigured by his experiences (Ps 40; Heb 10:5-7; Ps 22; Matt 27:39-43; John 19). The apostles see similar Christ-patterns in Moses, the Exodus, the Passover, manna, temple, land, Israel, and the Servant of the Lord, etc. Jesus is thus woven into the warp and woof of the OT, and Christians since earliest times trace his thread through typological exegesis. Thus, Peter Leithart is correct when he asserts: “Interpretation must be grounded in grammar and history, but if it does not move to typology, it is not Christian Interpretation” (A House for My Name). Those unfamiliar with reading their OT this way may profit from Leithart’s book, along with Edmund Clowny’s, The Unfolding Mystery; David Murray’s, Jesus on Every Page; Brian Rosner’s New Dictionary of Biblical Theology and the excellent series edited by Robert L. Wilken called the Churches Bible.

The New Testament Assumes the Old Testament.

This is just another way Bible covers convey catholicity. If Christ speaks in the OT, then the NT stands inextricably bound to the Older Brother. Scholars tell us a full 40% of the NT is either quotation from, or allusion to, the OT. Needless to say, tearing the Old from the New would radically alter the Christian Narrative. In light of our all too common antipathy for the Older Brother, we do well to recall the early church’s conflict with heretics over precisely this issue. Like a war monument, Bible covers remind us of the church’s battle with Marcion and the Gnostics for the soul of Christianity . They perpetually evoke the triumph of the catholic narrative affirmed in canon and creed, a narrative forever binding Jesus’ story with that of Israel’s God.

Inadvertently, many of us read like these heretics because we miss the catholic symbolism in Bible covers. If we read with Marcion it’s easily to miss the fact that Jesus’ story is woven into the OT Narrative. Conversely, the apostles teach us to read the New in light of the Old, and vice versa. When we don’t read our Bible’s as a unity we tend to construct a Jesus of our own liking. We embrace the Jesus who welcomes children and forbids judging others, but recoil at the Jesus who comes in flaming fire to judge the living and the dead (2 Thes 1; Rev 19, etc.). This sort of reading fails to see how the apostles link Jesus indivisibly with the awe inspiring God of the OT. Also, driving a wedge between the two Testaments leaves us open to Gnostic tendencies that miss the full significance of Jesus’ incarnation. Through a derailed Rapture theology many of us view Jesus as a mere savior of disembodied souls, rather than the one who restores creation and brings heaven to earth (Isa 65:17-25; Rev 11:15; 21:1-4). This sort of reading often engenders escapism and leads us to compromise our calling as God’s vice regents.

As symbols, Bible covers speak a fairly intuitive message. Even so, unless we reflect deliberately upon their resonance we may continue to read our Bibles more like outsiders than insiders, with Marcion and the Gnostics, rather than as Christians with the church universal.

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