What the Bible Means to Me – Daniel Vestal

I grew up with an almost reverential respect for the Bible, not really knowing why. One didn’t put another book on top of a Bible, and one never destroyed a Bible. It was the “Holy Bible.” I remember hearing diatribes from angry preachers denouncing people who didn’t believe the Bible or made efforts to discredit the Bible. I was warned repeatedly that I should beware of scholars and skeptics who would destroy my faith in the Bible.

And sure enough, when I got to university I encountered scholars who challenged my simple biblicism. For the first time I faced hard questions about authorship, historical contexts and grammatical variations. I struggled with the “critical” study of Scripture (textual, form, redaction), which was an objective analysis of the Bible as one would analyze any ancient document.

Divinely Inspired Writings

This kind of study was at first threatening, even disconcerting. But what helped me immensely was that the scholar/teachers who introduced these tools of study were individuals of deep faith and great devotion. They too loved the Bible, but in a way that put me to shame. They had devoted their lives to study of Scripture, and they seemed to believe it at a more profound level that I had ever known.

Their example and guidance gave me deeper understanding and greater appreciation for the Bible as Divinely Inspired Writings. I came to believe that the biblical documents, composed by authors, editors and redactors over a period of several hundred years, were instruments of divine purpose and providence. Out of my seminary education I came to believe that the origin, transmission and canonization of the biblical writings are gifts of God and a work of God.

Of course I can’t prove this conviction as one would prove a mathematical formula, but the sheer comprehensiveness and the unity in diversity of the biblical writings led me to believe that they are not just the product of human genius. The scope, sequence and story that unfolds in Scripture is overwhelming. The grand drama and meta-narrative that it describes is breathtaking. The events of history that it records and the interpretation of those events are nothing less than a revelation of the divine.

A Witness

Later, as a pastor, I was charged with the task to exegete and explain Scripture every week. The more I studied and the more I preached from the Bible, the more I saw changes take place in my own life and in the lives of those who listened to me. For 27 years I was a pastor, and one of my first tasks every week was to read and reflect on a biblical text and its meaning for today. During those years it became evident to me that these texts of Scripture addressed the real issues of life, asking profound questions and offering profound answers. In ever-increasing measure the Bible became for me A Witness to eternal truth, to abiding goodness, to reasons for hope, to God.

The Bible points beyond itself to the One who is creator, redeemer, sustainer. The Bible doesn’t just give us information. It delivers a message, demanding a response. And when I listened for that message and then delivered that message, it offered a powerful witness to me and my congregation.

It’s difficult to speak about the Bible as witness without using symbols. Through the years of congregational ministry I literally saw the words of Scripture become a balm of comfort for suffering people. I saw the stories of Scripture become a doorway to new life for broken people. I saw the commands of Scripture become a crushing hammer and a consuming fire for proud and self-sufficient people. I saw the promises of Scripture become the life-ordering foundation for all kinds of people. Sometimes the witness of Scripture sounded like a trumpet because it was bold and demanding. Sometimes the witness was more like a gentle whisper to the conscience. And still at other times the witness was like a sweet melody or a work of art that created wonder and awe.

A Place or Space

Just before I left the Pastorate I rediscovered a new, yet ancient, way of reading Scripture. It was called “lectio divina” which means “divine reading” or “sacred reading.” It’s very similar to what I learned from my Baptist heritage, where it was called “devotional reading.” In this practice the reading of the Bible becomes A Place or Space for personal encounter with God. It is a practice rooted in one of the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus. On the road to Emmaus the risen Lord appeared to two disciples, who were downcast and depressed.

He explained to them what was said in Scripture concerning himself. Later after he had shared a meal with them and vanished from their sight, they said to one another, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scripture to us.” The idea behind “lectio” is that the resurrected Christ actually communes and communicates with us in the words of Scripture. We listen to the voice of the Spirit through the words of the Bible. We hear the living Word of God through the written word of God. The practice is as follows:

Lectio: read
Meditation: Meditate
Oratorio: Pray
Contemplatio: Contemplate

This spiritual exercise has become meaningful for me as it has for millions of others. As I slowly read, thoughtfully reflect, prayerfully respond, and gently rest in the text of Scripture, I am formed and transformed by the Spirit and mind of Christ. The Bible becomes a meeting place for divine encounter and experience. I approach the Scripture with the familiar prayer:

Break thou the bread of life, dear Lord to me,
As thou didst break the bread beside the sea.
Beyond the sacred page, I seek thee Lord,
My spirit pants for Thee, O living Word.

Earlier in my life I felt the need to defend the Bible from its detractors. Perhaps it was a residual influence from those angry preachers. And I’m sure there is a valid place for biblical apologetics. But over time I have felt less a need to defend the Bible, and a greater need to read it, especially for spiritual nourishment.

I am reminded that the great English Baptist preacher C.H. Spurgeon once said that the Bible is like a lion. It doesn’t need to be defended. It only needs to be turned loose. It will defend itself. How I wish we would “turn the Bible loose” in our personal lives, in our families, in our congregations.

Daniel Vestal is the Distinguished University Professor of Baptist Leadership at Mercer University and Director of the Baugh Center. The Baptist Deacon Network is a cooperative effort with the Eula Mae and John Baugh Center for Baptist Leadership and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Georgia.

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