The man who is exploiting God for the purposes of his own soul or for the race, has in the long run a different religion from the man who is putting his own soul and race absolutely at the disposal of the will of God in Jesus Christ.
P.T. Forsyth in his book, The Work of Christ, has this interesting discussion on reading the Bible.
Supposing, then, we return to the Bible. Supposing that the Church did–as I think it must do if it is not going to collapse; certainly the Free Churches must– supposing we return to the Bible, there are three ways of reading the Bible. The first way asks, What did the Bible say? The second way asks, What can I make the Bible say? The third way asks, What does God say in the Bible?
As to the first question, Forsyth defines this in terms of what we expect from a commentary or a seminary lecture: “The first way is, with the aid of these magnificent scholars, to discover the true historic sense of the Bible.” What the Bible says is a matter of grammatical and historical analysis.
But such information is purely information. Discerning what the text “means” could be interesting in the sense of deciphering an ancient Hittite text; it could be useful for some purpose, such as understanding. But knowing the “meaning” cannot be the end of Bible reading.
Forsyth is interesting in the way which the text has an affect beyond the bare conveyance of information. When he asks “What can I make the Bible say?” he is not attacking the objective meaning of words. Rather, he is concerned with the subjective effect of the words.
To rephrase the question, he is concerned more with “What can I make the Bible do to me?” Or perhaps what does the Bible say to me.
This takes a bit of thinking. One could argue that the words themselves have no definite meaning, as does Humpty Dumpty in Alice Through the Looking Glass:
‘And only one for birthday presents, you know. There’s glory for you!’
‘I don’t know what you mean by “glory,”’ Alice said.
Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. ‘Of course you don’t—till I tell you. I meant “there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!”’
‘But “glory” doesn’t mean “a nice knock-down argument,”’ Alice objected.
‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.’
‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’
‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master—that’s all.’
That often does happen in Bible reading; far more often than we may imagine. When we come to a work like “grace” or “love” it is very common to pour our expectations and meanings into these concepts make the words mean whatever we want the words to mean. The Bible deals with such tendencies by providing a number of contexts in which the word is used so that we come to understand what the word means. God’s “love” plainly does not mean that God protects us from all trials. The word “faith” or “belief” (which is the same word in Greek) is used in a number of contexts through the Gospel of John so we begin to understand the precise nuance of the word in John’s Gospel.
So, making the text mean something “against its will” is not all that uncommon, even among those who would never think doing such a thing. Rather, it is an easier fault to commit than imagine.
Forsyth’s concern is with the subjective application of text: what does this objective text have to do with me? Let’s take a non-biblical example Someone says, “Shut the door.” Is that a command for me to shut that particular door? Is it the punchline of a joke and I’m supposed to laugh? The words are clear, but what the word does to me depend upon subjective elements within me.
Forsyth cautions against any sort of reading which reduces the objectivity of the text:
Now the grand value of the Bible is just the other thing–its objectivity. The first thing is not how I feel, but it is, How does God feel, and what has God said or done for my soul? When we get to real close quarters with that our feeling and response will look after itself. Do not tell people how they ought to feel towards Christ. That is useless. It is just what they ought that they cannot do. Preach a Christ that will make them feel as they ought. That is objective preaching. The tendency and fashion of the present moment is all in the direction of subjectivity.
That objective text then has a subjective effect:
We allow the Spirit of God to suggest to us whatever lessons or ideas He thinks fit out of the words that are under our eyes. We read the Bible not for correct or historic knowledge, but for religious and spiritual purposes, for our own private and personal needs. That is, of course, a perfectly legitimate thing– indeed, it is quite necessary.
He cautions that there are dangers here: we must not unhinge the objective text and the subjective effect. The text is a real objective fact; but that objective fact has an actual affect upon the reader.
One has the experience of only understanding certain Psalms until one has experienced that trial, that suffering, that ache, or slander. The words did not change in their objective meaning, but since I have changed, the words have changed.
And finally Forsyth says we should concern ourselves what God is up to in the text:
The third way of reading the Bible is reading it to discover the purpose and thought of God, whether it immediately edify us or whether it do not. If we did actually become aware of the will and thought of God it would edify us as nothing else could.
He then makes this brilliant observation:
I read a fine sentence the other day which puts in a condensed form what I have often preached about as the symptom of the present age: “Instead of placing themselves at the service of God most people want a God who is at their service.” These two tendencies represent in the end two different religions. The man who is exploiting God for the purposes of his own soul or for the race, has in the long run a different religion from the man who is putting his own soul and race absolutely at the disposal of the will of God in Jesus Christ.