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Alone With God’s Word

Alone with God's Word

Hermenuetical Evasions and Abulia

Take care then how you hear, for to the one who has, more will be given, and from the one who has not, even what he thinks that he has will be taken away. -- Jesus

This excerpt from Kierkegaard's work "For Self-Examination and Judge for Yourself" uses the analogy of a lover's letter written in a foreign language to make the distinction between the often tedious process of translation and the act of reading from the heart... For the lover -- the one for whom the words are addressed -- all the "scholarly preliminaries" of translation are regarded as nothing more than a necessary evil to reach the goal -- that of reading and understanding the question of the lover's message.

Of course the insincere lover will quibble and squint at the texts, wondering what this or that passage might mean.  He might then consult various experts to translate the letter for him, and, should these professionals differ in their interpretation, he finds a perfect excuse to put off acting on the letter's claims. Paradoxically, even though it might seem as if he intends to draw close to the message of the letter, his very act of interpreting and reinterpreting and seeking scholarly research is actually a defense against it.

In the end, it's not an act of interpretation that is called for but a life of commitment to the truth. Interpretation must reach an endpoint, a decision. We cannot indefinitely suspend our judgment without risking self-deception and the loss of the message of love... - John Parsons

My listener, how highly do you value God's Word?  Imagine a lover who has received a letter from his beloved. I assume that God's Word is just as precious to you as this letter is to the lover. I assume that you read and think you ought to read God's Word in the same way the lover reads this letter.

Yet you perhaps say, "Yes, but Scripture is written in a foreign language." Let us assume, then, that this letter from the beloved is written in a language that the lover does not understand. But let us also assume that there is no one around who can translate it for him. Perhaps he would not even want any such help lest a stranger be initiated into his secrets. What does he do? He takes a dictionary, begins to spell his way through the letter, looks up every word in order to obtain a translation.

Now let us imagine that, as he sits there busy with his task, an acquaintance comes in. He knows that the letter has come, because he sees it lying there, and says, "So, you are reading a letter from your beloved." What do you think the other will say? He answers, "Have you gone mad? Do you think this is reading a letter from my beloved! No, my friend, I am sitting here toiling and moiling with a dictionary to get it translated. At times I am ready to explode with impatience; the blood rushes to my head, and I would just as soon hurl the dictionary on the floor – and you call that reading! You must be joking! No, thank God, as soon as I am finished with the translation I shall read my beloved's letter; that is something altogether different."

So, then, with regard to the letter from his beloved, the lover distinguishes between reading with a dictionary and reading the letter from his beloved. The blood rushes to his head in his impatience when he sits and grinds away at reading with the dictionary. He becomes furious when his friend dares to call this the reading of a letter from his beloved. But when he is finished with the translation, he reads the letter. All the scholarly preliminaries were regarded as nothing but a necessary evil so that he could come to the point – of reading the letter from his beloved.

We must not discard this metaphor too soon. Let us assume that this letter contained not only an expression of affection, but also a wish, something the beloved wanted her lover to do. It was, let us assume, much that was required of him – so much so that any third party would have good reason to think twice about it. But the lover, ah, he is off at once to fulfill his beloved's wish. Now imagine that after some time the lovers meet and the beloved says, "But, my dear, that was not what I asked you to do. You must have misunderstood the word or translated it incorrectly." Do you think that the lover would now regret rushing off to obey the wish, do you believe that he regrets the mistake? And do you believe that he pleases his beloved less?

Think of a child, a bright and diligent student. When the teacher assigns the lesson for the next day, he says, "I want you to know your lesson very well tomorrow." This makes a deep impression on the pupil. He goes home from school and sets to work at once. But he has not heard precisely how far they were to study – so what does he do? It is the teacher's admonition that has impressed him. He probably reads twice as far as he actually had to. Do you think the teacher will think less of him for studying twice as hard?

Think of another student. He, too, heard the teacher's admonition. He, too, did not hear exactly how far they had to study. When he came home, however, he says, "I must first find out how far we have to study." So he goes to one of his schoolmates, then to another. He doesn't get home until it is too late, and as a result he reads nothing at all!

Now think of God's Word. When you read it in a scholarly way, with a dictionary or a commentary, then you are not reading God's Word. Remember what the lover said, "This is not reading the letter from the beloved." If you happen to be a scholar, then please see to it that even with all your learned reading you do not forget to read God's Word. If you are not a scholar, rejoice! Be glad that you can listen to God's address right away! And if in the listening you hear a wish, a command, an order, then – remember the lover! – off with you at once to do what it asks.

"But," you say, "there are so many obscure passages in the Bible, whole books that are practically riddles. Won't the scholar help me?" To that I would answer (before I have anything to do with this objection): "Any objection must be made by someone whose life manifests that he has scrupulously complied with those passages that are already easy to understand. Is this the case with you?" Yet this is exactly how the lover would respond to the letter. If there are obscure passages but also clearly expressed wishes, he would say, "I must immediately comply with the wish – then I will see about the obscure parts. How can I ever sit down and ponder the obscure passages and not comply with the wish, the wish that I clearly understand?"

In other words, it is not the obscure passages in Scripture that bind you but the ones you understand. With these you are to comply at once. If you understood only one passage in all of Scripture, well, then you must do that first of all. It will be this passage God asks you about. Do not first sit down and ponder the obscure passages. God's Word is given in order that you shall act according to it, not that you gain expertise in interpreting it.

Again, let us not be too quick to discard the metaphor of the letter from the beloved. Would he not make sure to lock the door so as to not be interrupted? Would he not want to be alone, uninterruptedly alone with the letter? "Otherwise," he says, "I would not be reading the letter from my beloved." And so it is with God's Word. The person who is not alone with God's Word is not reading God's Word. Teachers and preachers beware!

Yes, alone with God's Word! My listener, allow me to make a confession about myself here. I still do not dare to be utterly alone with God's Word. I don't have the honesty and courage for it. I dare not! If I open it – any passage – it traps me at once.  It asks me – indeed, it is as if it were God himself who does the asking – "Have you done what you read there?" And then I am trapped. Then either right into action or immediately a humbling confession. Oh, to be alone with Scripture; yet if you are not, then you are not truly reading.

Being alone with God's Word is a dangerous matter. Of course, you can always find ways to defend yourself against it: Take the Bible, lock your door – but then get out ten dictionaries and twenty-five commentaries. Then you can read it just as calmly and coolly as you read newspaper advertising. With this arsenal you can really begin to wonder, "Are there not several valid interpretations? And what about the prospect of new interpretations? Perhaps there are five interpreters with one opinion and seven with another and two with a strange opinion and three who are wavering or who have no opinion at all. So you calmly conclude, "I myself am not absolutely sure about the meaning of this passage. I need more time to form an opinion." Good Lord! What a tragic misuse of scholarship that it makes it so easy for people to deceive themselves!

Can't we be honest for once! We have become such experts at cunningly shoving one layer after another, one interpretation after another, between the Word and our lives, (much in the way a boy puts a napkin or more under his pants when he is going to get a licking), and we then allow this preoccupation to swell to such profundity that we never come to look at ourselves in the mirror. Yes, it seems as if all this research and pondering and scrutinizing would draw God's Word very close to us. Yet this interpreting and re-interpreting and scholarly research and new scholarly research is but a defense against it.

It is only all too easy to understand the requirements contained in God's Word ("Give all your goods to the poor." "If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the left." "If anyone takes your coat, let him have your cloak also." "Rejoice always." "Count it sheer joy when you meet various temptations" etc.). The most ignorant, poor creature cannot honestly deny being able to understand God's requirements. But it is tough on the flesh to will to understand it and to then act accordingly. Herein lies the problem. It is not a question of interpretation, but action.

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Source Credit: The Kierkegaard quote is taken from Provocations, Spiritual Writings of Kierkegaard, compiled and edited by Charles E. Moore, Plough Publishing, Copyright 2002.


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