Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.
This last Sunday, my pastor’s sermon (with related blog entry) emphasized the importance of taking a studious, disciplined approach to Scripture reading. He spoke about the need for Christians to be aware of how we often take scripture out of context or even attribute particular sayings or ideas to Scripture (e.g., the lord helps those who help themselves). Also mentioned was our responsibility to discern false and deceptive teachings. Finally, he spoke of an almost spiritual dialectic (without using the word), in which even if our reading creates doubts within us, that this is no reason to stop, but rather to use the power of those doubts to drive us further into Scripture. And even should each answer result in a new question, the process will only press us closer to God as it drives us deeper into the Bible.
All of this sounds great, except for the fact that I believe it poor advice for the majority of those who heard it as well as for most Christians in general. I think it is an easy mistake to make, though, especially for someone like a pastor, whose job and spiritual duty is to study the Scripture and to reconceptualize it for each new generation. The mistake is to slip into the thinking that your spiritual duty is everyone elses, forgetting that this particular aspect is related to your role in the community.
This wouldn’t be such a problem if it weren’t for the specialized nature of the task being given. Not everyone has the intellectual, tempermental, and dare I say spiritual, gifts for the effort of systematically analyzing Scripture (or any other text for that matter). I think it is probably safest to give this advice to those who merely lack the intellectual tools to carry on such an endeavor with any success. They will take the advice to heart, but will likely not do much more than what they are already doing, or at least no more than they ought to do, which is to read Scripture in a devotionally, not analytically.
No, the real danger is for those who have the mental capacity, but lack the temperment, or perhaps worse, the spiritual gift, for such an exercise. There are two very real risks involved with these people attempting to carry out my pastor’s advice. The first, and more benign of the two, is that they will arrive at conclusions that do not fit with the teaching of their church’s ministry. This will result in either the forment of conflict within the community or else the loss of the individual to another, like-minded, church. This is what I would call the risk to the community. When isolated to a few individuals, it poses little threat to medium to large communities, although to smaller churches it can cause a critical loss in lay leadership.
The second danger is the hazard presented to the individual, in precisely the situation he described with the spiritual dialectic. For if the individual lacks the temperment to be secure enough in his faith to handle the rigors of exposing and re-exposing his beliefs to critical analysis, there is a real possibility that enough of these beliefs will be weakened that a sort of final straw is reached, and the whole belief structure collapses irrepairably. These people are likely already in an emotionally or socially unstable situation, and so lack the resources to withstand such a prolonged assault on their beliefs.
This, I believe, is exactly what occurred with my own loss of faith. I began my analysis of Scripture and Faith as a spiritual exercise, striving after the heart and mind of God. But without the emotional and social stability necessary to ground me in my faith, I was not long until I transitioned from one community to another as my conception of the Faith developed. This continued until at last I came to a point where everything I had come to believe was suddenly found to be without foundation and the collapse sucked me into a vortex that took the rest of my religious beliefs with it.
So, what should be done? We should not have expectations that everyone can undertake a systematic analysis of Scripture. This is really only the purvey of a select minority, and most of these are likely be engaged in some form of individual study of the bible already without further prompting. For others, devotional reading should be encouraged, and if study is desired, it should be done in a structured group setting with some sort of leadership oversight. Theological questions and doubts should be brought forward either in this kind of group context if relatively mild, or else in more intimate counsel with someone in a pastoral role if it proves to be a severe difficulty.
Additionally, it is not the responsibility of the laity to develop intellectual defenses against heresy, nor is it their role to interpret the Bible beyond what could be accomplished with a naive reading. This is what teachers and pastors are for. Those who are not teachers and pastors are, under most circumstances, supposed to accept instruction and allow it to inform their reading of Scripture. Which isn’t to say that they aren’t reading, they surely should be, but what is not called for is a sort of intensive intellectual performance in the reading. As for the Berean passage, their nobility was not necessarily in their studious manner, but in their willingness to entertain the Gospel, in contrast to the Thessalonians rejection of it.