This Ought to Stir You Up

[Stanley Hauerwas, Unleashing the Scripture, pp. 15ff.]

Most North American Christians assume that they have a right, if not an obligation, to read the Bible. I challenge that assumption. No task is more important than for the Church to take the Bible out of the hands of individual Christians in North America. Let us no longer give the Bible to all children when they enter the third grade or whenever their assumed rise to Christian maturity is marked, such as eighth-grade commencements. Let us rather tell them and their parents that they are possessed by habits far too corrupt for them to be encouraged to read the Bible on their own.

North American Christians are trained to believe that they are capable of reading the Bible without spiritual and moral transformation. The read the Bible not as Christians, not as a people set apart, but as democratic citizens who think their “common sense” is sufficient for “understanding” the Scripture. They feel no need to stand under the authority of a truthful community to be told how to read. Instead they assume that they have all the “religious experience” necessary to know what the Bible is all about. …

To suggest that the Bible should be taken away from North American Christians will strike many as absurd. They may assume that I am not serious. Is it not the very hallmark of Christianity, particularly Protestant Christianity, to encourage people to read the Bible? I certainly believe that God uses the Scripture to help keep the Church faithful, but I do not believe, in the Church’s current circumstance, that each person in the Church thereby is given the right to interpret the Scripture. Such a presumption derives from the corrupt egalitarian politics of democratic regimes, not from the politics of the Church. …

Indeed literalistic fundamentalism and the critical approaches to the Bible are but two sides of the same coin, insofar as each assumes that the text should be accessible to anyone without the necessary mediation of the Church. The reformation doctrine of sola scriptura, joined to the invention of the printing press and underwritten by the democratic trust in the intelligence of the “common person,” has created the situation that now makes people believe that they can read the Bible “on their own.” That presumption must be challenged, and that is why the Scripture should be taken away from Christians in North America. …

The fundamentalist and the biblical critic share the assumption that the text of the Bible should make rational sense (to anyone), apart from the uses that the Church has for Scripture.


6 thoughts on “This Ought to Stir You Up

  1. Actually, if we could just teach some humility to our common people, we would avoid the very real danger that Dr. Hauerwas presents. We do seem to inculcate the idea within our children that they are able to discern rightly with no sense of history and no cognitive ability beyond what is necessary to understand the words themselves. We lack collectively the awe that used to accompany the idea of “holy” as in Holy Bible. Something indeed ought to be done, but to wrest the scriptures from the hands of believers is not it. One bare minimum recommendation is that pastors oversee the myriad of “Bible studies” that are led by whomever ‘feels led’ to do so, often to disasterous ends.

    The idea of the perspicuity of scripture still holds great power for me. To take the Vigilantes of Love completely out of context, “It’s something a child readily understands.”

  2. An impossible idea, Kletos. You suggest the overseeing of every Bible group by a pastor. Who then oversees the pastor? Do we then go to every college that offers an M.Div. or equivalent and re-educate them? And what foundation do we use to do that? There are many churches today that “get things wrong” because they do not agree with a common doctrine. What the post is suggesting is almost a return to Pre-Reformation era where only the clergy or “church” was allowed scripture because the common layman was too corrupt. That’s an exact quote, actually.
    The scripture was given to the people because back then people knew traditions and church doctrine and with the Word they were able to determine which were good and which to get rid of. Most people today don’t care about learning only about how you feel.

  3. Isn’t this what Luther was working toward in translating the Bible into the vernacular German language, and working for universal education, to get the Bible into the the hands of the common people and the priests/pastors? I agree that there needs to be more oversight in what is taught in congregations (Baptist theology in a LCMS adult Bible class?!) but I think where the correction needs to take place is when people become members by educating them on (in my case) the Lutheran Confessions. Why do LCMS congregations require children to go through two years (at minimum) of confirmation to become members when adults are allowed in with 6 weeks of “these-are-the-ministries/programs/committees/etc. -of-our-church-and-where-do-you-fit-in?” classes? And the adult classes are often taught by the same pastors who teach confirmation!


  4. Hauerwas is primarily concerned (as is clear from the cover of his book: a Bible wrapped in the American flag) that the Church reads the Bible with a particular politics (i.e., that which makes, or makes up, a people, hence polis). He believes that the Church in America reads primarily with the politics of America as constituent of “the people,” rather than Christ and His Church.


  5. I do understand and share many of Hauerwas’ concerns, even though he should point out to the fact that this problem is not a specifically American one.
    I do believe there is a problem with the extreme individualism that creeps into much of contemporary “Evangelical Protestantism”, and with its deconnection from historic orthodoxy. Whether we like it or not, a certain view and use of the Bible has nothing to do with the one of the Reformers, who were always cautious to preserve the authority of the Church, in submission to the written Word of God. I do not believe that by saying this we are at risk of falling back into Romanism.

  6. Jam,

    You said, “The scripture was given to the people because back then people knew traditions and church doctrine and with the Word they were able to determine which were good and which to get rid of.”

    This is actually incorrect. Scriptures were not handed to the “people” in the Early Church. The primary reason being because most were illiterate, and from what we can deduce from what has been handed down, the primary movers and shakers in the Early Church were not laymen, but bishops and pastors (ex: Augustine, Ambrose, Athanasius, Leo I, Agathos, John Chrysostom, John of Damascus…).

    I think Hauerwas has a point about Scriptures, but I don’t think taking them away from the laymen is the answer. Perhaps catechesis – teaching laymen that there are no “individuals” in the Church. The Church is ONE body, not many with their own personal interpretations. I think the democratic ideals ingrained within us propel us to believe whatever we want… this is what we have to address.


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