What We Do When We Read the Bible

What do we do when we read the Bible? Specifically, what do we do when we read a command in scripture?

Consider two NT commands:

  • Acts 2:38 (NET): “Repent, and each one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
  • Romans 16:16 (NET): “Greet one another with a holy kiss.” (Para 1 Cor 16.20; 2 Cor 13.12; 1 Thess 5.26).

The churches I have spent my life in treat these commands very differently. Both are commands, with virtually no difference grammatically (all are aorist  imperatives).

But we take the first (Acts 2.38) to be an eternal, universal command of God for all people at all times, but relegate the second (Rom 16.16 and its parallels) to the status of a culturally-specific custom, one where we obey “the spirit of the law” rather than the letter.

Do we differentiate between the spirit and the letter of Acts 2.38? (No.) Why not? How do we determine that?


We sometimes THINK that we simply “read the Bible and do what it says”. I think we’re fooling ourselves, and I base my judgment on the way the churches in which I have spent my life handle Rom 16.16. It’s always more complicated than simply “reading & doing”, whether we realize it or not.

Why do none of the churches in my life practice greeting with a holy kiss?  Did we have a big conference, consider the Greek texts, exegete it carefully, and come to a careful, reasoned decision about why we would euphemize that text? NO.

The churches I have spent my life in don’t customarily greet with a holy kiss because “people like us don’t do things like that.” These churches developed in a middle-America working- or middle-class-with-aspirations culture that wasn’t comfortable with such a greeting; likewise, raising hands in worship was distracting and scandalous.

So: “people like us don’t do things like this” is a powerful, usually unspoken rule


My point: we don’t simply read scripture and do what it says. There are always other voices–church tradition, personal experience, the Holy Spirit–that speak to us alongside scripture, modifying our angle of approach, amplifying one aspect of the text and attenuating or even silencing others.

Richard Rohr says that it’s a tricycle. Three wheels: tradition, experience, scripture. (There are other models with 4 voices.)

Which wheel is the front wheel? Which voice guides the movement forward?

Rohr says it’s personal experience; as I recall, he includes the voice of the Spirit there.

I’m not so sure.

One thought on “What We Do When We Read the Bible

  1. Pingback: The Role of Experience in Theology | Circleslide

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