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The Oxford Illustrated History of the Bible A richly illustrated account of the story of the Bible written by leading scholars.

The Devotional Interpretation and Use of the Bible

Scientific study of the Bible has frequently appeared to have as its primary duty the task of formulating biblical teaching, whether of ideas or events, in such a manner that their importance and meaning is made plain, and their congruity with other branches of knowledge is not imperilled. Yet this has frequently carried it into areas of deep controversy and has brought into the forefront technicalities and problems in which the private Bible-reader, or even the preaching minister of the church, has little interest. Great Britain in the seventeenth century had suffered nation-wide conflicts in which the interpretation of the Bible had played a significant role. Puritans against Royalists, Catholics against Protestants, and Rationalists against Literalists had all served to make the Bible a subject bringing dissension. Across Europe since the Reformation many comparable conflicts had been evident. It is not surprising therefore that many serious Christian readers of the Bible felt that the very purposes for which it existed were being betrayed.

It is in reaction to this that we should give attention to the emerging influence and attraction of what can best be described as a renewed focus on the devotional use and meaning of the Bible. Clearly such an interest had always existed in the church, and the great devotional writings of the Middle Ages had included handbooks of Psalms, readings for Books of Hours, and imaginative, if sometimes fanciful, homilies on biblical stories. It appeared that the central importance of the Bible to the Reformation had served to lend fresh intensity to controversies regarding its meaning and especially its political import. What was the nature of the Christian society which the Bible heralded? Clearly what had actually been achieved in forming a European Christian civilization had frequently been far from spiritually uplifting. Yet small printing houses and the eagerness of devout readers to enrich their spiritual understanding had between them continued to generate a large number of popular tracts, homilies, and devotional aids which remained aloof from the centres of academic and ecclesiastical control.

The renewal of concern with the personal and spiritual meaning of the Bible found a powerful advocate in German Pietism in the eighteenth century with the commentaries of J. A. Bengel (1687–1752). The legacy of Bengel's approach, with the intensity of its heart-searching inwardness, was to receive lasting influence through its embodiment in the works of Johann Sebastian Bach, supremely in the St Matthew Passion and St John Passion.

Henry Watson Music Library, Manchester.

In England it was the dissenting commentator Matthew Henry (1662–1714) who produced in 1708–12 commentaries on the Old Testament, the gospels, and Acts which provided a largely uncontroversial, and personally meaningful, approach to the Bible. Writing from a Puritan standpoint, but setting aside the issues which had been the subject of political controversy during the preceding century, Henry sought to provide the general reader with ideas and images, culled from the Bible, which were morally edifying and capable of providing spiritual direction and meaning to the individual life. John Wesley's Notes on the New Testament (1754, 1765) drew heavily upon the approach and ideas adopted by Henry. The work set a precedent followed by others such as Thomas Scott (1747–1821), who adapted the rather heavyweight style of Puritan commentating to a more popular level. The approach adopted showed that the Bible need not be read solely as a political tract, nor as an affront to science or reason, but could retain a strongly personal and religious meaning.

If J. S. Bach's music gave a new range and depth to the German Pietistic approach to the Bible, an even more wide-ranging popularizing and spiritualizing of its message was achieved in the oratorios of G. F. Handel (1685–1759). Besides the composition of The Messiah, Handel's treatment of a wide selection of historical narratives concerning Joshua, Solomon, and other biblical heroes and heroines drew popular interest to these narratives. Even such unlikely subjects as the tragedy of Jephthah's daughter could be infused with sensitivity to the tragedies and disappointments which becloud human existence.

The conventicles and private meetings for prayer and Bible study which had given strength and confidence to the religious and political tensions of the seventeenth century in England provided a context for the nurture of private biblical interpretation and exposition. In no small measure such meetings took place outside the jurisdiction of episcopal church oversight, and often with little guidance from university-trained scholars. A comparable style of Bible study and personal reflection received fresh encouragement through the Class-meetings of early Methodism. After the Napoleonic conflicts at the beginning of the nineteenth century a new wave of popular lay interest in the Bible emerged, partly fuelled by disenchantment with the established churches throughout Europe and partly in reaction against the radicalism of academic approaches to the Bible. Accordingly the older Puritanism gave way to a new Evangelicalism which fostered a strongly conservative approach to the interpretation of the Bible.

During the latter half of the nineteenth century, there emerged both in Britain and America the holding of annual conferences for the study of the Bible, marked by the active promotion of such conservative viewpoints. In turn these conferences led to the setting up of private academies and Bible schools which have upheld an active and influential role in the teaching, interpretation and public promotion of Bible-reading.

Such revitalizing of concern to place the Bible at the centre of ecclesiastical and personal life, with a tightly drawn profile of a biblical lifestyle, has served to keep the Bible prominent in public affairs, often outside the defined borders of the church. Such groups have consistently favoured traditional views regarding the authorship of the biblical writings and a very positive stance over matters concerning its historical veracity and reliability. More extreme forms of this conservatism in the early twentieth century have given rise to the concept of fundamentalism, but overall they have served to encourage and promote a strong interest in the Bible and its central role in the history of humankind's religious quest.

It is largely in recognition of this popularity of private Bible study that a major feature of twentieth-century biblical scholarship has lain in the desire to provide fresh, clearly intelligible translations of the ancient Hebrew and Greek texts. The formal requirements of worship, which strongly characterized the older translations into the major languages of Europe, have often appeared too stilted and artificial for the needs and abilities of such modern readers. Accordingly broad paraphrases of ancient idioms and concepts, aimed at providing clarity of meaning, have been encouraged as a means towards aiding the private reader. The need for simplicity and immediacy of impact have served as guidelines for promoting an extraordinary number of modern versions of the biblical text. These have largely been directed towards the needs of the private reader rather than the formalities of church use and in this they have largely succeeded. The consequence has been that, even though the traditional role of the Bible in church life and intellectual circles has appeared much weakened by the cultural and religious pluralism of modern Western-style societies, the private study of the Bible has flourished and continued to enjoy great popularity and vitality.

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