A humble heart is the only proper frame of mind for reading the Bible. -J.G. Hamann “On the Interpretation of Sacred Scripture”
For the foolishness of God is wiser than humans, and the weakness of God is stronger than humans… God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise. God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the insignificant and despised things of the world—the "nothings"—to nullify the "somethings," so that no flesh may boast in God's presence. 1 Corinthians 1:25, 27-29
Dear People of God,
Many of us have a fraught relationship with the Bible.
On the one hand, we know that it is important. After all, it is the Bible that puts forward the basics of our faith. In it we find the ancient story of Israel and her God, from creation to exodus to exile and beyond. In it we are introduced to Jesus, God’s promised Messiah whose death and resurrection forms the basis of our hope. And in it we hear God’s Spirit address us through words handed down through the generations.
Yet the Bible is also a difficult text. The words of scripture were all written by people from cultures thousands of miles and thousands of years away from us, in languages and idioms which are totally removed from our everyday experience. On top of this, the content of the Bible is complex, spanning many different genres. Prayers, histories, parables, letters, law codes, satire, wisdom sayings, poems, genealogies, visions, diatribes—all these and more can be found within the pages of this one book we call the Bible.
This challenge of form is compounded by the difficult nature of the Bible’s content, especially for 21st century readers. While some of the values put forward in scripture line up nicely with today’s sensibilities, we also find stories of people acting in brutal and barbarous ways that we would hesitate to share with our children. What is worse is that these actions are often not condemned in the text; sometimes they are even presented approvingly! These difficulties have led many modern readers to reject the Bible as an authoritative source of wisdom, let alone as God’s word!
This reaction to Scripture is not unique to this generation. For centuries, thinkers have called into question the usefulness and value of the Bible, coming up with various interpretive methods and strategies to separate the good wheat from the morally questionable chaff. Sometimes these strategies advised limited reading and teaching of the Bible. Other times, such as in Thomas Jefferson’s Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, they involved literal cutting and pasting, removing passages which were incompatible with scientific reasoning, leaving only what would be palatable to the intellectuals of the time.
One of these intellectuals who lived during Jefferson’s time was a German named Johann Georg Hamann.* In his early adulthood, Hamann was skeptical of the Bible and its value for modern readers. Like many thinkers of his time, such as his close friend Immanuel Kant, Hamann found himself questioning the traditions handed down, and was interested in discovering a purely moral and rational Christianity purified of its “unenlightened” origins.
This all changed, however, when Hamann experienced a series of personal and professional failures while working for a friend’s business venture in London. Undone by these hardships, he found himself seeking comfort in what was for him a very unlikely place: the text of the Bible. Rather than reading it as a critical interpreter, as he had before, he entered its pages as a broken man and was astonished to find his own experience laid bare in the histories of God’s dealings with Israel. Rather than interpreting the Bible, he found that the Bible was interpreting him!
It is from this experience that Hamann writes his very brief On the Interpretation of Sacred Scripture. In it, he marvels at the humility which the Holy Spirit undergoes on our behalf in presenting to us the text of scripture. Just as God the Father stoops down to us in creation and God the Son subjects himself to death at our hands, so does the Holy Spirit stoop down to become for us an author in the inspiration of the Bible. Hamann (along with the apostle Paul) marvels at the way the Spirit bends down to us, becoming subject to the condemnation of wise enlightened critics who regard the Bible as mere foolishness.
The Bible, according to Hamann, is like the rags tied together into ropes which were used to pull the prophet Jeremiah out of the pit in which he had been imprisoned (Jeremiah 38:7-13). Or it is like the pool of Siloam, which along with dirt and saliva became restoration of sight to a man born blind (John 9:6-7). It is like David on the run from Saul, who when brought before a powerful enemy of Israel acts like a madman, drooling and scratching at the doors. The enemy king, not recognizing the opportunity before him in David’s capture, instead sends him away (1 Samuel 21:13-15). In all three examples, what seems worthless or foolish to an uninterested observer proves to be salvation for the person suffering under adversity.
For all its strangeness, the Bible is indeed the word of God for us Christians. Within its pages lies a salvation and comfort which cannot be found elsewhere. While this is hidden from those who would seek to extract it by force of intellect, it is freely given to all who are humbled by the challenges of life. Having been brought low by our own histories, we are borne up in new and surprising ways by the stories of the Bible. In the Holy Spirit’s capable hands, the very details which hinder our self-directed studies become for us the means of salvation. This encounter with God may be confusing, and it may leave us with a limp (Genesis 32:31), but in it salvation is found.
Your brother in Christ,
_________________________________ *I have benefitted from three main sources regarding Hamann. The first is Oswald Bayer’s A Contemporary in Dissent: Johann Georg Hamann as a radical enlightener, translated by Roy A. Harrisville and Mark C. Mattes. The second is an article by John Betz entitled “Hamann’s London Writings: The hermeneutics of trinitarian condescension” in Pro Ecclesia 14, no. 2. Finally, the quotation from Hamann comes from John W. Kleinig’s 2021 translation entitled London Writings, the Spiritual and Theological Journal of Johann Georg Hamann.