Engaging the Bible with the Saints
Scripture engagement advice from the records of history
After nearly 30 years of pastoral and missionary ministry I had read many books, always interested in the latest contribution of the popular writers on pastoral ministry, Scripture engagement, and evangelization. During my last three years of active pastoral ministry, I made a commitment to read only writers that had written before I entered the ministry in 1983. I intentionally left out most of the writers and books that line the shelves of Christian bookstores.
It’s not that I had any grievances or axes to grind; I felt the need to allow those who had engaged with the Bible and had ministered to others and still had something to say to my generation the opportunity to have an audience with me. In the course of this exercise, I was introduced to people I had heard little or nothing of. Yet in their time they were greatly used by the Holy Spirit to keep the message of God alive. They have something to say to us today.
As this year begins, I encourage you as a pastor or Bible study leader or small group leader to make some room not only for Scripture, but the reflections of these greats that we call “saints” and allow them to give you a fresh perspective on the Word of God.
St. Irenaeus of Lyons
Irenaeus was the bishop of Lyons (present-day France) in the second century. His most famous writing was “Against Heresies,” written to combat the principal heresy of his day—Gnosticism. In his writings he quotes from 21 of the 27 New Testament books at a time before the New Testament canon was settled. Irenaeus lived very close to the time of the apostles and especially of their disciples. Of them he said: “For we learned the plan of salvation from no others than those through whom the gospel came to us. They first preached it abroad, and then later by the will of God handed it down to us in Writings, to be the foundation and pillar of our faith” (Against Heresies 3.1.1).
Jerome lived in the fourth century and is best known for translating the entire Bible into Latin, what is today known at the Vulgate. The Vulgate, pretty much as Jerome translated it, was the official Bible of Christendom from 382 until 1979 (in the Roman Catholic Church). As one who steeped himself deep in Scripture, he has left us with some wonderful quotes about the Sacred Scriptures:
- “Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ” (Commentary on Isaiah).
- “Do you pray? You speak to the Bridegroom. Do you read? He speaks to you” (Letter XXII to Eustochium, 25).
- “Read assiduously and learn as much as you can. Let sleep find you holding your Bible, and when your head nods let it be resting on the sacred page.”
Known for his “Confessions” and as the fourth century bishop of Hippo who came to Christ after a profligate life chasing the pleasures of the world, Augustine is one of the most prolific Christian writers. His conversion is due in great part to the persistent prayers of his mother Monica. Augustine is regarded as one of the most important theologians whose impact is felt in all branches of Christianity. He is a wellspring of encouragement and challenge as we seek to engage ourselves and those we lead into the Scriptures.
- “If you believe what you like in the Gospels, and reject what you don’t like, it is not the gospel you believe, but yourself.”
- “He will find there in much greater abundance things that are to be found nowhere else but can be learnt only in the wonderful sublimity and wonderful simplicity of the Scriptures.”
- “The New Testament lies hidden in the Old, and the Old is unveiled in the New.”
More samplings of the saints
St. Athanasius: “Scripture is of all things most sufficient for us” (Fourth century).
St. Epiphanius of Salamis: “Reading the Scriptures is a great safeguard against sin” (Fourth century).
St. Ambrose of Milan: “Let the Word of God come; let it enter the Church; let it become a consuming fire, burning the hay and stubble, and consuming whatever is worldly” (Fourth century).
St. Ephraim the Syrian: “When you begin to read or listen to the Holy Scriptures, pray to God thus: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, open the ears and eyes of my heart so that I may hear Thy words and understand them, and may fulfill Thy will” (Fourth century).
St. Gregory the Great: “The Holy Bible is like a mirror before our mind’s eye. In it we see our inner face. From the Scriptures we can learn our spiritual deformities and beauties. And there too we discover the progress we are making and how far we are from perfection” (Sixth century).
St. Bernard of Clairvaux: “The person who thirsts for God eagerly studies and meditates on the inspired Word, knowing that there he is certain to find the One for whom he thirsts” (Twelfth century).
Water from a Deep Well
During that three-year exercise of reading the ancient or classic writings, I broke my own rule by spending time in a book I would recommend for your spiritual encouragement: Water from a Deep Well: Christian Spirituality from Early Martyrs to Modern Missionaries, by Dr. Gerald L. Sittser Ph.D. The deep faith of scores of Christians are highlighted and through them you and I can discover that the “old ways” can bring new life to our spiritual lives as we set out to engage in Scripture in this new year.
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