Posted by: chuckbumgardner | July 6, 2012

The Public Reading of Scripture

I posted on the public reading of Scripture several years back, but recently read an article that sparked new thoughts in that regard.  As part of my preparation to take a class in the Pastoral Epistles, I am reading through Philip Towner’s NICNT commentary, and a footnote led me to look up and read his article “The Function of the Public Reading of Scripture in 1 Timothy 4:13 and in the Biblical Tradition,” Southern Baptist Journal of Theology7:3 (2003): 44-54. In his commentary, Towner summarizes some of the work done in his article:

It is normally assumed, apparently, that the primary function of the public reading of Scripture in the worship setting was to lay the groundwork for the preaching and teaching to follow (corresponding to practices of Scripture reading in many nonliturgical traditions today).  This is a partial explanation, and indeed in Jewish worship the public reading was followed by preaching/teaching.  Yet the public reading of the Scriptures served a deeper social function as well. . . . [modern study of ] the role of reading and readers within the broader discussion of hermeneutics and communication events [indicates that] reading/hearing certain significant texts influences the formation, shaping, defining, and redefining of individual and corporate identity.

From the perspective of the historical description of the practice as noticed in the OT and NT records . . . it may be suggested that the Scriptures were intentionally read as a way of answering the always present and pertinent question: Who are we?  Related but subsidiary questions — if this is who we are, how should we live, what should we do, etc.? — were equally ever-present and addressed as the didactic response to the regular public readings of the holy texts. . . . Although the question of identity was always the given subtext, the need for a particularly relevant re-expression of the answer clearly became more acute whenever situations that threatened the community’s well-being presented themselves . . . . The public reading of Scripture becomes a point of emphasis at crucial or crisis moments.

If that sounds too complicated, perhaps a similar thought penned poetically some time ago would help:

Holy Bible, Book divine,
Precious treasure, thou art mine;
Mine to tell me whence I came;
Mine to teach me what I am.

In the article, Towner is concerned to make contemporary application of this notion, and rightly emphasizes that in both Paul’s culture and ours, there are powerful messages and contrary values that attack a Christian identity.  “It takes only a minimal amount of honest reflection to reveal how easily we are attracted to other competing stories (and value systems) for our sense of identity.” (52)  “The lesson to be learned from 1 Timothy 4:13, and the background that informs the exegesis of this text, is that the deliberate public reading of Scripture (according to a schedule or a plan of some sort) is one way of rehearsing the acts of God in behalf of his people and his creation and finding and renewing our identity-center in that story over and over again.” (52)

Now, I would want to be careful to emphasize the Spirit’s work in using the Scriptures to form our identity and shape our worldview; there is a dimension to this practice that transcends a mere social dynamic observable in any culture that prizes particular religious texts.  But God has made us in such a way that when we gather together and hear the Word “read, preached, and taught” (cf. 1 Tim 4:13) with a heart to embrace it, it does work to solidify our identity.   And Towner is right to emphasize the community-oriented aspect inherent in  the public reading of Scripture; he notes the potential hazards of “personalized spiritual reading, done outside of the influence of a shared and stable tradition of interpretation,” but adds, “This is not to say that personal Bible study is a threat to Christian identity; it is rather to suggest that it is not a substitute for the practice of corporate public reading.” (51)

Perhaps I can sum up what Towner taught me thus: Corporate Scripture reading works to form and solidify the identity of a congregation; it teaches and reminds us of who we are in the face of (especially in our media-saturated culture) the constant barrage of powerful counter-stories that seek to move our affections in the opposite direction.  And this is particularly necessary in times of crisis in the church, whether from without or within.



  1. […] in the Biblical Tradition,” Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 7:3 (2003): 44-54.  (See “The Public Reading of Scripture”)  An enjoyable read.  After exploring the function of public reading of religious texts in […]

  2. I was really blessed by the message on the importance of both what we listen to and how attentive we are. My mother probably never spoke more than four sentences together to me about Christianity in my childhood. But she read the Word to me and I can’t begin to thank her. I have been blessed beyond measure in being allowed to record the NASB and the HCSB that people sometimes listen to at and I am also very gratefully to the people at Central Seminary for the impact they had on me for Christ. Your article is very encouraging.

    In Christ,

    Dale McConachie

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