The church always stands in need of engaging, theologically sound writing from pastor-scholars that can “equip the saints for the work of ministry.”
Yet while the need is always present, its fulfillment can be elusive.
Scholars typically write for the academy, and such writing is often not appealing to a broad audience.
Occasionally there is a scholar who has retained his ability to write for the whole church, though. And when that happens, the church stands to benefit in spades.
Such is the case with Dr. David Watson, an elder in the West Ohio Annual Conference who also serves as academic dean and professor of New Testament at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, OH.
With Dr. Watson’s new book, Scripture and the Life of God (Seedbed, 2017), we have a work that promises to renew our approach to reading the Bible in the contemporary church. It is an outstanding example of how important solid theological writing can be when aimed at the people in the pew.
Watson’s intent is both to diagnose what’s wrong with the way we’ve been taught to read the Bible and to prescribe a remedy.
So much modern reading of the Bible wants to treat the God we find there as a deity that only acted in powerful ways long, long ago. Such an assumption treats our own era as if we’re living in a kind of shadow land, where the clear light of God’s action just does not penetrate.
Watson rescues us from such an impoverished approach to Holy Scripture. As he puts it, “The Bible isn’t just a book of statements about God; it is a pathway into God’s very life” (p. 6). And the God into whose life Scripture leads us is just as active as he was in the days of ancient Israel.
There are many factors that can lead us to treat Scripture as a dead book of ancient literature rather than as the revelation of the Triune God. Watson touches on many of them: a misunderstanding of the nature of science and religion, an inability to see the Bible as a form of divine communication, a desire to tame the Bible to fit our own cultural mores, and even a spiritual numbness caused by First World affluence.
What all these pitfalls have in common is a failure to read the fullness of the Bible as Scripture. When we read the Bible as Scripture, we understand that it is divinely inspired—literally, “God-breathed”—with the ability both to reveal to us the true character of God and to show us God’s incredible vision of salvation.
Surely what is most exhilarating in Watson’s account is his fourth chapter, which takes a hard look at the widespread tendency in the modern church to limit our view of what God can do. Watson points to active disbelief and passive disbelief in this regard. The former is the adoption of a worldview that excludes any possibility of God’s supernatural work in the world. The latter, while not categorically opposed to the miraculous, still maintains a detached skepticism towards it.
Watson sees all such disbelief and skepticism as failing to take seriously that the God of the Bible is the same God we have now. He contends “that we should not only be open to the kinds of acts that God performs the Bible, but actively seek them” (p. 83).
It is at this point that Watson starts to sound a lot less like most Methodists you probably know (much less a New Testament professor at a UMC seminary!). But for me, at least, the change is a refreshing one.
Watson’s critique about the contemporary church is that we simply fail to expect enough of God. He says, “Most Christians are entirely comfortable talking about gifts of wisdom and faith. But healing? Miraculous powers? Prophecy? These may be harder to believe—but why? Simply put, the less a particular gift seems to require of God, the easier it is for us to believe. We have been taught not to expect very much of God, and our prayers match these expectations” (pp. 83-84).
That passage is indicative of the content of Scripture and the Life of God from beginning to end. Watson is determined to show us that the Bible has much, much more to offer us than we’ve ever let ourselves believe. It can, he wants to say, draw us right into God’s own life.
And there is great spiritual power there, indeed.
There is, in fact, a new movement afoot in the church. (Or perhaps it is just a very old movement that is being rediscovered.) It is both deeply scriptural and profoundly open to the work of the Holy Spirit in the church today. Dr. Watson is representative of it, and his new book on the power of Scripture promises to introduce many more people to its fruits.
This article originally appeared in the October 6, 2017, issue of the Arkansas United Methodist Newspaper. You can access the AUM Newspaper online at this link.