On Using Commentaries and Reading Bible

by David Hawkinson

In the first issue of Pietisten we spoke about searching for the stream of our tradition and drinking from its living waters. This search leads toward the discovery that this stream is not ours alone but only one part of a remarkable tributary system which is at once diverse and ancient.

Phil Johnson, in this issue, recalls for us the importance of Luther in the hearts and minds of early pietists. Luther's relationship with the text, his acute and penetrating exegesis, and his own self-awareness which followed that exegesis allowed people like Rosenius to find an inexhaustible supply of inspiration and nourishment in his prolific energies. Searching for this stream leads us through Luther, and consequently makes reading Luther a critical part of our endeavor.

My own search has taken me through quite different geography. This is the landscape of Akiba, Yohannan ben Zakkai, Rabbi Ishmael and Rashi. These are not the names of Swedes! They are, however, a few of the great sages of Rabbinic Judaism. They were the pietists of their time and place. They were the 'readers' of their time and place. Their love of the biblical text and the consummate skill which they brought to its engagement continues to help me discover the joy of becoming a 'lasare' - that strange and endearing epithet which so characterized the early covenant community in Scandinavia.

Reading, for these rabbinic masters, was anything but the passive activity we associate with reading. Neither was it something that one did in solitude. Reading was an active and often loud enterprise... and always a matter for the community. Reading involved debate and argument which utilized a wide variety of skills both exegetical and existential. The text was raw wheat! Wonderful wheat to be sure but nonetheless needing to be worked and finally baked into living bread. Those skills joined careful attention to the text with the creative capacity of the human imagination. The text jumped to life as insight and new discovery led to delight and an ever deepening relationship with the story.

However, it is not only their skill in reading the biblical text that offers to us a chance to once again become 'readers'. They teach us through their own process that good bible reading demands engagement with all those past and present who have already engaged the text. It is the belief that the ancient voices are still speaking, still relevant and important to the present. It is a living tradition! It is a discussion which has been going on for a long time and into which we are also invited to participate. What Akiba says about the text is no mere historical curiosity or footnote to our own work. Akiba is still speaking and must be worked with as one whose mastery of the literature continues to be authoritative. The community is not bound to his conclusions, but it cannot ignore them. In a living tradition the ancient ones continue to play an active role in the lives of the present generation. Through them connection is made to the past, and a foundation is laid for the future.

This is evident in the format of rabbinic bible commentaries. The page looks like a newspaper, with the text being discussed in one comer, surrounded by the comments of sages through the generations. To look upon the page is to witness a dialogue taking place, as the commentators gather around the passage debating with the text and, across the centuries, with each other.

To discover again the joy of being within a 'living tradition' is at the very heart of our common work with Pietisten. We are convinced, however, that this means we must give ourselves to those who have already spoken and who, in our hearts and minds, continue to speak. We must come to know these ancient ones, Spener and Franke, Rosenius, Waldenström and Nyvall. We may differ from them, but we cannot ignore their continued presence and witness among us. It is not enough to know their stories or how they fit into the history of pietism. Rather, we must know their work and see them as calling us to engage them in it. It is, after all, not our work alone but a task given to a people through time.

Finally, in our own reading we tend to be preoccupied with the answers rather than the questions. We would like someone to tell us what a text means rather than push us to discover it ourselves. Our modern commentaries reflect this need. They don't prompt discussion. They attempt to and it with the one "correct" interpretation. That's not a conversation but a lecture.

This is especially true when we read commentary by Waldenström who sounds more like a classic rabbinic exegete than a modern biblical scholar. Waldenström does not answer our questions but rather drives us to see deeper meanings, to make connections between seemingly disparate texts and so to recover the peculiar intricacy of the biblical fabric. Waldenström will make little sense unless you engage him in dialogue and follow his lead. His authority comes from his own mastery of the text and his position within our movement. Then place him alongside Luther and listen to them go at it! This is when the word comes alive; when the word grows into a feast!