Ironically, the way most biblical authors read scripture (that is, the ‘Bible’ such as it was in their day) would be failed as exegesis papers in a many contemporary seminaries. James Kugel makes that point really well in his book How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now. Kugel is perhaps the perfect person to make this point because is a paradoxical figure who is an orthodox Jew, who has also taught the historical-critical study of the Bible at Harvard for decades. His book emerges from living in the tension between ancient and modern ways of reading scripture.
I also love the passage from Richard Hays’ Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul that,
Paul’s readings of Scripture are not constrained by a historical scrupulousness about the original meaning of the texts. Eschatological meaning subsumes original sense…. True interpretation depends neither on historical inquiry nor on erudite literary analysis but on attentiveness to the promptings of the Spirit, who reveals the gospel through Scripture in surprising ways. In such interpretations, there is an element of playfulness, but the freedom of intertextual play is grounded in a secure sense of the continuity of God’s grace: Paul trusts the same God who spoke through Moses to speak still in his own transformative reading.
Just as my lectionary commentary invites Christians to read the Bible as Jesus read the ‘Bible’ in his day (with a hermeneutic of love), Hays’ work invites us to embrace the same freedom to interpret the Bible that Paul with other ancient commentators claimed.
In addition, Dale Martin’s Pedagogy of the Bible: An Analysis and Proposal is a brilliant argument for teaching both ancient and modern ways of reading the Bible as a core part of a future seminary curriculum.
On lectio continua, I first heard that term in a seminary worship class in references to the places in the Revised Common in which the texts are not all thematically linked: specifically those long stretches of weeks where the Hebrew Scripture lections are semi-continuous instead of keyed to the Gospel Lesson. I think those sections are primarily during ‘Ordinary Time.’
I also heard the term lectio continua in church history regarding the Reformation. I don’t have my church history textbook with me at the moment, but a quick Google search uncovered a 1988 article from Hughes Oliphant Old, a scholar on Reformed worship titled, “Preaching by the Book: Using the Lectio Continua Approach in Sermon Planning”:
You may recall that lect comes from the Latin word that means “to read” and that it refers to the Scripture lessons (or lections) that are read on a given Sunday [by those churches which follow a lectionary]…. Lectio continua refers to another scheduling structure — that of preaching through a book, verse by verse or section by section….
Almost five hundred years ago in the city of Zurich, Ulrich Zwingli, inspired by the preaching of early church fathers Augustine and John Chrysostom, preached through the gospel of Matthew. Reformer John Calvin enthusiastically adopted Zwingli’s lectio continua approach to preaching. In fact, during his long ministry in Geneva, Calvin followed this ancient liturgical practice, preaching through most of the Bible.
Similarly, “The New Westminster Dictionary of Church History” says:
Early Christian practice was lectio continua, that is, beginning with the first chapter of a biblical book and reading it in course over a period of Sundays…. As the church year developed, customary readings — lectio selecta — began to be associated with each day or season…. During the Reformation, Luther took a conservative stance, maintaining many of the lections, while Calvin and others rejected them entirely, reverting to lectio continua except at Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost.
For anyone who is interested in pursing these ideas of approaches to scripture and biblical hermeneutics further, I’ve been exploring these concepts in a few recent sermons:
“Even the Devil Quotes Scripture” (Matthew 4; June 5, 2011): The challenge is not to use scripture for our own predetermined ends, but to allow scripture to point us toward God alone: the God who is not there to impress our friends and family, the God who is not there on a quid pro quo basis. Jesus’ temptations remind us that much drama derives from our terms for ourselves and God, but God can only truly be experienced on the stripped down, desert terms of God alone.
“How Does Matthew Read the Bible?” (Matthew 8-9; July 5, 2011): This sermon references our ongoing theme of noticing the differences between “The Gospel According to Mark” in contrast to “The Gospel According to Matthew” — especially the numerous ways that Matthew intentionally shapes his telling of the Jesus story to compare Jesus to Moses. This sermon also invites you to notice the way the different figures in the Bible use scripture — that is, the parts of the Bible that had been written in their day. Specifically, in Matthew 8-9, I invite you to consider that Isaiah and Matthew got it wrong that “He took our infirmities and bore our diseases,” as well as that both Hosea and Jesus got it right that, “God desires mercy, not [vicarious] sacrifice.”
“How To Read the Bible” (Matthew 15; September 11, 2011): An old Latin phrase, “Cui bono?” invites us to ask “To whose benefit?” In other words, when evaluating various method of reading the Bible, we should ask, “Who benefits from this interpretation?” Do the rich and powerful benefit, resulting in a solidification of the status quo (because the word “tradition” is often a cypher for wanting to keep society the same — not necessarily as it once was, but as it currently is in recent memory)? Or, does your biblical interpretation give all people, including the poor and marginalized, new hope and new life?
“Same Scripture, Countless Interpretations” (Matthew 17; September 26, 2011): It is illegitimate for anyone to blame the Bible for their hate, apathy, or vengefulness. I would invite you to consider further that whatever does not lead to love, compassion, forgiveness, justice, mercy, and grace — what Paul called “the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23) — has strayed from the way of God as revealed in the life of Jesus.”
“Keep Your Eye on the Ancient Interpreters” (Matthew 18; October 2, 2011): Although modern biblical scholarship may rightly reveal that many traditional assumptions about the Bible are wrong, the Bible’s ancient interpreters can point us to how God is still speaking to us through scripture — just as God always has and always will.
In closing, I appreciate the time and interest of anyone who has read the entirety of this lengthy post, and hope this response has been helpful to some readers. I welcome continued conversation in the comments sections.
[Update: Vanderbilt University’s extremely useful Lectionary site helps clarify the lectio continua aspect of the Revised Common Lectionary:
“First” OT readings follow major stories/themes, read mostly continuously, beginning in Year A with Genesis and ending in Year C with the later prophets….
“Alternate First” OT readings follow the historical tradition of thematically pairing the OT reading with the Gospel reading….
In a very few instances in the Lectionary, no Psalm reading is offered for reasons relating to the thematic nature of the Day.