The Divine Wonder of the Scriptures

March 18th, 2014

The words of 1 Peter seemed to come alive before me, shimmering with light and truth right there on the page. They were drawing my heart beyond the material world and into divine light, yet somehow doing this in and through the visible sequence of words in the narrow column on the paper page, and in and through the news of the glorified humanity of our Lord Jesus Christ: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. By his great mercy we have been born anew to a living hope through the resurrection….”

I was a sophomore in college, I think, when this happened. I had tried to read the Bible before, but never got far. I was a few times over the years sidetracked-then-bored by the footnotes in the NIV Study Bible I got when I was confirmed. Or, I tried to read and found it hard to maintain interest in writings that seemed both foreign and dull. I was an English major, for crying out loud. I loved great literature: Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Homer, Rilke, and Dante were loved by me, and Conrad hated, all before I got out of high school. And I certainly never had an experience of God’s presence when reading the Bible before. But that day I did. The words, and the things they signified, were inexpressibly beautiful.

What happened?

The Spirit of God intervened. The divine wonder of the Scriptures began to be opened to me.

Before his crucifixion and resurrection, Jesus tells his friends, “[W]hen the Counselor comes, whom I shall send to you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness to me” (Jn. 15:26). The Father and the Son send the Spirit who witnesses to us of the Son’s unity with the Father. The Spirit begins somehow to lead us, in spite of ourselves, into the midst of the Trinity. This often entails encounter with Jesus Christ in the Spirit-breathed Scriptures. That day, the Holy Spirit began to bear witness to me in a new way, and I began to experience in the Scriptures a living person, Jesus Christ the Lord.

My experience is not unusual in the Christian tradition. St. Augustine was for a time decidedly underwhelmed by the unpolished style of the Scriptures in contrast to the eloquence of Virgil.

And young Johann Georg Hamann was far from home, penniless and in debt, and living a dissolute life in London when he came to himself. His brilliance and multilingual classical education had not availed any more for his salvation than his lute playing, and all his learned books seemed lifeless and dead to him. Finally Hamann acquired a Bible and “began his reading on March 13, but to no great effect. Six days later, however, on Palm Sunday, he began his reading anew and gradually began to perceive that God was somehow speaking to him and that the same one who authored the Bible was also the author of his life.”

Several weeks later, while reading the Bible in the evening, Hamann becomes aware that he is guilty of the blood of Jesus Christ due to his sins, just as Cain was guilty of his brother Abel’s blood. Hamann himself writes, “I felt at once my heart swelling, it poured itself out in tears, and I could no longer—I could no longer hide from God that I was the murderer of my brother, that I was the murderer of his only begotten Son.”*

Intensive study of the Bible led Hamann to deep conversion, and to a vocation as a Christian philosopher and apologist. He went on to write intricately hilarious polyglot texts, frequently pseudonymously. Among other things, Hamann Christianly opposed his friend Kant, and his style inspired a young Christian disciple named Søren Kierkegaard in the next century. His vocation began when he encountered in Scripture both his own guilt and the shed blood of Jesus Christ.

Has the divine wonder of the Scriptures been opened to you?

How did it happen, or when did it start?

*These quotations, and indeed my whole account of Hamann’s conversion, are taken from John R. Betz, After Enlightenment: Hamann as Post-Secular Visionary (Wiley-Blackwell, 2009)

Clifton Stringer is a Ministry Matters contributor and Ph.D. student in Historical Theology at Boston College.

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