Bible-readers can be both ‘lovers’ and ‘brawlers,’ conference hears

“The question we don’t ask nearly enough in the midst of our theological disagreements is, ‘Why do you feel so strongly about this?’ ” says Alec Ryrie, historian of religion at Durham University, U.K. Photo: Tali Folkins
Published October 17, 2017

From the beginning, Protestants have tended to read their Bibles both for personal inspiration and to help them argue about God—and a healthy Christianity requires a good balance of the two, a U.K. historian of religion says.

“It seems to me that unless an inspirational encounter with Scripture is what’s driving your Christianity, then you’re in deep trouble,” Alec Ryrie, a professor at Durham University and author of Protestants: The Radicals Who Made the Modern World, said in an interview with the Anglican Journal Friday, October 13. “But equally, unless you’re willing to allow a more sort of textually precise encounter with Scripture to regulate and manage your inspiration, then you’re likely to veer off into idiosyncrasy or craziness. So you need both.”

Ryrie was one of four speakers at “Mission and the Bible in the Wake of the Reformation,” a conference held at the University of Toronto’s Wycliffe College Friday, October 13. In his talk, “Lovers and Brawlers: Protestants and their Bibles from the Reformation to the Present,” Ryrie contended that Protestantism from its origins was marked by two very different ways of reading the Bible.

Borrowing images suggested by one of the reformers’ Roman Catholic opponents, the Dutch humanist Desiderius Erasmus, Ryrie said Protestant readers of the Bible have often tended to come off as either “lovers” or “brawlers”—though most are, in fact, both at the same time.

For example, because of their insistence on the authority of Scripture alone to back up their arguments, the early Protestant reformers can seem at times to be reading the Bible in a particularly “combat-ready” way, eager in their enthusiasm to use it as a weapon in theological disputes, he said. It’s an approach that lends itself to entrenched positions, he added, but the early reformers probably needed this approach to enable their movement to survive against the onslaughts of the church, which was attempting to suppress it.

“Of course, digging trenches is sometimes a good idea,” Ryrie said. “It seems plain to me that Protestantism could never have survived to prosper as it has if it hadn’t done some trench-digging…Luther turned Scripture into a weapon because he badly needed weapons.”

Alongside this approach, however, was a more personal way of reading the Bible based on the reformers’ encounters with it as individuals, Ryrie said. For example, the reformer Jean Calvin wrote that on reading Scripture, believers sense “the secret testimony of the Spirit” and “feel that the undoubted power of his divine majesty lives and breathes there.” They can only get this feeling, he said, from within themselves.

The Bible encountered in this very intimate way, Ryrie said, “isn’t weaponized Scripture—this isn’t something you can hit people over the head with until they’re compelled to acknowledge it. This is Scripture for lovers, who can talk in rapturous terms about the vision before them, but who cannot, in the end, compel anyone else to see it.”

Each of these approaches has its weaknesses, Ryrie said. On the one hand, the disputer’s reading of Scripture has been associated with literalism and fundamentalism; on the other hand, he said, feeling-based approaches to Christianity have led at times to the abandonment of the religion’s grounding in Scripture, “to a willingness eventually to let go of your biblical moorings altogether.”

Christians should realize, Ryrie said, that these two apparently opposed ways to read the Bible are, in fact, intimately connected with one another.

“It seems to me that…we need to recognize that the two are profoundly intertwined,” he said. “On the one side, a theological argument which is advanced in polemical-textual terms usually—always?—has an inspirational-devotional conviction underpinning it: that’s why it matters.

“On the other side, an inspirational-devotional conviction usually and quickly ends up resorting to polemical-textual arguments, and it has to if it’s going to move on from being one believer’s private experience to having any sort of institutional expression, or to prevent it from veering off into wild idiosyncrasy.”

Much of the bitterness around some of the controversies facing the church today—debates around human sexuality, for example—is probably traceable to people falling into one of these ways of reading the Bible to the exclusion of the other, Ryrie told the Anglican Journal.

“It seems to me that in a lot of our modern debates…either allowing your own personal or spiritual experience to ride roughshod over traditional text or allowing a particular textual interpretation to squash people’s actual encounter with God—I think we see both of these things happening,” he said.

More progress could probably be made in these discussions, he said, if people were aware of and open about the personal experience with Scripture that underlies their at-times entrenched positions—their approach to it as lovers, one might say, that underlies their approach to it as brawlers.

“The question we don’t ask nearly enough in the midst of our theological disagreements is, ‘Why do you feel so strongly about this?’ Because when people get really angry about something, it’s rarely just because they’re disagreeing about the reading of a text, but because for them something more fundamental, something that touches them more closely, seems to be at stake,” he said. “It’s important, if we’re going to be honest and constructive in those discussions, to bring those things out into the open and work out what it is that really makes us care about those issues.”


  • Tali Folkins

    Tali Folkins joined the Anglican Journal in 2015 as staff writer, and has served as editor since October 2021. He has worked as a staff reporter for Law Times and the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal. His freelance writing credits include work for newspapers and magazines including The Globe and Mail and the former United Church Observer (now Broadview). He has a journalism degree from the University of King’s College and a master’s degree in Classics from Dalhousie University.

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