In the begin­ning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
He was in the begin­ning with God.
All things came into being through him,
and with­out him not one thing has come into being.”

— John 1:1 – 3

Scrip­ture has the capac­i­ty to bring God into our lives the way light­ning brings fire to the earth. It can be star­tling, beau­ti­ful, shock­ing, and pow­er­ful; at times it seems to burst from a clear blue sky with irre­sistible force. 

This is hard­ly sur­pris­ing. There is more here than sim­ply ink on the page; this word of the Lord” is able to bring us into the pres­ence of the divine Word, the one who brought the spin­ning galax­ies into being and whose nail-marked hands are stretched out towards us in love. Oth­er books may speak of God, but the Bible unique­ly is able to become for us a holy ground on which we actu­al­ly meet with God.

A Word-Cen­tered Life, a life which is evan­gel­i­cal in the very best sense of that word — shaped by the Gospel, and pas­sion­ate­ly seek­ing to hear Christ, know Christ, share Christ with oth­ers — such a life must always be deeply ground­ed in Scrip­ture. Psalm 1 offers a per­fect descrip­tion of a Word-Cen­tered people:

their delight is in the law of the Lord,
and on his law they med­i­tate day and night.
They are like trees
plant­ed by streams of water,
which yield their fruit in its sea­son,
and their leaves do not with­er.” (v. 2 – 3)

In just this way we need to come to Scrip­ture not sim­ply as a resource for preach­ing or the­ol­o­gy, nor just as an inspir­ing devo­tion­al trea­sury, and espe­cial­ly not as a mine of proof-texts for per­fect­ing our dog­mas and defeat­ing our doc­tri­nal ene­mies. Instead we need to dri­ve deep roots into the refresh­ing waters of the bib­li­cal text, so that we might become more deeply root­ed and ground­ed in Christ. We need to learn to come to the Bible in order to meet Jesus.

But if the whole of Scrip­ture is going to become for us a place of encounter with Christ, we may need to expe­ri­ence a sig­nif­i­cant shift of per­spec­tive. After all, Jesus him­self doesn’t even seem to appear as a char­ac­ter in the bib­li­cal sto­ry until some­where around the thou­sandth page. Almost four-fifths of the nar­ra­tive of the Bible is over before we ever get to the sta­ble at Beth­le­hem. It might be easy enough to imag­i­na­tive­ly med­i­tate on the Gospels, for exam­ple, in order to meet with Jesus. But what are we to do with Leviti­cus, or Eccle­si­astes, or Lamen­ta­tions? Many of our Bibles are far more well-thumbed in the New Tes­ta­ment and, per­haps, Isa­iah and the Psalms — the most obvi­ous­ly Jesus-cen­tered parts of Scrip­ture. How are we to dive into the rest for becom­ing like Jesus?

The Mys­tery of Christ

We need a fresh view­point. It’s often the case that some expe­ri­ence, event, or piece of knowl­edge can shift our per­spec­tive in a sig­nif­i­cant way. We inter­pret a friend’s appar­ent­ly unchar­ac­ter­is­tic behav­ior in a new light when we dis­cov­er he’s recent­ly fall­en in love. Vis­it­ing the coun­try in which a favorite movie is set helps us under­stand the sto­ry in a fresh way. Seem­ing­ly errat­ic deci­sions being made in the work­place make sense when we learn that the com­pa­ny is being sub­ject­ed to a hos­tile takeover. In each case, a broad­er under­stand­ing of the con­text leads to enhanced comprehension.

This also hap­pens every time we read a detec­tive sto­ry or a mys­tery nov­el. At first we are con­front­ed with a seem­ing­ly unfath­omable sequence of events: some vio­lent crime, per­haps, or a spec­tac­u­lar theft. A diverse col­lec­tion of char­ac­ters are caught up in the orbit of these events, each with their own pecu­liar­i­ties and prob­lems. We know, as we read, that at least one of these peo­ple is involved in this crime, but which one? And how? 

As their tan­gled tales begin to unrav­el we find our­selves sus­pect­ing first one per­son, then anoth­er. But the great detec­tive, of course, is not as non­plussed as we are. Just when every­thing seems insol­u­ble a rev­e­la­tion strikes as some vital clue is uncov­ered. The final scene is set and in a dra­mat­ic dénoue­ment the detec­tive unmasks the vil­lain, show­ing how the trail of evi­dence leads unique­ly to them while explain­ing all the red her­rings and blind alleys. And we, hope­ful­ly, close the book with a feel­ing of rich sat­is­fac­tion, nod­ding sage­ly as we say to our­selves, Of course — it all makes sense!”

Now imag­ine going back to the book for a sec­ond time. Return­ing to the first page, we already know how the entire sto­ry will unfold. When we first meet the mur­der­er, we know he is the mur­der­er. At the first men­tion of a vital clue, we already know its sig­nif­i­cance. Hints are dropped about dark secrets — but we already know what those secrets are. For us, the whole book has changed. The sto­ry still unwinds along the same course; the detec­tive still reach­es the same con­clu­sions. But our read­ing is so dif­fer­ent. Events and remarks we hadn’t noticed the first time take on a fresh sig­nif­i­cance. Char­ac­ters emerge in a new light. We have been giv­en an orac­u­lar knowl­edge: we still may not under­stand every­thing, but we have seen enough of the way this sto­ry unfolds to grasp it more ful­ly than those who par­tic­i­pate in it. We see what the detec­tive and the oth­er char­ac­ters can­not see, what even a first read­er of the text can­not see. We have the key.

What if we could read Scrip­ture in this way? This was the beguil­ing idea which enchant­ed the minds of some of the great­est thinkers, writ­ers, and bib­li­cal schol­ars in the his­to­ry of the church. And no one artic­u­lat­ed the ideas that lay at the heart of their think­ing more com­pelling­ly than a young Scot­tish priest named John Duns Scotus.

The Absolute Pri­ma­cy of Christ

In the clos­ing years of the thir­teenth cen­tu­ry John made his way to the uni­ver­si­ty at Oxford to teach the­ol­o­gy and phi­los­o­phy. The Oxford of his day was, of course, quite dif­fer­ent from the city mod­ern vis­i­tors see. Although John was arriv­ing in one of the fore­most cities of Eng­land, strate­gi­cal­ly sit­u­at­ed at the heart of the coun­try, it would seem to us lit­tle more than a vil­lage; there were prob­a­bly not many more than 2,000 res­i­dents all told. Most peo­ple, includ­ing the uni­ver­si­ty stu­dents, were housed in wood-frame, thatched roof homes which were draughty, dark, and infest­ed with rodents. The half dozen or so col­leges then in exis­tence were small insti­tu­tions large­ly devot­ed to the study of Latin, the­ol­o­gy, and phi­los­o­phy (many grad­u­ates would be drawn into the ser­vice of the church), and were dom­i­nat­ed by the new­ly arrived Domini­can and Fran­cis­can fri­ars. But Oxford’s rep­u­ta­tion as a lead­ing cen­ter for both learn­ing and teach­ing was already firm­ly estab­lished. Con­sid­ered to be on a par with such lumi­nary insti­tu­tions as the uni­ver­si­ties of Paris or Bologna, it drew some of the great­est thinkers in west­ern Europe.

Even in this rar­i­fied atmos­phere, John quick­ly estab­lished him­self as one of the most bril­liant minds of his gen­er­a­tion. Prob­a­bly only in his ear­ly thir­ties when he began giv­ing lec­tures — maybe even his late twen­ties — he showed a pre­co­cious genius for philo­soph­i­cal analy­sis. John could be hard to fol­low, and some of his lat­er crit­ics con­vinced them­selves that his appar­ent­ly impen­e­tra­ble writ­ing was sim­ply a smoke­screen cov­er­ing the mun­dane think­ing of a mediocre mind. But his­to­ry judged them to be wrong. John Duns Sco­tus is now cel­e­brat­ed as one of the most fas­ci­nat­ing, if dif­fi­cult, of all medieval thinkers.

John retold the sto­ry of human his­to­ry from a quite unique the­o­log­i­cal angle. His start­ing point was an idea known to us as the Absolute Pri­ma­cy of Christ. It’s rather like a sophis­ti­cat­ed ver­sion of the clas­sic children’s Sun­day School cre­do: no mat­ter what the ques­tion is, the answer is prob­a­bly Jesus. John looked at the entire uni­verse, and the great sweep of his­to­ry across the mil­len­nia, and began with a sim­ple assump­tion: this is all about Christ.

All cre­ation was made for Christ, John taught, echo­ing an idea we already find in Paul’s ear­li­est let­ters: in [Christ] all things in heav­en and on earth were cre­at­ed … all things have been cre­at­ed by him and for him” (Colos­sians 1:16). The author of Proverbs express­es the same idea in vibrant poet­ry (writ­ing about the per­son­i­fied fig­ure of Wis­dom, seen in the Chris­t­ian tra­di­tion as a fig­ure of Christ):

When he estab­lished the heav­ens, I was there,
when he drew a cir­cle on the face of the deep,
when he made firm the skies above,
when he estab­lished the foun­tains of the deep,
when he assigned to the sea its lim­it,
so that the waters might not trans­gress his com­mand,
when he marked out the foun­da­tions of the earth,
then I was beside him, like a mas­ter work­er;
and I was dai­ly his delight,
rejoic­ing before him always,
rejoic­ing in the inhab­it­ed world
and delight­ing in the human race.” (Proverbs 8:27 – 31)

From the begin­ning, John assert­ed, it was God’s inten­tion that Christ should take human form, liv­ing amongst those in whom he so delight­ed and par­tic­i­pat­ing direct­ly in the cre­at­ed order. For this rea­son this world was shaped as a place in which Christ­like life would flour­ish, where the image” and like­ness” of God (Gen­e­sis 1:26) would be most at home — an image and like­ness most ful­ly seen in Jesus, who is supreme­ly the image of the invis­i­ble God” (Colos­sians 1:15).

John offered us a very high view of the sig­nif­i­cance of Jesus. He is the fun­da­men­tal fact of the uni­verse, the pri­mal real­i­ty of our exis­tence. Christ is the foun­da­tion, the alpha and omega, the begin­ning and the end. The cos­mos is shaped around Jesus. We are made in his image. He is the deter­min­ing force behind all real­i­ty, all his­to­ry, our entire human expe­ri­ence. And he is the goal, the des­ti­na­tion, the end­point towards which all his­to­ry tends. In short, said John, Jesus is everything.

Christ In All Scriptures

If, as John argued, the whole of cre­ation entire­ly cen­tered on Jesus, then we might rea­son­ably expect to dis­cov­er that Scrip­ture is equal­ly Chris­to­cen­tric. Not only that, but the idea of the Absolute Pri­ma­cy of Christ could then become a com­pelling start­ing point for our inter­pre­ta­tion of Scrip­ture, espe­cial­ly when we approach Scrip­ture with the desire, above all else, to find in it an encounter with God in Christ.

And in fact this was the way most Chris­tians read the Bible for much of the Church’s two mil­len­nia long his­to­ry (and for cen­turies before John was around to give such a strong the­o­log­i­cal foun­da­tion for the idea). Dur­ing one of his ser­mons on the Psalms, the fifth cen­tu­ry African bish­op Augus­tine of Hip­po exhort­ed his con­gre­ga­tion to remem­ber that God speaks only a sin­gle word through­out the length of Scrip­ture, and that only one Word is heard from the many mouths of the sacred writ­ers — the Word that was in the begin­ning, God with God.” Six cen­turies lat­er the huge­ly influ­en­tial Parisian abbot Hugh of St Vic­tor would write: All sacred Scrip­ture is but one book, and that one book is Christ, because all divine Scrip­ture speaks of Christ, and all divine Scrip­ture is ful­filled in Christ.”

These writ­ers were devel­op­ing a tra­di­tion that reach­es right back to the New Tes­ta­ment peri­od. Through­out the Gospels, the epis­tles, and the book of Rev­e­la­tion we see Jesus pre­sent­ed as the ful­fill­ment of the Hebrew Scrip­tures. We have often nar­rowed that focus by affirm­ing that in Christ a spe­cif­ic col­lec­tion of ancient bib­li­cal prophe­cies about the future came to pass; some even claim to be able to enu­mer­ate the num­ber and sequence of such prophe­cies. But the apos­tles and the New Tes­ta­ment writ­ers assert­ed so much more: for them, Jesus was the com­ple­tion and ful­fill­ment of all Scrip­ture, of the whole Bible in its many var­ied aspects.

Think, for exam­ple, of Peter’s first ser­mon on the day of Pen­te­cost. These few brief words draw togeth­er a col­lec­tion of dif­fer­ent texts from the Hebrew Bible — a pas­sage from Joel and quo­ta­tions from a cou­ple of Psalms — and apply them all to Jesus. Two chap­ters lat­er in Acts, Peter is con­fronting the San­hedrin and quotes from anoth­er Psalm (“the stone that was reject­ed by you, the builders; it has become the chief cor­ner­stone,” Psalm 118:22) which, he asserts, speaks direct­ly of Christ. In a prayer lat­er in the same chap­ter the dis­ci­ples apply yet anoth­er Psalm to Jesus, while in chap­ter sev­en Stephen, dur­ing his tri­al, draws whole sweeps of the Old Tes­ta­ment nar­ra­tive into his inter­pre­ta­tion of the sig­nif­i­cance of Christ’s death and res­ur­rec­tion. Philip hears an Ethiopi­an offi­cial read­ing from the book of the prophet Isa­iah while trav­el­ing on the road to Gaza — start­ing with this scrip­ture, he pro­claimed to him the good news about Jesus” (Acts 8:35). This same pat­tern con­tin­ues through­out Acts: the Old Tes­ta­ment is con­stant­ly referred to as a text which speaks of Christ.

If any­thing, the pic­ture becomes even rich­er as we turn to the New Tes­ta­ment let­ters. Paul, in par­tic­u­lar, seems to see Jesus every­where he looks in Scrip­ture. Christ is por­trayed as a new Adam, a descen­dant of the first man who over­turns the trag­ic results of the first sin in Eden (Romans 5:12 – 21). Abraham’s unwa­ver­ing faith in God’s promise makes him the spir­i­tu­al ances­tor of those who will place their faith in Christ’s res­ur­rec­tion (Acts 4:1 – 25). Sarah and Hagar become alle­gories of the chal­leng­ing choice pre­sent­ed by Christ: between liv­ing under the law of Sinai or in the free­dom of the new Jerusalem (Gala­tians 4:21 – 5:1). In one text Jesus is linked to the entire sto­ry of the exo­dus — to the bap­tism” in the Red Sea, the lead­er­ship of Moses, the mirac­u­lous food and drink pro­vid­ed in the wilder­ness — lead­ing to the star­tling asser­tion that Jesus was present to the Israelites through­out their wan­der­ings: they drank from the spir­i­tu­al rock that fol­lowed them, and the rock was Christ” (1 Corinthi­ans 10:5, empha­sis added). And so it con­tin­ues through­out Paul’s let­ters — it seems that he is able to dis­cern the pres­ence of Christ in almost any bib­li­cal text.

The let­ter to the Hebrews draws on the Old Tes­ta­ment in a remark­able way to expound on the sig­nif­i­cance of Christ’s life, death, and res­ur­rec­tion. After a short, breath­less intro­duc­tion in the first four vers­es (just a sin­gle sen­tence in the Greek orig­i­nal) the let­ter launch­es into a whirl­wind tour of the Hebrew Scrip­tures: quo­ta­tions from right across the Psalter; excerpts from books as diverse as Deuteron­o­my, Proverbs, Isa­iah, and Jere­mi­ah; allu­sions to the meet­ing between Abra­ham and Melchizedek, the giv­ing of the law at Sinai, Israel’s wan­der­ing in the wilder­ness, the design and struc­ture of the tem­ple, the rules gov­ern­ing the priest­hood and the sac­ri­fi­cial sys­tem laid out in Leviti­cus, and the prophet­ic promise of a new heart covenant between God and his peo­ple. The eleventh chap­ter famous­ly presents a panora­ma of Old Tes­ta­ment heroes, call­ing to mind the exam­ples of Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abra­ham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Gideon, Barak, Sam­son … the list is over­whelm­ing. And all this is offered as one great and glo­ri­ous wit­ness to Jesus — Jesus who is greater than the angels, who medi­ates a bet­ter covenant than Moses, who embod­ies the Sab­bath rest of the covenant, who ful­fills the great priest­hood of Melchizedek, who min­is­ters in the true heav­en­ly sanc­tu­ary of which the earth­ly tem­ple is sim­ply an imi­ta­tion, who offers the supreme and final sac­ri­fice, and who estab­lish­es the foun­da­tions of the heav­en­ly Jerusalem.

No won­der, then, that the author of this let­ter calls Jesus the pio­neer and per­fecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2). He is the begin­ning and the end, the one who par­tic­i­pates in cre­ation with God at the dawn of time and draws it to its con­clu­sion at the end of days. His pres­ence can be felt on every page, dur­ing every inci­dent, through every prophe­cy, in every life. Jesus is not sim­ply a char­ac­ter who appears in the Bible some­where towards the end, draw­ing togeth­er the threads of a ram­bling and com­plex sto­ry. Jesus is the cen­tral char­ac­ter from the first page to the last. The Bible is, above all else, the book of Christ.

Read­ing For Encounter

How, then, might we begin to devel­op our abil­i­ty to read the Bible more Chris­to­cen­tri­cal­ly — that is, as a book that speaks every­where to us of Christ?

We need to approach Scrip­ture with new ques­tions. Typ­i­cal­ly, many of us are taught to inter­pret the Bible by ask­ing ques­tions such as: What is the his­to­ry and con­text of this pas­sage? What the­ol­o­gy is taught here? Are there prin­ci­ples I need to uncov­er and apply to my life? Are there com­mands to be obeyed, promis­es to trea­sure, or chal­lenges to heed? And all these are, of course, good and nec­es­sary questions.

But there are oth­er ques­tions we also need to learn to ask. How does this pas­sage speak of Christ? How does it fit with­in the wider sweep of a bib­li­cal sto­ry which is cen­tered on Jesus? What does it reveal about Christ’s life, his char­ac­ter and nature, his chal­lenge and call, his love and grace? How does this text help me frame my life in appro­pri­ate response to the life of Jesus? In what way does this pas­sage draw me deep­er into an expe­ri­en­tial rela­tion­ship with Christ?

One of the most help­ful tra­di­tion­al approach­es to read­ing Scrip­ture, an approach which helps to open up exact­ly these kinds of ques­tions, is known as lec­tio div­ina, or sacred read­ing. A recov­ery of inter­est in lec­tio div­ina dur­ing recent years has led many Chris­tians and church­es to explore a more med­i­ta­tive style of pri­vate and pub­lic read­ing of the Bible. But in my expe­ri­ence lec­tio often seems to mean lit­tle more in prac­tice than read­ing the Bible real­ly slow­ly … two or three times … with a can­dle.” Gen­uine lec­tio is far deep­er and rich­er than this. It is a way of read­ing which helps to expose all the dif­fer­ent lay­ers of mean­ing in a pas­sage of Scrip­ture, and at the same time helps us to engage every aspect of the read­er — sens­es, imag­i­na­tion, rea­son, mem­o­ry, emo­tions, and will — to God who is present in the bib­li­cal text.

The best writ­ten descrip­tion of lec­tio div­ina, even though it is some eight cen­turies old, is The Lad­der of Monks, a short book writ­ten by a medieval French Carthu­sian pri­or called Gui­go II. At the begin­ning of his book Gui­go describes the prac­tice of lec­tio in very sim­ple terms:

One day when I was busy work­ing with my hands I began to think about our spir­i­tu­al work, and all at once four stages in spir­i­tu­al exer­cise came into my mind: read­ing, med­i­ta­tion, prayer, and contemplation.”

Many will be famil­iar with these four stages by the Latin words Gui­go employs: lec­tio, med­i­ta­tio, ora­tio, and con­tem­pla­tio (which some help­ful­ly para­phrase in Eng­lish as read, reflect, respond, and rest). Through­out the rest of the book Gui­go explains what he means by each of these terms.

Gui­go writes that read­ing, or lec­tio itself, is the care­ful study of the Scrip­tures, con­cen­trat­ing all one’s pow­ers on it.” It is, he says, the foun­da­tion; it pro­vides the sub­ject mat­ter we must use for med­i­ta­tion.” In this first stage of read­ing we are using to the full our pow­ers of per­cep­tion. We absorb the text as best we can, direct­ing all the pow­er of our sens­es towards it (through­out most of his­to­ry Chris­tians have read Scrip­ture aloud, even when read­ing alone, so that the words are not only seen but also heard — often an enlight­en­ing expe­ri­ence, as any­one who has tried it can tes­ti­fy). We also make use of the imag­i­na­tion to allow Scrip­ture to come alive, to speak as ful­ly and present­ly as pos­si­ble to us. We try to take every­thing in; as Gui­go express­es it, good read­ing puts food whole into the mouth.” All this helps us to explore ful­ly the text’s lit­er­al lay­er of meaning.

Read­ing is fol­lowed by med­i­ta­tion, the act of chew­ing over the food we have tak­en in. Med­i­ta­tion, writes Gui­go, is the busy appli­ca­tion of the mind to seek with the help of one’s own rea­son for knowl­edge of hid­den truth.” This includes analy­sis and study of the text — con­sid­er­ing the lan­guage, gram­mar, con­text, genre, and inter­pre­ta­tion — but it also involves the mind in active­ly seek­ing the pres­ence of Christ in Scrip­ture. In this way we begin to tease out a deep­er lay­er of mean­ing. Med­i­ta­tio encour­ages us to use the skills of cog­ni­tion, the fac­ul­ties of mem­o­ry and rea­son, to under­stand the text as ful­ly as pos­si­ble in the light of our knowl­edge of the rest of Scrip­ture and of Christ.

This leads us to prayer, ora­tio. But for Gui­go the nature of this prayer is very spe­cif­ic: prayer is the heart’s devot­ed turn­ing to God to dri­ve away evil and obtain what is good.” Writ­ing about this dri­ves Gui­go to prayer himself:

So the soul, see­ing it can­not attain by itself to that sweet­ness of know­ing and feel­ing for which it longs, and that the more the heart abas­es itself,’ the more God is exalt­ed’ [see Psalm 63:7 – 8], hum­bles itself and betakes itself to prayer, say­ing: Lord, you are not seen except by the pure of heart. I seek by read­ing and med­i­tat­ing what is true puri­ty of heart and how it may be had.”

This prayer, then, seeks to address the way­ward­ness of our desires and dri­ves. As we med­i­tate on Scrip­ture and find our­selves being drawn near­er to Christ we become more painful­ly aware of our cor­rupt­ed and sin­ful nature. At this point, our prayer is a long­ing and beg­ging for grace, for the renew­al of our lives, so that we might no longer be alien­at­ed from his glo­ri­ous pres­ence. Prayer address­es our emo­tions, not only as we feel them but as we inap­pro­pri­ate­ly express them in our habits and behavior.

And final­ly comes con­tem­pla­tion. Con­tem­pla­tion is when the mind is in some sort lift­ed up to God and held above itself, so that it tastes the joys of ever­last­ing sweet­ness,” as Gui­go puts it some­what rap­tur­ous­ly. We have care­ful­ly absorbed what we have read. We have med­i­tat­ed on it — stud­ied, reflect­ed, pon­dered, con­sid­ered. This has led us into a deep­er aware­ness of our fal­l­en­ness, which has dri­ven us to a des­per­ate prayer for trans­for­ma­tion. But in this final step we find our­selves wel­comed into the ever gra­cious pres­ence of Christ, and we expe­ri­ence a long­ing sim­ply to be allowed to dwell here. This is tru­ly a move­ment of the heart, a stretch­ing of the soul into God. Our whole per­son is joy­ful­ly absorbed into the life of God.

Only Scrip­ture tru­ly has the capac­i­ty to be read in this way. Oth­er texts may con­nect with our souls, but no oth­er quite like this. It is because of this capac­i­ty that Chris­tians through­out the ages have spo­ken of the Bible as inspired, as filled with the breath of God. It is this that leads us to give the Bible our fullest and most intense atten­tion. This book draws us into the liv­ing pres­ence of the Cre­ator whose gaze sweeps across the breadth of an unimag­in­ably vast cos­mos with­out los­ing sight of us, in all our humil­i­ty and small­ness. The liv­ing word of God brings us into the pres­ence of the Word of Life. And it is because of the abil­i­ty of this book to speak to every part of our soul, to touch every facet of our inner life, that we come to it again and again as such ardent seek­ers and lovers.

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Includes abridged mate­r­i­al from Chris Webb’s book The Fire of the Word, Inter­Var­si­ty Press, 2011.

Originally published September 2011