Bible,  Christian Life

The Bible and ‘Time with God’

Last week, Bible teacher, Beth Moore, tweeted this:

“Spending time with God and spending time with the Bible are not the same thing. The Bible is the Word of God, crucial to knowing Him, but it’s not God. We can study our Bibles till the 2nd coming and leave God completely out of it. We can grow in facts and never grow a whit in faith”

I can think of two ways to take Beth Moore’s statement. On one interpretation, Moore says that a person can read the Bible without having any relationship with God (I take it that this is what she means by ‘spending time with’ and ‘leaving God completely out of it’) and never ‘grow a whit in faith’. More technically, she means that though reading scripture is the necessary condition for knowing God personally and growing in faith, it is not the sufficient condition. Alternatively, one might interpret Moore to be making a point of emphasis, suggesting that Christians should not rely solely on an intellectual faith, but pursue a more personal, emotional, or relational faith.

Apparently, her sentiments drew fire from some. The following is a representative complaint

“Of course spending time in Scripture is the same thing as spending time with God. You cannot know God any other way. It’s how he speaks to us (Hebrews 1:1). Yes, you can spend time with Him in prayer as well, and you can spend time with Him in worship. But what she’s saying is essentially the same thing as saying that listening to your parents speak to you is not the same thing as spending time with them. The Scriptures are God’s full and complete revelation to us. It informs all matters of our faith in Him, including our prayer and worship.”

What exactly is the objection? The objector agrees that Scripture is necessary for a relationship with God, but it also seems to suggest that whenever a person reads the Bible that person is spending time with God. In other words, reading scripture is also sufficient for a relationship with God. Why might the objector think so? Apparently, for two reasons. The first reason is that whenever anyone hears someone else speak, they must be spending time with each other. The objector makes an analogy between a child listening to his parents and a person reading the Bible. Just as the child is spending time with his parents when they speak, the Bible-reader must be spending time with its author when she is reading his word. The second reason the objector gives is that because the scriptures are ‘God’s full and complete revelation to us’ there is no way we can avoid spending time with God when we read them. If this were not the case, then the Scriptures would somehow be incomplete.

The first problem with the objection is that it conflates divine revelation with illumination. In his recent (and very good) book on the doctrine of Scripture, John Feinberg helps us with this distinction. Divine revelation is a form of disclosure. In the case of Scripture, the disclosure in question is the content of sentences. Illumination, on the other hand, is what is required in a person in order for that person to understand revelation. A person can hear the words of Scripture and not understand a word. This does not diminish revelation in any way. Revelation alone does not determine whether or not a person has illumination. Nor does the failure of a person to be illumined diminish the light of revelation. As Feinberg points out, light is bright whether or not anyone sees it. But if a person is blind, it does not matter how bright the light is, he will not see it. In the same way, revelation can be full and complete and yet a person may not receive it.

Okay, but what if a person who reads the Bible understands its content just fine? Isn’t that sufficient? Moore seems to imply that the person who reads the Bible and understands what it is saying may still not be spending time with God or growing in their faith. How could this be?

This leads to another problem with the objection. The second problem the objector has is a failure to consider what is necessary for spending time with God and growing in faith. This is because what we mean by ‘understand’ is ambiguous. It could mean to grasp the intellectual content of scripture, or how the scripture applies to life, or how it applies to the life of the reader, or it could mean that a person who reads scripture comes to desire to obey it (again, see Feinberg’s book on these distinctions). It is possible, therefore, for someone to read the Bible, intellectually comprehend it and even see how it applies to life, but yet have no desire to obey it or apply it personally. If this is what Moore means, then her point is perfectly valid. A person may go their whole life reading and understanding the Bible in an intellectual sense and yet never desire to worship God and live her life for Him.

But surely listening to someone speak is impossible without getting to know the speaker. How could a child sit and listen to her parents and not spend time with them?

The final problem with the objection is that it fails to take into account the difference between propositional knowledge and knowledge of acquaintance. Just as I might know all about a rock star but have never met him, one might know many facts about God and yet be unacquainted with him. Indeed, this seems to be what Moore implies when she says, “we can grow in facts and never grow a whit in faith.” Thus, the analogy between the child listening to her parents and a Bible-reader listening to God is not a good analogy. A better analogy would be a letter (or series of letters) from chosen representatives of the child’s parents who write all about the parents but whom the child has never met. The child may accumulate important facts about the parents and yet never be acquainted with them. In the same way, a person may read the Bible and know all about God without actually being personally acquainted with him through the work of the Holy Spirit.

Okay, so if Moore means that it is possible for a person to read the Bible and have little or no relationship with God, then she is correct. It could be the case that a Bible-reader is not given illumination by the Spirit enabling her to understand the meaning of the sentences or how they might apply to her life or enabling her to desire to obey what she reads. It could also be the case that a person can know much about God and yet not be acquainted with him.

However, it is possible to take Moore to be suggesting that Christians should not rely on an overly intellectual faith. We need something more than this in order to grow in faith and spend time with the Lord. If that is the suggestion, then the objector’s point about other parts to the Christian life–prayer and worship, for example–being important is valid. But it seems to be in agreement with what Moore is saying. Moore doesn’t suggest we shouldn’t read our Bibles for intellectual content; she only says that we don’t just read them for intellectual content. Even unbelievers can do this! The problem is: what else is it that Moore has in mind? We can only guess at this – perhaps she means personal worship and prayer. This is the most plausible guess. If so, she is right. Just working out what Paul means by x,y,z won’t do. One ought to pray that the Lord use his word to grow us in our relationship with him and in our desire to obey him. 

Assistant Professor of Philosophy and History of Ideas at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and The College at Southeastern.