Covenant Connection

We Read the Bible Faithfully

Taken from the Covenant resource, “Exploring God’s Word” written by Nancy Gordon and adapted by Steve Burger.

Covenant people read the Bible faithfully in keeping with its character and its concerns. Since it is the word of God, a faithful reading is a prayerful ready. We come to the text asking that God’s Spirit will instruct us and transform us. Central to the formation of the Covenant Church is the pietistic concern for encounter with God. As stated in the final report of the Covenant Committee on Freedom and Theology in 1963, “To read it (the Bible) properly…is to find it an altar where one meets the living God.”

A faithful reading is self-aware. We each come to the Bible with a lens—a set of assumptions or presuppositions—through which we see and understand. This lens is formed by cultural context, gender, geography, language, our understanding of life, and the personal and historical baggage we all carry. As the ECC becomes more and more diverse, we must be attuned and sensitive to the various lenses through which we read the Bible. We must ask ourselves what our respective lenses might be and how a given lens might hinder or help our reading. We must be sensitive enough to listen well to others reading with lenses different from our own.

A faithful reading must also be in line with God’s intent. A glance at church history underscores the ease with which we can miss God’s message. The church has too often strayed into sin far outside the boundaries of faithful interpretation (for example, attempts to justify colonization, slavery, and racism, an assumption of the inferiority of women, and indifference to the poor). Whether deliberate or unintentional, the Bible has often been misused as a means to protect a way of life or maintain a hold on power and resources.

Regardless of the reason, the record of misreading in Christian history is cause for humility in our own reading of the Bible. It should cause us to pause before we make authoritative statements about a particular interpretation of a passage – especially if it is an interpretation on which Christians authentically disagree. Simply put: we sometimes get it wrong. When reading faithfully, we will often find the Bible challenging the way we live rather than affirming it. The Bible pierces to the depths of our souls and “judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12).

We Read the Bible Communally

Taken from the Covenant resource, “Exploring God’s Word” written by Nancy Gordon and adapted by Steve Burger.

communallyBy the very nature of Covenant life, we read the Bible communally. Interpretation of Scripture is not a task we do in isolation (2 Peter 1:20-21). None of us has the breadth of experience, intellectual skill, social sensitivity, or spiritual depth to interpret the Scriptures alone. Our reading is in¬formed by our identity and experiences, including our gender, economic status, and culture. None of us has experience sufficiently broad so that we may grasp all about which Scripture speaks. The Holy Spirit, the same Spirit that inspired the text, helps us in our reading and discussion, and the com¬munity of faith—both past and present—provides assistance in hearing the text. The Holy Spirit and the community of faith work in concert with each other to guide the task of reading and listening well.

The Covenant Church defines “community of faith” not only as our own denomination (with its churches, history and affirmations), but, as the opening to Covenant Affirmations defines it, the whole apostolic, catholic, Reformation, and evangelical tradition that has been passed down to us. We seek to read faithfully in the context of the historic creeds of the church. Whenever we say that we are a non-creedal church, we mean that we have chosen to allow the text to be primary in our faith, doctrine, and conduct. We have worked hard not to allow particular interpretations of texts to take precedence over the text itself to guide our life together. We acknowledge and learn from Christian traditions and thinkers different from our own. What is faithful or right is not always immediately clear. To read with both the Holy Spirit and the community of faith requires discernment. We discern together—not in isolation—the Holy Spirit’s work in this world, in our hearts, and in the community of faith over time. It is central to the character of the Covenant Church that we have consistently made decisions to trust in the sufficiency of the Holy Spirit speaking through the community to guide us in our discernment.

Our commitment to reading communally encourages Covenanters to read together frequently both in worship and in study and to share our readings with one another in a forthright and direct manner. It creates a culture of mutual openness and generosity among us and among our diverse cultural contexts. This in turn creates the kind of spiritual maturity that helps us live with the ambiguity often present in our life together. Such a communal reading allows the Bible, in concert with the Holy Spirit, to do its powerful work. “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that all God’s people may be thoroughly equipped for every good work
(2 Timothy 3:16-17).

We Read the Bible Rigorously

Taken from the Covenant resource, “Exploring God’s Word” written by Nancy Gordon and adapted by Steve Burger.

rigorouslyWe read Scripture rigorously. We recognize these writings for what they are in their original historical and cultural contexts. We realize that there is a distance between us and the first readers of Scripture. It was not originally written to us, but the Bible’s words are for us and about us. God speaks to us through these words. We see ourselves mirrored in its pages. The biblical books were written to people long ago. They are nonetheless relevant and authoritative, even though our world is quite different from the world of the Bible (1 Corinthians 10:11). Belief in the Bible’s power and authority to transform us does not mean that understanding happens automatically. All our intellectual capacities are brought to the task of interpretation, and we make use of available information and scholarly tools to bridge the gap between the ancient text and our own lives. Critical to this task is the willingness to hear the text and obey. Since the Bible was written to people in ancient contexts, reading it calls for interpretive skill and for insight into how language and texts work. We seek to understand what texts meant in their original contexts and then to discern how that meaning is appropriated for the church today. Some of the hard work has been done in translations, and a whole community of scholars serves and works with the church to assist the process of understanding. Yet every Christian has the privilege and responsibility to take part in the communal reading of the text.

We Read the Bible Charitably

Taken from the Covenant resource, “Exploring God’s Word” written by Nancy Gordon and adapted by Steve Burger.

charitablyWe read Scripture charitably with regard to differing interpretations on matters not central to our core beliefs. “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love” (Ephesians 4:2). The Covenant’s emphasis on “life together” in Christ as the unifying bond has profoundly shaped our understanding of both faith and Scripture. This commitment has historically kept Covenanters united in times when it would have been easier to divide over such issues as baptism, atonement, or the nature of the inspiration of Scripture. While a variety of views about Scripture has always been present in the Covenant, two things are clear: we do not waver on the authority of Scripture, nor do we accept explanations that do not do justice to the character of Scripture.

Our charity with regard to differing interpretations is not without limits. Not all readings are equally convincing or determinative for the church. We have central, clear convictions about Christian doctrine and Christian life, which are reflected in our Covenant Affirmations. We have biblical convictions about difficult issues, which are reflected in our polity. We are willing to challenge biblical interpretations that stray too far from the central convictions of the Covenant Church. So our charity is not based in uncertainty of thought, but in humility, mutual submission, and concern for the unity of the church (Ephesians 4:3, 4:15, 5:21). We are committed to the core of the Christian faith, but differences on matters where Christians have historically disagreed are no grounds for division. Rather they are an opportunity for reaching out to each other, for growth and for mutual instruction.

We Read the Bible Holistically

Taken from the Covenant resource, “Exploring God’s Word” written by Nancy Gordon and adapted by Steve Burger.

holistically-cropWe read the Bible holistically, allowing Scripture to interpret Scripture. When early Covenanters asked each other “Where is it written?” they were certainly looking for specific scriptural texts, but they also wanted to know what the entirety of Scripture said on a topic or specific issue. No single Scripture passage is by itself the word of God; each passage is the word of God only as part of the whole scriptural story of God’s election of Israel and the fulfilling of God’s promises in Jesus Christ. Covenanters affirm that all the parts of Scripture are inspired by God, but it is the whole of the Bible, not just some parts, that helps us to interpret faithfully how to live and what to believe. This allows the more clear passages of the Bible to help interpret the confusing or troubling (or even painful) ones. This interpretive rule also assumes that any individual passage of Scripture is read in terms of the whole Bible, and it is read in terms of the narrative movement and direction of the Bible as a whole.

We Read the Bible with a Commitment to Grace

Taken from the Covenant resource, “Exploring God’s Word” written by Nancy Gordon and adapted by Steve Burger.

graceTo the five ways of reading Scripture (faithfully, communally, rigorously, charitably, and holistically) we add three essential commitments. The first is a com­mitment to grace. Grace is central to the character of God and the gospel. By grace God reconciles hu­manity through Jesus Christ and gives us new life in Christ (Romans 3:21-26; Ephesians 2:6-8). Jesus taught the authority of this key movement of grace.

In response to those who elevated Scriptural teaching about ritual purity above Scriptural teaching about regard for fellow human beings, he quoted the prophet Hosea saying, “But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice’” (Matthew 9:13). In the same way Jesus gave priority to scriptural commands to love both God and neighbor (Matthew 22:36-40 and parallels). The Apostle Paul continued this primary emphasis on God’s grace in Jesus Christ. Particularly in Romans and Galatians, but indeed in all of his letters, Paul argued passionately for the primacy of God’s grace.

It is no accident that Paul began and ended every letter with reference to grace, as if to remind his readers that all of life is lived within the parameters of grace. Grace is not merely a gift God gives us; grace is God giving us himself and drawing us into relationship through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We have experienced the loving Father receiving us as wayward children. We, like Peter, know what it is to deny our Lord, yet be restored to his service. Like Cornelius and Lydia, although we did not belong, we have been made members of God’s family. Consequently, we want to be a people who extend that same grace to each other and throughout the broken world.

Grace entails living with God and it becomes the motivating and empowering force toward living for God. This understanding of grace does not give license to wrong-doing. Instead, we are invited, encouraged, and expected to live out the grace we have received. This priority on grace—drawn from the character of God, the actions of Jesus, the teaching of Scripture, and affirmed especially in the Reformation—is perhaps the strongest feature of Covenant identity. It is the responsibility of every Covenant Church to live out this grace in the context of its own ministry. It is grace lived out that enables—even requires—reading charitably and communally.

We Read the Bible with a Commitment to Transformation

Taken from the Covenant resource, “Exploring God’s Word” written by Nancy Gordon and adapted by Steve Burger.

transformationThe second commitment is to transformation. It is crucial that in our reading we consciously come to Scripture with a profound desire and expectation to be transformed by the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:2). We do not just read the Bible. The Bible reads us. The Bible is “living and active,” and we should expect to be changed. We should expect the Bible to do something and to make a difference both in readers and in their communities. As we read the living word, the living God confronts us and calls us to new life in the kingdom of God.

The Bible is a guide and means to discipleship, and if discipleship is not the result of our reading, we have failed. When we come to Scripture in an attitude of openness, expecting to encounter the life-changing, powerful word, we discover that we are participants in God’s story of love and rescue. Though not originally written to us, this marvelous word is for us. Our own fingerprints on the narrative begin to emerge with every turn of the page. We, too, have bitten into forbidden fruit and paid the price for it. We, too, have wandered through the wilderness, wondering where we will land. We, too, have been overwhelmed by a task, only to discover that God is able and faithful. We, too, have been lost and then found. And in conversion we are placed in the story of Jesus to follow him and live out his purposes. Obedience to the word of God, which is possible only through the affirming, comforting, and challenging presence of the Holy Spirit, leads to transformation in the life of the disciple and in the life of the church. Conversion is necessary, confession and repentance are required, and change is inevitable. Our reading is transfor­mational, and transformation in all its forms is a primary goal of the church. Jesus’ charge to “make disciples…teaching them to obey everything I have commanded” (Matthew 28:19-20) speaks to the comprehensive task of forming those who follow Jesus so that they look, think, and act like Jesus. We are continual works in progress, ever pilgrims on the way, and we are always “being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory” (2 Corin­thians 3:18). As we are transformed, we join our Lord in seeking the transformation of others. It is through transformed people that God transforms the world, and active, passionate use of Scripture is at the heart of all transformation.

We Read the Bible with a Commitment to Mission

Taken from the Covenant resource, “Exploring God’s Word” written by Nancy Gordon and adapted by Steve Burger.

missionOur third commitment is to mission. This lies at the foundation of the Covenant’s origin and existence. Early Covenanters were called Mission Friends, and mission is and always has been at the heart of the Covenant Church’s identity. The distinction between evangelism and social ministry or justice was not allowed. Our pietist heritage emphasizes that what we did was for both God’s glory and neighbor’s good. We continue to be friends of God’s mission today. We make the leap off the page in order to be changed and to live out the words we read. In this we follow the example of Jesus himself, who began his own mission as a fulfillment of the words of the prophet Isaiah in Holy Scripture (Luke 4:16-21). Jesus’ mission is ours. Scripture calls us to join him in the work he is now doing in our world: finding the lost and helping the hurting, restoring the wounded, working for the advance of the good news, and extending God’s kingdom in our world. Such action in turn continually reshapes the lenses through which we read. This leap off the page becomes an interpretive rule for Covenanters: valid reading of Scripture leads to obedience and service. At the end of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “Everyone who hears these words and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on a rock” (Matthew 7:24). When we together enact the mission and life to which the Bible calls us, we become more faithful readers of its words and we give witness to and demonstrate God’s grace in our broken world.

By these Covenant convictions regarding Scripture we are called to renew our commitment to a deeper engagement with God’s word. May we find “our hearts burning within us” as we grow in our desire to allow the Scriptures to be “opened to us” (Luke 24:32, 44-45). It is our prayer that being a people of the book will never be relegated to warm memories of our history but will be the great passion that drives the movement called the Evangelical Covenant Church. May we truly be like the Bereans who “received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day” (Acts 17:11). We pray that our sheer love for God’s word will be matched by profound discipline to be a people who are saved by grace, formed in Christ, guided by the Spirit, propelled into mission, and blessed through the work of God found in God’s most holy word.

Covenanters Reading Scripture Through History

We are not the first Christians to read Scripture. This may seem obvious enough, but it is a reality worth considering. When we come to the pages of Scripture, we take our place in a long line of believers that spans millennia, linking generation after generation of Christians to the beginning of the church. As we read together over the next forty days, we will learn from those in our present community. We can also learn from those who have been Christian and Covenant before we have. What has it meant to read Scripture within the Covenant? How has Scripture been read? Why has it been read? This supplemental historical material invites us to enlarge the community in which we experience the Bible, over these forty days of the Community Bible Experience. We draw from the history of the Covenant (1885–present), as well as its roots within Pietism and the Protestant Reformation Pietism sought to recover, to consider how and why Covenanters have read Scripture.



Michelle Clifton-Soderstrom
professor of theology & ethics, North Park Theological Seminary (Chicago, IL);
North Park Covenant Church (Chicago, IL)

Chris Gehrz
professor of history, Bethel University (St. Paul, MN);
Salem Covenant Church (New Brighton, MN)

Hauna Ondrey
assistant professor of church history, North Park Theological Seminary (Chicago, IL);
North Park Covenant Church (Chicago, IL)

Mark Safstrom
lecturer of Swedish & Scandinavian studies, University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign, IL);
Ravenswood Evangelical Covenant Church (Chicago, IL)