I recently received an email from a friend titled “Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.” My gut-level reaction? “What an obnoxious thing to say!” However, knowing my friend well, I scrolled to the bottom of the email. Who said this conceited thing? Jerome. You know, Jerome of Stridonium? Early church father? Translator of the Bible into Latin, known in Catholic circles as a Doctor of the Church? Yes, that Jerome. Being that I live and move and have my being in a tradition that respects its elders, particularly this set of them, I sighed deeply, shelved my effrontery and read the sermon she sent, which didn’t adhere very tightly to its title.
Yet the phrase has stuck in my mind: “Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.” The recovering Evangelical in me scoffs at this statement. Please. It brings to mind all of the things I dislike about my church upbringing: the gold standard of scripture memorization–talked about much more than done. Upholding the Bible as containing everything necessary for salvation, shouldering the Holy Spirit out of the picture, sometimes even Jesus. Dissecting short passages of scripture, looking at the Greek and the Hebrew but not effectively reassembling the whole into something enriched by the education, just leaving the text dismembered. This left me vulnerable to Cartesian dualism in college. I have good reason to be wary of a phrase like this.
Of course, there is definitely a part of me–let’s call it the evangelical with the small e–that recognizes the truth here. It is very difficult to know Christ outside of the scripture. While I’ve heard some amazing missionary stories (from my Evangelical upbringing) about people who found Christ before a missionary ever set foot in their country, usually those stories end with a missionary setting foot on their soil and hearing how the new Christian has been praying for someone to come and explain to them who Christ is!
In order to know someone, you have to spend time with them and the primary way we get to know Jesus–since he doesn’t generally walk into our lives and sit down for a cuppa tea–is to read scripture.
Now that I’ve defused the phrase for myself, I realize something else: I think of “knowing scripture” as studying/memorizing scripture. I learned long ago that Bible study is the fast way for me to move from listening to God to learning about him. Learning about God is not a bad thing. But when we humans move into a straight-up observational mode we can easily stop identifying with the subject, objectifying them, or even stalking them. (Do this with any celebrities?) If we are not learning about God or Christ in conversation with him, we run the risk of increasing our knowledge without actually “knowing” him any better.
So how do I apply myself to scripture in a way that helps me to know God? For me, it’s about knowing, retelling and applying the stories of Scripture. Think about the woman caught in adultery. She was brought to Jesus and thrown at his feet. The Pharisees explain the situation and ask Jesus “What would you do?” And what does he do? He bends down and scratches in the dirt. He takes a deep breath. He collects himself, then he says: “Let anyone here who doesn’t sin throw the first stone.” Isn’t this brilliant? He, in one phrase, saves the woman, probably saves his own neck and sends the Pharisees away ashamed. Ashamed! The righteous Pharisees get a set-down from Jesus. This story inspires awe, amazement and respect for Jesus in me. This is the kind of guy I want to hang out with!
Figure out the best way for you to know Jesus personally–meaning as a person–and look for him in that way. You do need scripture to know Jesus, but you might need to know scripture in a different way to know Jesus in the best way.