There are at least three ways to read. We can read descriptively, prescriptively, or transformatively. Here is what I mean.
We can read descriptively. The theologian is trained to codify, compare, and analyze key texts within the Christian tradition for the purposes of conceptual clarity and lucidity in articulation. It trains the reader to think about the text on its own terms, asking questions that the text asks, and to resist imposing upon the text the expectations or worries that one brings. It tries to understand the internal coherence and rationale underlying the text’s claims. It refuses to say ‘here is what the author says, but here’s what he (or she) really means’ – as far as one can, one limits oneself to the definitions that the author uses and attends to the historical and literary contexts of the text. Though in appearance simple, this way of reading requires discipline and patience and calls for the virtue of charity.
We can also read prescriptively. Here, in one’s commentary of the text, one learns about what the reader thinks of the text more than what the text says itself. It asks the normative questions that critically assess the text – ‘here is what the author says, but here is what I believe the author should be saying.’ Or ‘here is where I may disagree’. There is a necessary place for this form of reading, but the impatient yet ambitious reader jumps ahead to prescriptive reading without attending to the descriptive dimension, and the best forms of prescriptive reading showcase good descriptive understanding. In criticism, one tries beforehand to form the best version of the argument that the text constructs. Good prescriptive reading also tries to critique the text on the basis of the text’s stated goals, rather than an assessment that stems from our own agendas. If descriptive reading asks what the author believes, prescriptive reading asks what one ought to believe.
Finally, we can also read transformatively.
Christianity is an irreducibly textual religion. This may be a controversial claim in some circles, but one gains nothing much in rejecting it. Here we have to deal with the claim that God speaks – both in creation and in redemption, we know God by his revelation, and supremely so in Scripture. Hence, much of the Christian life is lived through the act of reading. Christians have to wrestle with the text of Scripture because they believe that Christ is revealed there. A reader of Scripture does not necessarily become more holy, but holiness, certainly, is unobtainable without consistent reading. We are the people of the book.
Here, I suggest, Scripture cannot be read like any other book. One does not truly read Scripture when all one does is describe what a particular portion is saying, as necessary as that is. Rather, if Scripture is the locus of the speech of God, his chosen means by which he continually communes and reveals himself to us today – and thus the spectacles through which we see everything else – then merely to describe what a portion may be saying, even in the most accurate manner possible, is to miss the intention of the text. It demands that the reader set aside detachment – one cannot stand back aloof in the act of reading – but rather the reader must, and often does, find oneself encountered by the sovereign God that demands one’s total obedience. In reading one comes to terms with one’s own incapability to comply with the demands of a sovereign God, to be heartened by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ in order to live in holiness once again, out of free grace. Here, reading is a transformative act, in the sense that in Scripture (and meditation upon the great truths of Christian theology), one becomes refashioned after Jesus Christ through the work of the Spirit who guides through the word, as one attempts to think God’s thoughts after him.
Here, one cannot read prescriptively in the ordinary sense – one has no right to stand in judgment over the text as if one can know what God ought to have revealed. He has chosen the context, the means, the organic history behind the text, and the mediation of the full human personalities of the authors in the production of his special revelation for us. When we read prescriptively, rather, we try to make sense of the text’s meaning, reading it in light of the whole, to try as best as we can in order to apply it for our lives. Here, we read prescriptively and critically in order to re-assess ourselves rather than to provide an assessment of the text.