Caveat Lector

Eugene Peterson’s book Eat This Book is a profound meditation on how to read Scripture (it is also the second volume of his 5-volume work on spiritual theology). The sixth chapter of Eat This Book is entitled “Caveat Lector” – a Latin phrase meaning “let the reader beware.” As Peterson says, “Reading the Bible, if we do not do it rightly, can get us into a lot of trouble,” and thus we need to learn to read the Bible on its own terms and according to its own intentions. In this devotion I want to share and reflect on Peterson’s caveats (warnings) to those of us who take the Bible seriously as the guiding text for our life and faith.

First, Peterson warns us that “print is technology” – and this technology – having the Bible bound in a book which is at our disposal to pick up or ignore – can create the dangerous impression that we are in control of God and his word (just as transportation technology can give us the illusion that we are masters of time and space). Therefore, as we read the Bible, we must always remember that “God is sovereign” and that we are subject to his word, and not the other way around. Caveat lector.

Peterson’s second caveat comes from the conversation between Jesus and a “religion scholar” that led to the telling of the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). The religion scholar asked Jesus “And who is my neighbor?” But this question wasn’t innocent. It was driven by the man’s desire to “justify himself” (v. 29). Peterson comments, “Why does the scholar ask for a definition? Clearly, because he needs to defend himself against responding to the text personally. Defining “neighbor” depersonalizes the neighbor…. It also depersonalizes the scriptural text.” If we read the Bible in order to justify our behavior, in order to protect ourselves or distance ourselves from its claim on our lives, then we are reading the Bible dangerously and destructively. Caveat lector.

Finally, Peterson warns, “words written are radically removed from their originating context, which is the living voice. And there is far more involved in listening to a living voice than reading a written word.” The word of God was oral and aural before it was textual: it was announced, prayed, preached, and sung before it was written down (even in the case of the NT letters, which were written down before being sent to the churches, they were first received by hearing: the members of the churches did not take turns reading the letter one at a time. Instead, someone read the letter aloud to the gathered congregation). The point is that the words of Scripture came out of a living, breathing context of living, talking human beings. Reading the words on a page can cause us to forget about that context and thus to misunderstand so much of what is going on in God’s word. Caveat lector.

More warnings could be given, but the point is clear: when we approach the Bible we must approach it as it is: the Word of God to us. 1 Peter 1:23-25 [NET]: You have been born anew, not from perishable but from imperishable seed, through the living and enduring word of God. For, “all flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of the grass; the grass withers and the flower falls off, but the word of the Lord endures forever.” And this is the word that was proclaimed to you.

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