by Stephen O. Presley
One of the startling ironies facing our church culture is the simple fact that as access to the Bible has increased biblical literacy has decreased. In recent years, many have observed this growing problem (see Lifeway study here) and some, such as Ed Stetzer, have proposed solutions (see here and here) that advocate for, among other things, more intensive discipleship and small groups Bible studies. Certainly these practices will help and I pray that more churches implement them.
But I also want to propose an additional remedy: recapturing a love for the public reading of Scripture.[i]
I don’t assume that corporate Scripture reading alone will cure the problem, but it can’t hurt either. If only for a few moments, it will unite the entire church in a communal act of listening and engaging the word of God, which might just help us take some incremental steps toward hiding the word in our hearts.
Public Scripture Reading in Scripture
There is no doubt that exhortations to read Scripture corporately pervade both the Old and New testaments. We could turn to the words of Moses delivered to the people as they stood peering across the Jordan ready to enter the Promised land (Deut 1:1ff) or when Ezra read the Law publicly to a nation reassembled after exile (Neh 8:1ff).
The New Testament, though, gives clear apostolic directives to read Scripture publicly. The Apostle Paul, for example, charges his disciple Timothy to “devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching.” (1 Timothy 4:13, ESV). He also commands the church at Colossae to read his letter and then pass it on to the church at Laodicea (Colossians 4:16). The Apostle John urges the public reading of his revelation when he writes, “Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear…” (Revelation 1:3, ESV).
Following these examples and exhortations, the early church has always prized the public reading of Scripture. They could not image a worship service without some one reading healthy portions of Scripture drawn from across the canon. The thought that a pastor might read only a few verses (or no verses at all!) and then entertain the congregation for forty minutes with funny stories and pop culture references would strike them as bizarre at best.
On the contrary, the early church believed that the regular encounter with the word of God through corporate Scripture reading was one of the most spiritually formative acts for the people of God.
In the early church, public Scripture reading was also not a mundane exercise done out of obligation, but an vital part of the church’s corporate worship and they thought carefully about (among other things) the passages that were read, the character of reader, and the style of reading.
First, the early church thought carefully about the content of public Scripture reading.
In the earliest days of the church, they probably followed the corporate reading practices of the Jewish synagogue, but as the writings of the New Testament circulated they began reading from both the Old and New Testaments.
So in the middle of the Second Century we find Justin Martyr gathering with his local congregation in Rome to read from both the “the memoirs of the apostles” (probably the Gospels but maybe other apostolic writings too) and the writings of the prophets. Justin even tells us they read, “as long as time permits” (which must have been multiple chapters at least!), and only after the reader was finished does the minister begin an exhortation.[ii] By the fourth century, we see evidence in the writings of Eusebius that the church had long debated what texts should and should not be read in worship.[iii]
When the churches settled on reading from both the Old and New Testaments, they normally followed the practice of lectio continua, which means they read through Biblical books consecutively, week-by-week. They also coordinated their readings with selections from Law, Prophets, Gospels, and Epistles, making sure their people received a well-balanced diet from all God’s revelation.[iv]
Second, the church cared about who was reading Scripture.
Opening the text and reading the words of the prophets and apostles was not a job the church took lightly. On the contrary, they assigned specific individuals to read and, as early as the second century there are references to the official office of “reader.”[v]
While the first readers in the church were probably just the literate members of the congregation, eventually the church began evaluating the moral and spiritual qualifications, similar to the requirements for other ministers.[vi] After all, should not the person standing before the congregation proclaiming the word of God be serious about practicing the words they read?
In one fascinating case, Cyprian of Carthage appointed a “confessor”—or one who faithfully confessed Christ under interrogation but was later released—as a reader in his church. Cyprian felt that the congregation would be moved when they heard the mouth of a faithful witness read aloud the words of Holy Scripture.[vii]
The point is that not just anyone was qualified to stand before God’s people and read God’s word, but those who loved God, cherished the word of God, and humbly submitted to the teachings of Scripture.
Third, the church cherished the skillful reading of Scripture.
Finally, in the early church, public reading was not—as some today might imagine—boring. They did not advocate a dry, monotone-reading that slowly plodded through the text. Public reading in the early church was a lively and imaginative performance, where the reader interpreted the text, through gestures, tone, intonation, rhythm, and cadence. In many cases the Scriptures were chanted or even sung. The reader understood that public Scripture reading was a form of interpretation and every aspect of the oral performance helped communicate God’s word to God’s people.
The early church father Irenaeus of Lyons, for example, remarks that the Heretic don’t know how to read Paul, because they ignore the grammar and fail to breath at the proper intervals. All of this, Irenaeus assures his readers, influences the way Scriptures are interpreted and understood.
This also means that the one who reads Scripture corporately was not a random member of the congregation selected five minutes before the service started, but a serious student of the Scriptures, who studied the pronunciation and nuances of each passage.
Recapturing Public Scripture Reading in Worship
All of this reflection on the public reading of Scripture in the early church brings us back around to the examples of Moses, Ezra, Paul, and John and the early church that received their exhortations, as well as the larger question of biblical literacy. While I trust there are a lot of ways to cure the problem of Biblical literacy, I believe spending a bit more time reading Scripture in worship could certainly help.
The example of public Scripture reading in the early church reminds us that cultivating this art does not happen by chance, it requires careful reflection and preparation. But perhaps, if we want our people to recapture a love for God’s word it might just be worth the effort.
[i] For a good introduction to the practice of public reading of scripture see: Harry Gamble, Books and Readers in the Early Church, 205-31.
[ii] Justin Martyr, 1 Apology, 67.
[iii] For some discussions about what texts should or should not be read in church see: Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 2.23.25, 3.3.6, 4.23.11, or 6.12.3-4.
[iv] Gamble, Books and Readers in the Early Church, 217.
[v] For example, see early references to a “reader” in: Tertullian, Prescription against Heretics, 41 and Hippolytus of Rome, On the Apostolic Tradition, 1.12.
[vi] Gamble, Books and Readers in the Early Church, 221-23.
[vii] Cyprian of Carthage, Epistle 32.2.