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Mark Reasoner’s Five Models of Scripture

Reasoner's book lays out five approaches to Scripture, how each can be used and overused, and how using them all well can enrich our reading of Scripture for all its worth.

Hello, Sacred Pagers! I want to take a moment to draw attention to a new book by Mark Reasoner (Marian University) called Five Models of Scripture (Eerdmans, 2021). Rather than treating particular topics or books within the Bible, Reasoner draws attention to different approaches to reading Scripture.

This might seem boring or academic, but it is incredibly practical. When the lawyer tested Jesus and asked what he must do to attain eternal life, Jesus responded with two related but distinct questions: “What is written in the law? How do you read it?” (Luke 10:26). It is not just a matter of what words are on the page (“What is written”?), but also of how one reads those words and understands them together to speak the word of God (“How do you read it?”). Indeed, we see this in Jesus’s temptation. Jesus answers each temptation by citing the Jewish Scriptures. But the devil cites the Bible too, applying its words against the divine plan to tempt Jesus (Matthew 4:5-6).

Then the devil took him to the holy city, and made him stand on the parapet of the temple, and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down. For it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you’ and ‘with their hands they will support you, lest you dash your foot against a stone'” [Psalm 91:11-12]. Jesus answered him, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord, your God to the test'” [Deuteronomy 6:16].

Matthew 4:5-7, New American Bible—Revised Edition

From a traditional perspective, one should read any given passage of Scripture within the analogy of faith – in a way that fits with the whole truth revealed in God’s word and serves love of God and love of neighbor (see CCC §109-14; Augustine, De Doctrina Christiana, book 1). But orthodox reading can still approach the text and ask questions of its meaning from different angles or, in Reasoner’s terms, “models.” Reasoner has experienced Scripture in various contexts ecumenically as a convert to Catholicism, and in this book lays out five such models that he has seen and how each can be used, overused, and how using them all well can enrich our reading of Scripture for all its worth. If you want a preview of how Reasoner himself presents the book, you can have a look at his little piece on audiences he has in mind here or the samples from the book about the differences in the biblical book lists among Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox here. Here I am going to give an overview of his five “models” with my own commentary and illustration.

            1. Documents. Reading the biblical books as “documents” looks at them, in one sense, as ancient books written first for their first audiences—audiences who are not us. On the one hand, this is good. It’s hard to listen to Scripture if we expect it to always speak our language, without adjusting our expectations so that we can hear what it is saying rather than what we think it should be saying. On the other hand, it can lead to a kind of objectivization of Scripture, where we aren’t actually listening but just analyzing dead people’s mail.

            2. Stories. By “stories” Reasoner does not mean “fables” or mere stories, but narrative, to see Scripture as one big story of God’s love for his creation and his plan of redemption (with beginning, middle, and end). Reading Scripture as stories can mean to see both the little narratives and character types repeated typologically throughout Scripture (like slavery-to-exodus) and the big master story of creation, fall, and redemption. Since humans are story animals—we not only live in one but create them to make sense of our lives and our world—such a model can really help fit in all the parts of Scripture that aren’t technically narratives (like laws or poems or arguments or prophecies), though it might also sometimes lead us to miss the trees for the forest.

            3. Prayers. Not all of the biblical text is made up of prayers properly speaking, yet Scripture is a liturgical book—not merely a document or just a story, but one whose stories and prophecies and prayers form our posture toward God as fallen yet beloved humans and our patterns of response to the God who saves us. Scripture functions among God’s people thus “as the text of liturgy and thesaurus for communion with God” (p. 3). We need other types of reading, since just praying with Scripture without considering it as a historical document (like using the footnotes in a study Bible, for instance) might lead us to misunderstand something in our translations. But approaching the text as document or story without prayer misses the communion with God that divine revelation is actually meant to bring us into (see Dei Verbum, §2).

            4. Laws. There are lots of actual laws in the Bible, just like there are lots of actual prayers. Yet if we think of “law” as instruction (this is what the word “Torah” means), something that points out and models patterns of behavior to imitate or avoid, we can read all of Scripture as furnishing us with a way to live as creatures of God. Not just to see how Joseph’s innocent suffering at the hands of his brothers fits into Scripture’s overall story or how it points ahead to Christ’s rejection by “his own” (John 1:11), but to see in it a model of faithful suffering and trust in God’s providence. If this is all we do, we might focus on the “moral of the story” and miss a salvation-historical point that the divine or human author means us to catch. Yet if we read Scripture’s stories with the fast-forward button on just to get to the Paul’s theological explanations of Christ, we’ll miss a lot of instruction that was inspired and “written for our instruction” (Romans 15:4).

            5. Oracles. This type of approach is ready to hear prophetic oracles in each book—whether or not the book is prophetic in the literary sense. This approach is ready to hear direct life application and to seek out hidden meanings in words or phrases. On the one hand, this can imitate the kind of reverence for the inspired text one finds in some Church Fathers, who were ready to see connections and significance pointing to Christ in the smallest details. If used exclusively, though, we can get into the habit of coming to Scripture only looking for hidden “secrets” or just “what’s in it for me”—a kind of “consumer mentality” in Reasoner’s words (p. 162)—instead of a humble submission to what the texts are actually saying.

These models can all be applied well or poorly—with or against the faith. And they can come into all kinds of reading formats. You can read with the Church Fathers and still be doing the document approach (“Papias says Mark gets his information from Peter. That is why this little detail is there.”) You can be doing Lectio Divina and train your eyes to the moral instruction or personal application in a passage more than to its place in God’s overall plan and story of salvation. It’s not a book about five Bible study programs.

There’s lots more in the book too—about the biblical canon and its history in Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox groups, about Scripture’s inspiration and its literal and spiritual senses, and encouragement for believers studying the Bible in different formats from the classroom to the parish to the breakfast table. The models are worth highlighting because they help us think about the “how” of Scripture reading, and because it reminds us—as Reasoner argues throughout the book—that, approached with faith, the Word of God is too rich to be read from only one angle.   

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