Does the Christmas Bible story have anything left to tell us?
Biblical scholarship is essentially a lot of very careful reading of very old, very familiar stories—with the goal of discovering something new in them.
The well has not run dry. After two millennia, the Christmas Bible story, for example, is still delivering fresh insights to Bible readers of all kinds—like a grandmother sending out packages to grandkids reliably every December.
As you prepare your heart for the Christmas season, here are three reasons to turn back to the Christmas Bible story in your Bible reading, three reasons (among others that could be mentioned) why this story keeps delivering new insights.
(Contemplate the Christmas Bible story in new ways with Tidings of Comfort & Joy: 25 Devotions Leading to Christmas 3 reasons to turn back to the Christmas Bible story).
1. There is something new to see because the author is inexhaustible.
We American Christians are infamous for our kitschy Christmas consumerism; and it’s tempting to view that new Christmas book by a biblical scholar (timed for direct-to-stockings release) as a callous grab for cash.
I’m sure some books are, but some good ones also come out every year—because there’s always more to say about a book inspired by an infinite being of eternal power and divine nature. Is anyone ever going to plumb the full depths of a paradox like the Incarnation? One of the best “Christmas” sermons I ever heard drew implications from the Incarnation of God’s Son for Christian study of the liberal arts. That gifted preacher (who was a biblical scholar, professor, and pastor) found truth God put in Scripture that I’m sure most of his audience hadn’t seen before.
2. There is something new to see because the author’s Spirit sheds new light on it.
Not everyone involved in biblical studies is a believer, and it’s easy even for a believer to “secularize” his or her study in deference to a guild that would prefer to bracket (read: marginalize) truth claims about the supernatural world. But my most important academic mentor regularly drew deep insight from Scripture, insight relevant to his work, from his morning quiet time. That has always been the ideal I shoot—and pray—for.
The best biblical scholars out there, who have all the tools of the academy at their disposal to understand a passage, don’t rely on those tools alone for insight: they recognize that God’s Spirit plays a role. The same Spirit that indwells every believer.
The Westminster Confession says that “God in his ordinary providence maketh use of means, yet is free to work without, above and against them” (5:3). The Spirit is not a shortcut eliminating the need for “ordinary means” such as hard study; generally speaking, insight is earned and given. But God is free to give insight to the brand new Christian who hasn’t earned it. Go to Scripture, whoever you are, with hope that God’s Spirit will illuminate your reading.
3. There is something new to see because new backdrops provoke new views.
It is possible for your culture to make you see something in the Bible that isn’t there. I was surprised recently to learn, for example, that many early Protestant Reformers accepted the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary (the idea that she remained a virgin even after Christ’s birth). Historian Diarmaid MacCullouch observes that while they would normally have rejected such a doctrine (“gleefully,” MacCullouch says) because it is absent from the biblical text, they accepted it “because they wrote in the aftermath of the first radical assertions that Jesus Christ was no more than a prophet.” (The Reformation, 593) The perpetual virginity of Mary seemed like a good weapon against this false doctrine, so they reached for it—even though it has no real biblical support. Even the people most dedicated to sola scriptura can slip up under cultural pressure.
But I propose that culture can also help us see new things in Scripture that really are there—or at least to see them in helpfully new light, with new connections. Challenges to Christ’s deity are still present, but they’re no longer breaking news. Western culture isn’t fighting over the existence of a treasury of merit; we’re fighting over gender and sexuality. Are there new things to be seen in the story of a virgin birth in this era, truths that were always there but can only be seen with full clarity because they’re being challenged by the culture wars? Maybe, maybe.
New backdrops provoke new views.
Chances are that the new thing you’ll find in your study of the Christmas story in the Gospels is not exactly new; it has been seen for centuries. But not by you, and not in quite the combination of connections that you—given your setting and gifting—have seen.
So consider setting this pre-New-Year’s-resolution goal for yourself: read the Christmas Bible story in the Gospels until you see something new.
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