Scripture Study Course
The Word of God Is Living and ActiveHebrews 4:12.

.Formational versus Informational
Reading of the Scriptures
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edited by Don Schwager
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We are being shaped either toward the wholeness of the image of Christ or toward a horribly destructive caricature of that image. This is why Paul urges Christians, “Whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Colossians 3:17, NRSV, italics added). The Christians spiritual journey is a life lived in, through, and for God.
 – Dr. M. Robert Mulholland Jr, Shaped by the Word

Words have power. They can build up and transform or they can tear down and destroy. Scripture tells us that God created the universe by his all-powerful word. That same word took flesh in Jesus Christ who was sent from the Father to redeem a fallen race: “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). His words are words of life because he speaks what the Father has given him (John 8:28).  His words not only have power to instruct, but power to heal, restore, and remake us in the image of God. 

Paul the Apostle said, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly” (Colossians 3:16). What does it mean to have Christ’s word dwelling in us? 

If you have a favorite author or two, you enjoy reading their literary works. Sometimes you can’t get enough, so you search for everything they wrote, even their letters and biography, because these can often reveal important things about the personal life and thoughts of the author.  But the people we know the best are those we live with and share our lives with on a personal, intimate level. 

God’s word alive in us
God is the greatest of all authors and the author of life itself. He comes to dwell with us through his Holy Spirit. Jesus said, “If a man loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him” (John 14:23). If we accept his gracious invitation, God literally makes his home with us.

When we read the words of Scripture do we mainly seek wisdom and inspiration for living a better life? A good motive indeed. But God wants his word to not simply improve or reform us. He wants his word to transform our every thought and action. 

Transformed by the power of God's Word
Dr. M. Robert Mulholland Jr., a professor of New Testament and Vice President of Asbury Theological Seminary, has written a excellent book on the nature of a formational reading of the Scriptures, Shaped by the Word: The Power of Scripture in Spiritual Formation. He distinguishes between the modern approach of reading biblical texts chiefly to gather information which we then analysize, dissect, and evaluate for ourselves versus a spiritual reading of the Scriptures which allows the Word of God to shape, form, and transform the way we think, discern, and evaluate and and make judgements which conform to the mind and character of the God who reveals himself to us in the the Scriptures.  

The following excerpt from his book helps to explain the difference between informational versus formational reading of the Scriptures. 

The formational approach [to reading Scripture] is a radical alternative to our normal orientation to reading and study. Let’s look at some of the balancing characteristics of reading for formation versus reading for information.

First, in contrast to reading for information, the object [of formational reading] is not to cover as much as possible as quickly as possible; reading for formation avoids quantifying the amount of reading in any sort of way. You are concerned with quality of reading, not quantity. You may find yourself in a “holding pattern” on just one sentence or one paragraph or perhaps as much as a whole page, but probably never more than that. You are not concerned with getting through the book. So what if it takes you a year, two years, five years to get through the book? That is not the point. The point is meeting God in the text. 

Perhaps there are some things grating inside you right now. You may be saying, “That’s not reading! I’ve got this book; I’ve got to get through it.” Do you ever find yourself thumbing through a book to see how many pages are left in the chapter you are reading? This may be a symptom of informational reading. Or better, you find yourself stopping and going back and reflecting, perhaps dropping back a paragraph or maybe even a whole chapter and saying, “Hey, I missed something here. There are deeper levels of meaning here, and I have to slow down and meditate on them.” This indicates that you may have begun to move into formational reading.

Second, although informational reading is linear, trying to move quickly over the surface of the text, formational reading is in depth. You seek to allow the passage to open to you its deeper dimensions, its multiple layers of meaning. At the same time, you seek to allow the text to probe deeper levels of your being, disclose deeper dimensions of your flawed “word,” disturb the foundations of your false self. Instead of rushing on to the next sentence, paragraph, or chapter, you seek to allow the text to begin to become that intrusion of the Word of God into our life, to address you, to encounter you at deeper levels of your being.  If you don’t take time like this with a text, the Word cannot encounter you in it; the Word of God cannot form you through it.

What happens in personal relationships if, as you see people coming toward you, you begin walking toward them talking steadily as you approach, come up to them, shakes their hands, and continue on, talking the whole time? Has there been any address from them? This is just what we tend to do with reading material. We pick up the book, and our minds immediately start informing that text. We go all the way through the text telling it what we want it to say to us. When we finish we say, “That was a great book” or “That was a lousy book.” The book has never really had a chance to address you.

Third, in informational reading, we seek to grasp the control, to master the text. I suspect you already see what the third point is in formational reading: It is to allow the text to master you. In reading the Bible, this means we come to the text with an openness to hear, to receive, to respond, to be a servant of the Word rather than a master of the text. Such openness requires an abandonment of the false self and its habitual temptation to control the text for its own purposes.

 Fourth, instead of the text being an object we control and manipulate according to our own insight and purposes, the text becomes the subject of the reading relationship; we are the object that is shaped by the text. With respect to biblical reading, we willingly stand before the text and await its address, ready for the Word to exercise control over the “word” we are. This is one reason formational reading cannot be quantified. It requires waiting before the text. You have to take time with it in order to hear what it says.

[Excerpt from Shaped by the Word: The Power of Scripture in Spiritual Formation, Chapter 5, Copyright © 2000 M. Robert Mulholland Jr, revised edition published in 2000 by Upper Room Books, Nashville, Tennessee. M. Robert Mulholland Jr. is Provost and Vice President of Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky, USA.] 
Loving God through his Word 
Paul the Apostle shows us the way to full maturity as disciples of Christ by allowing our minds to be conformed to God's word. Spiritual growth involves not only a process of learning God's wisdom and truth, it also involves a process of unlearning sinful and worldly ways of thinking, evaluating, and acting. 
“Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2).
If we want to know God’s mind – his thoughts and intentions for our lives – then we must allow his word to not simply inform us but transform us as well. 

How can we conform our thoughts to Christ’s? A key step is learning how to listen to God as he speaks to us through the words of Scripture. We can approach Scripture in two very different ways – informational reading and formational reading. The following chart (1) compares the two approaches.
 

INFORMATIONAL READING
FORMATIONAL READING
Seeks to cover as much as possible  Focuses on small portions
A linear process  An in-depth process
Seeks to master the text  Allows the text to master us
The text as an object to use  The text as a subject that shapes us
Analytical, critical, and judgmental approach Humble, detached, willing, loving approach
Problem-solving mentality Openness to mystery

In our daily prayer and reflection, we should allow God’s word to form our minds and change the way we think and live as disciples of Christ. Expectant faith and docility open the mind and heart to hear Christ’s voice and to learn from him. 


For further reading, see essay Shaped by the Word, written by Brian K. Rice, Reformed evangelical pastor, writer, and director for Leadership ConneXtions International

For an excellent presentation on how the early church fathers approached the study of the Scriptures, see The Nourishing Bread of Scripture by Servais Pinckairs, a quote from his book,The Sources of Christian Ethics, Chapter 8, © 1985, University Press Fribourg.

[Don Schwager is a member of The Servants of the Word and the author of the Daily Scripture Reading and Meditation website.]



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