Sola Scriptura folks like to point to Augustine of Hippo’s experience in a garden in Milan as an example of the power of Scripture. He heard what sounded to him like a child chanting, “Take and read; take and read.” He picked up a copy of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans he had with him and read:
Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.
Romans 13:13-14 (ESV)
These folks, however, forget that this is the climax of the story. Book VIII of Augustine’s Confessions tells the whole story — about 20 pages in my edition. Augustine did not just hang out in a garden, hear a voice, read, and become converted. It was a much longer road than that. Indeed, the entire book of Confessions up to this point chronicles the long, twisting road he had been traveling to true faith.
It was not merely two verses of Scripture that worked such an effect on his life. He knew saints and he knew of saints — Ambrose, Anthony, and Victorinus among others. He had at least some of the Scriptures available to him and he studied them. He resisted the drawing of the Holy Spirit but eventually came to surrender. His story reveals that he had already surrendered before he heard, “Take and read,” and repented in tears before God in the garden. The passage he read in Romans was more of a confirmation than a call.
Scripture is important — vitally so — in the life of the believer and the church. But it is not magical. It is not a spell book to read incantations out of in order to command the divine to our will. It is a gift of God, by the Holy Spirit, through the church.
There is benefit in taking and reading, but just as with prayer, humility is crucial. If we come to the pages of Scripture seeking support for what we think, we are on dangerous ground. We should come asking what we ought to think. What we ought to believe. What we ought to do. We should listen to Scripture, and to the Holy Spirit, and to the Church.
As Americans, we get excited when we hear stories of someone opening a Bible for the first time and being converted. This demonstrates our individualism more than our reverence for God’s Word. We are a nation of individuals who value doing things our own way. Our patron saints, from a cultural perspective, are John Wayne and Frank Sinatra. Pull yourself up by your bootstraps and do it your way. But this is not the way of Christ or his church.
Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is…. giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.
Ephesians 5:17, 20-21 (ESV)
We should hold up stories of those who come to Scripture and then walk into a church, saying, “Help me understand.” This, if we read the story, is much closer to Augustine’s actual experience than merely the “take and read” snippet at the end of the chapter.