Richard Sibbes: What is necessary to read the Bible? The Holy Spirit!

25 01 2012

Labour for the Spirit of God…Beg of God to seal to our souls that the Bible is his word, and the he would sanctify our hearts to be suitable to the word, and never rest till we can find God by his Spirit, seasoning our hearts, so, that with relish of our souls may suit to the relish of divine truths, that when we hear them we may relish the truth in them, and may so feel the work of God’s Spirit, that we may be able to say, He is our God.

–Richard Sibbes, The Marriage Feast Between Christ and the Church, The Complete Works of Richard Sibbes Vol II pg 496





Rob Sturdy: Help me read the Bible! (John Owen)

20 12 2011

Owen, unlike Calvin and Luther who we have featured in previous entries for this series, was not widely known for his exegetical work but rather for his systematic treatment of various matters of theology such as the Trinity, the person and work of Christ, the atonement, sanctification, and spiritual disciplines.  And though Owen’s work is largely on these issues, rather than an exposition of the scriptures, nevertheless Owen’s love for the scriptures shines through in all of his work.  For example, consider the following passage from Owen’s most famous work The Death of Death in the Death of Christ:

His oblation, or “offering himself up to God for us without spot, to purge our consciences from dead works,” Heb. ix. 14; “for he loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood,” Rev. i. 5. “He loved the church, and gave himself for it, that he might sanctify and cleanse it,” Eph. v. 25, 26; taking the cup of wrath at his Father’s hands due to us, and drinking it off, “but not for himself,” Dan. ix. 26: for, “for our sakes he sanctified himself,” John xvii. 19, that is, to be an offering, an oblation for sin; for “when we were yet without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly,” Rom. v. 6 (Owen’s Works vol X The Death of Death in the Death of Christ pg 175)

Note the  number of references to scripture in that one excerpt!  And that is only half the paragraph!  In the full paragraph Owen will cite directly or allude to scripture no less than seventeen times.  Though Owen focused his intellect mainly on doctrine, he did devote a considerable amount of time and attention to the Epistle to the Hebrews, which he wrote a massive five volume commentary consisting of more than 2500 pages in small type font.

So, having given a reasonably sufficient introduction for our purposes we now look to John Owen for some helpful tips on how to read the Bible.

  1. Read the Bible seriously:  In his introduction to the The Death of Death in the Death of Christ Owen writes “If thou intendest to go any farther, I would entreat thee to stay here a little.  If thou art, as many in this pretending age, a sign or a title gazer, and comest into books as Cato into the theatres, to go out aagain, thou has had thy entertainment; farewell!” (Owen’s Works vol X pg 149).  What was Owen saying?  To put it simply, Owen believed that study of divine things was a matter of serious business.  If you didn’t have the time to take it seriously, you might as well not do it at all.  Study of scripture  requires time and both mental and emotional effort.  Here we can learn a great deal from Owen towards our own devotional lives.  How seriously do we take the study of scripture?  How much time do we devote to it?  Do we wrestle with the meaning of the words?  Do our hearts wrestle with the implications therein?  Is our devotion a fifteen minute “shot in the arm” or a serious, sit down, intense effort?
  2. Approach the Bible as an inexhaustible resource:  In his introduction to his commentary on Hebrews Owen writes concering the scriptures “I found the excellency of the writing to be such; the depths of the mysteries contained in it to be so great; the compass of the truth asserted, unfolded, and explained, so extensive and diffused through the whole body of Christian religion; the usefulness of the things delivered in it so important and indispensably necessary; as that I was quickly satisfied that the wisdom, grace, and truth, treasured in this sacred storehouse, are so far from exhausted and fully drawn forth by the endeavores of any or all that are gone before us” (Owen’s Works vol 17 pg 6).  What might Owen be saying here?  After studying every resource on the Epistle to the Hebrews that he could get his hands on, he concluded that the Epistle itself remained an inexhaustible resource of wisdom, grace, and truth.  Therefore, when we approach the Bible we need to keep in mind that no matter how many times we have read a certain passage, no matter how familiar we are with its themes we will never exhaust the riches it has in store for us.  If the Bible becomes too familiar, I will suggest the problem is not with the Bible but rather with the reader, who has failed to keep Owen’s first instruction which is to read it seriously.
  3. Understand the purpose of the Scriptures:  For Owen, the sole purpose of the Scriptures was to display the glory of Christ for our joy and edification.  Therefore, when we come to the study of Scripture we should first (1) look for the glory of Christ to be displayed in every passage and (2) expect for the glory of Christ to make us glad.  First, on the looking for the glory of Christ in every passage Owen says the following: “We can see nothing of it (the glory of Christ), know nothing of it, but what is proposed unto us in the Scripture” (Owen’s works vol 1 pg 409).  This is a very important statement.  The Bible is not principally a rule book as so many make it out to be.  Nor even is it a road map to salvation.  Rather, the Scriptures are a vehicle that reveals the glory of Christ.  It is the glory of Christ, revealed in the Scriptures which draws the heart of the reader to Christ and thus to salvation.  If we read the Scriptures in such a way as to look for something other than the glory of Christ, Owen would argue we are using the Scriptures in the wrong way.  When we come to Scripture let us then always look for Christ and how his glory has been revealed.  Secondly, what effect should we expect for this to have upon our soul?  He writes “in this present beholding fo the glory of Christ, the life and power of faith are most eminently acted.  And from this exercise of faith doth love unto Christ principally, fi not solely, arise and spring.  If, therefore, we desire to have faith in its vigour or love in its power, giving race, complacency, and satisfaction unto our own souls, we are to seek for them in the diligent discharge of this duty-elsewhere they will not be found” (Owen’s Works vol I pg 291).  In other words, the principal factor in our spiritual growth in joy, faith, hope, peace, perseverance etc., rests not in anything other than beholding the glory of Christ and taking delight in it.  Which means if nothing else, reading the Bible should be a joyful experience by which something of immeasurable beauty, namely the glory of Christ, is put on display for us.

 





Rob Sturdy: Help me read my Bible! Part II: Four tips from John Calvin on study of Scripture

20 12 2011

One of the chief benefits of training for ministry at Wycliffe Hall in Oxford, England, was the Hall’s absolute commitment to intense Biblical studies. Not only did we benefit from some very fine tutors, but we also benefited from an excellent library containing the most well respected Bible commentators in the world past and present. This gave me a hunger for Biblical scholarship, one which I’ve

continued to pursue in the ordained ministry.  My office is slowly becoming filled with the commentaries from the same Bible scholars I read at Oxford and I continue to enjoy their insights. When preparing for a sermon, I pull down the relevant commentaries and stack them beginning with the most technical and gradually work my way through till I wind up with the most pastorally applicable. Of all the commentaries I read during this process, none do I look forward to more than the commentaries of the reformer from Geneva, John Calvin (who does disappoint but only on rare occasions). Many times I have found modern scholars, with all the advancements in archaeological, linguistic and sociological research, have little to add to the insights of John Calvin writing 500 years before them. And of course rarely is Calvin’s intense pastoral concern to apply Biblical truth to the souls of his congregation matched by any modern evangelical authors. So let us turn to this great man and see what gems we might mine from his extensive collection of writings to apply to our reading of the Bible.

1)  Approach the Scriptures with the Right Goal in Mind
People pick up the Bible for many reasons.  Some people read it to increase their learning, some people read it for moral guidance, some people read it for self-improvement, time tried wisdom, or simply for comfort.  While each of these is good, Calvin would want the chief end of our reading of Scripture to be about knowing God.  In the Institutes he writes that the Scriptures were given to the Church “as a surer and more direct means of discovering himself” (Institutes 1.6.1).  A few lines later he clarifies his statement by saying

“It was necessary, in passing from death unto life, that they should know God, not only as a Creator, but as a Redeemer also; and both kinds of knowledge they certainly did obtain from the Word. In point of order, however, the knowledge first given was that which made them acquainted with the God by whom the world was made and is governed. To this first knowledge was afterwards added the more intimate knowledge which alone quickens dead souls, and by which God is known not only as the Creator of the worlds and the sole author and disposer of all events, but also as a Redeemer, in the person of the Mediator” (Institutes 1.6.1)

The “first knowledge” that Calvin here refers to is that knowledge of God revealed in creation (Rom 1.20).  But that personal, intimate, saving knowledge of God where he is known as savior and mediator is only given in the Scriptures and this is their chief end and unifying theme from beginning to end.  When we approach the Scriptures, Calvin would have us consider what they have to say about God first, and more specifically what they have to say about God as redeemer.  Only after this do we move onto personal application.

2)  Pray before you open your Bible
Calvin believed that you could open up the Bible, read it, comprehend it, and yet fail to apply any of its life saving benefits to your soul.  As long as we read the Bible through human effort alone, we would undoubtedly fail to read it rightly.  Only with the aid of the Holy Spirit, authenticating the truths of the Scriptures on our hearts, will we be able to read the Bible in a spiritually edifying way.  Calvin writes:

For as God alone can properly bear witness to his own words, so these words will not obtain full credit in the hearts of men, until they are sealed by the inward testimony of the Spirit. The same Spirit, therefore, who spoke by the mouth of the prophets, must penetrate our hearts, in order to convince us that they faithfully delivered the message with which they were divinely entrusted. (Institutes 1.7.4).

Before we open the Scriptures, perhaps we might pray with John Calvin: “Father, send your Holy Spirit to penetrate my heart, and seal the truths of your Word on the deepest, most hidden parts of my soul.”

3)  Make every effort to understand the Author’s intentions
It is clear from reading his commentaries that Calvin took great pains to understand the original intention of the Author. While all interpretation is “reader response” to some extent, Calvin would not have been of the mind that the reader’s opinion was important, he wanted to know what the author’s opinion was.  He employed commentaries, linguistic study guides, and histories to better comprehend the author’s language, cultural setting, and intent.  In his dedication to his commentary on 1 Corinthians he writes:

I am confident that I have secured- that it will furnish no ordinary assistance for thoroughly understanding Paul’s mind.  (Calvins Commentaries Vol 10, pg 34)

How might we apply this?  We might start by disregarding our cultural fascination with what we think and believe and seek to understand what the author thought and believed and intended to convey.  Secondly, we might see what helps are available in pursuing this goal.  Understanding the culture of the author, his background and historical setting are often a great help.  The best tool for this is a good set of commentaries.  You could buy John Calvin’s complete set for $200 here. Or a good contemporary set is the Bible Speaks Today series that can be purchased here on CD rom for $65.  For most lay people, a set of commentaries is simply far too great of a commitment (both in time and money) and thus not a realistic choice.  If this is true, then I would recommend the ESV Study Bible.  It comes as close as I think you can come to a full set of commentaries handily available in one compact volume.  Finally, a warning against one volume commentaries such as this one.  Even though the scholars involved in that particular project are complete all-stars, I have found one volume commentaries to be singularly unhelpful.  If you’re going to go the one volume route, get an ESV Study Bible.

4)  Summarize what you’ve read with brief, simple application
In the introductory remarks to his commentary on Paul’s Letter to the Romans, Calvin writes:

The chief virtue of the interpreter consists in lucid brevity.  And truly, since almost his only responsibility is to lay open the mind of the writer whom he has undertaken to explain, to the degree that he leads his readers away from it, he goes astray from his purpose.

I take this to mean for our present discussion, that when we read the Bible we should make a practice of  simply and succinctly summarizing what we have learned and distilling a simple application from such knowledge that could be acted upon immediately.  I make a personal habit of doing this in a journal, as well as trying to share what I am learning in my study of Scripture with Steph (my wife) or Iain (Associate Rector).

While by no means comprehensive, I believe that these are a few principles near and dear to the heart of John Calvin that he would commend to us in our study of Scripture.  I hope you’ve found this helpful!





Rob Sturdy: Help me read the Bible! (Martin Luther)

20 12 2011

If you’ve ever visited my office you will have noticed fifty-five red and black volumes to the right of my computer on a bookshelf behind my desk. Those volumes are the American Edition of Martin Luther’s collected works. Of the fifty-five volumes, thirty are dedicated to Martin Luther’s verse by verse exposition of the Scriptures. Martin Luther’s commentary on Genesis alone is eight volumes long. Luther’s exposition of the Old and New Testaments fills literally hundreds of thousands of pages, so who better to turn to for help reading the Bible than this German theologian who dedicated so much of his life to understanding it?

First off all, let us start with some practicalities.

  1. Luther would tell us first to buy a good translation that you can read and understand.  One of Luther’s immediate goals was to translate the entire Bible into the language of the people. However, this did not simply mean that Luther translated the Hebrew to the German, but he translated the Hebrew into thepopular German of the time so that it could be easily read by all.  For modern day North America, I would reccomend to you the ESV or NIV.  Sadly, it might be time to hang up the ole’ King James Version until Elizabethan English makes a comeback.
  2. Luther would also tell us to spend a lot of time in Scripture.  It is said that Luther was so saturated in the language of the Bible that he often quoted it without even being conscious of it (Pelikan, Exegetical Writtings, 49).  Luther would be an advocate for spending hours upon hours in the Scriptures.  Maybe you don’t have hours upon hours.  Well, how much time do you have?  Fifteen, twenty, thirty minutes?  Don’t fritter them away by pushing the snooze button for thirty minutes.  Get up early and get in the Scriptures.  Let them saturate you.
  3. Finally, Luther would say if you want to understand the Bible better you need to sit under the feet of a good preacher.  Luther once said, “the church is not a pen-house but a mouth house!,” and also “Christ did not command the apostles to write, but only to preach.”  Luther thought that one could read the Bible many times over and yet fail to understand it or apply it.  But when it is was proclaimed by another, Spirit inspired insight, clarity and personal application followed.

So how did Luther read the Bible?  Of the many things we could focus on, let us look at two that may help you as you read the Scriptures.  These two things have typically been identified as “Law and Gospel.”  To keep it simple, the “Law” is anything in Scripture that brings awareness of sin, fear of judgement, and affliction of conscience.  The “Gospel” is anything in Scripture that causes us to trust in God to forgive sin, forego judgement, and relieve conscience.  In Luther’s understanding, the passages that were “law” were meant to drive us to the promises of the “Gospel.”

Reading the “Law”
For Luther the “Law” accomplishes many things, but I would like to hone in on what it does to the heart while we read Scripture. Luther writes on Romans

“The chief purpose of this letter is to break down, to pluck up, and to destroy all wisdom and righteousness of the flesh. This includes all the works which in the eyes of people or even in our own eyes may be great works. No matter whether these works are done with a sincere heart and min, this letter is to affirm and state and magnify sin, no matter how much someone insists that it does not exist” (LW vol. 25 pg 135).

Luther understood that as humans we have an aversion to recognizing sin in our life.  We either cover it up or explain it away with weak justifications.  That is why Scripture is so valuable.  It magnifies the hidden sin in our life and shatters belief in our weak attempts at righteousness and justification.  So what impact does this have on our reading of Scripture?  When we come across a difficult and convicting passage (Rom 3.9-18 for example) we do not seek to explain it away or say “that’s not me.”  Rather, we apply that passage to our hearts and let it reveal our sinfulness in ways we had not previously imagined.  In other words, we allow Scripture to magnify our sin, making it both real and known to us.

Reading the “Gospel”
As the reality of sin in our life begins to dawn on us through those passages of Scripture that are “law”, we begin to become fearful before God and in despair over the reality of our sinful nature.  It is at this point of fear and despair that we must intentionally turn our hearts to those passages of Scripture that Luther described as “Gospel.”  Concerning this skill Luther writes:

“When I see that a man is sufficiently contrite, oppressed by the Law, terrified by sin, and thirsting for comfort, then it is time for me to take the Law and active (works) righteousness form his sight and to set forth before him, through the Gospel, the passive (faith) righteousness which exlcudes Moses adn the law adn shows the promise of Christ, who came for the afflicted and sinners.  Here a man is raised up again and gains hope.”  (LW vol 26. pg 7).

How then does this affect the way we read Scripture?  We must not let ourselves stop at the convicting passages and wallow in despair or set forth with a renewed sense of determination.  Rather, as we read convicting passages of Scripture we must intentionally redirect our hearts to Christ on the cross and his saving righteousness.  As we read Scripture and come across especially comforting passages (1 John 4.1-11 or the Doxology of Jude for example) then we must make a great effort to apply them to ourselves and appropriate them to our hearts.  When I come across passages such as these I make a point to memorize them, so that when the knowledge of sin convicts me I might turn as quickly as possible to faith in Christ.

While by no means comprehensive, I believe these are a few of the things near and dear to the heart of Martin Luther and his study of the Bible.  I hope they were a help to you!  More to come soon…





Thomas Brooks on reading the Bible

20 12 2011

“It is not hasty reading, but serious meditating upon holy and heavenly truths, that make them prove sweet and profitable to the soul.  It is not the bee’s touching of the flower that gathers the honey, but her abiding for a time upon the flower that draws out the sweet.  It is not he that he that reads most, but he that meditates most, that will prove choicest, sweetest, wisest and strongest Christian.”

-Thomas Brooks, Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices pg 22








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