It has been a long time since we have worked on an article for the “Help me read the Bible” series. For previous entries in that series simply click here. The aim of the series is to take famous theologians and provide a few grains of insight into the methods they employed to read the scriptures. I am happy therefore to resume this series and even happier that we get to resume the series with the great British theologian and Oxford scholar John Owen. Find out more about John Owen by clicking here.
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.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.