Archive for the ‘Help Me Read the Bible!’ Category

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.

  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. 



edwardsIain Boyd, Associate Rector for Christian Ed. at Trinity Church, Myrtle Beach, contributes to our “Help Me Read the Bible” series.  He is a fine preacher, wonderful pastor, and gifted theologian.  He’s also my best friend!  Check out his blog here


How would Jonathan Edwards tell us to read our Bibles?  Beyond telling us to read, pray, and journal, I’m not exactly sure.  But what I am sure of is what he might say the Holy Spirit does when we read our Bibles.  Jonathan Edwards understood that there is Common Grace and Special Grace.  That is, there are graces given to all of humanity, whether they have believed in Christ or not.  All of humanity can know, to some degree, what is right and what is wrong.  All of humanity can know that there is a God.  All of humanity can know that hard work pays off.  There are other truths, however, that God must give specially to believers which are uncommon amongst men.  Jonathan Edwards discussed these graces in his sermon, A Divine and Supernatural Light Immediately Imparted to the Soul by the Spirit of God.  In this sermon, Edwards was not dealing directly with how to have a devotional life, but rather, how to tell true conversion, true revival, from mere emotionalism.  What is helpful from his exposition is that Edwards’ evidence for true work of the Holy Spirit is centered on God’s revelation of Himself from Holy Scripture.  In other words, true revival, true conversion, and true sanctification have always to do with the Holy Spirit’s work in illuminating Scripture.  So, what might Edwards say the Holy Spirit does for us when we read our Bibles? (more…)

The Great ReformerOne 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. (more…)

how do I read this thing?

how do I read this thing?

Hermeneutics is the art and science of interpretation; biblical hermeneutics is the art and science of interpreting the Bible. At the time of the Reformation, debates over interpretation played an enormously important role. These were debates over interpretation, not just over interpretations. In other words, the Reformers disagreed with their opponents not only over what this or that passage meant, but over the nature of interpretation, the locus of authority in interpretation, the role of the church and of the Spirit in interpretation, and much more.

During the last half-century, so many developments have taken place in the realm of hermeneutics that it would take a very long article even to sketch them in lightly. Sad to say, nowadays many scholars are more interested in the challenges of the discipline of hermeneutics itself, than in the Bible that hermeneutics should help us handle more responsibly. Ironically, there are still some people who think that there is something slightly sleazy about interpretation. Without being crass enough to say so, they secretly harbor the opinion that what others offer are interpretations, but what they offer is just what the Bible says.

Carl F. H. Henry is fond of saying that there are two kinds of presuppositionalists: those who admit it and those who don’t. We might adapt his analysis to our topic: There are two kinds of practitioners of hermeneutics: those who admit it and those who don’t.

The fact of the matter is that every time we find something in the Bible (whether it is there or not!), we have interpreted the Bible. There are good interpretations and there are bad interpretations, but there is no escape from interpretation.

This is not the place to lay out foundational principles, or to wrestle with the “new hermeneutic” and with “radical hermeneutics.” [For more information and bibliography on these topics, and especially their relation to postmodernism and how to respond to it, see my book The Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism, esp. chapters 2-3 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996).] I shall focus instead on one “simple” problem, one with which every serious Bible reader is occasionally confronted. What parts of the Bible are binding mandates for us, and what parts are not?

read it all here

AwakeningGrace readers continue their fixation with Hell.

1) To Hell with it…(or) why Americans are losing their belief in Hell
2) John Lennox and Richard Dawkins duel over God, monkeys, and martians
3) Canadian doctors hate that Sarah Palin kept her down syndrom baby

and this one was climbing fast but didn’t make the top three. The first in our “Help me read the Bible” series led out by no one less that Martin Luther! Check it out here

the good Doctor himself

the good Doctor himself

Read the rest in this series here

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 the popular 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.” (more…)

I’m very excited about starting a new series available on the blog called “Help Me Read the Bible!” This will be an ongoing series with a wide range of contributors. We will take one major Christian thinker per post and examine (1) how he read Scripture and (2) how he applied Scripture. Each entry will be no more than four or five paragraphs. We hope to keep these short so that they can be read easily and applied effectively. Over the coming weeks be on the lookout for John Chrysostom, Ambrose, Augustine, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, Charles Spurgeon, Geerhardus Vos, and Karl Barth (though not necessarily in that order) just to name a few.