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…





The conversion of Martin Luther in his own words

20 12 2011

Below is the account of Luther’s famous “Tower Experience” whereby he came to understand the Gospel as God’s unconditional mercy towards sinners.  I have emboldened a few phrases that I would like to draw special attention to.  As a matter of curiosity, you might find it amusing that the “heated room” was most likely the toilet.  Even the greatest men have some of their deepest insights in the most humbling of places!

The words ‘righteous’ and righteousness of God’ struck my conscience like lightning.  When I heard them I was exceedingly terrified.  If God is righteous [I thought], he must punish.  But when by God’s grace I pondered, in the tower and heated room of this building, over the words, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live [Rom 1.17] and ‘the righteousness of God’  [Rom 3.21], I soon came to the conclusion that if we, as righteous men, ought to live from faith and if the righteousness of God should contribute to salvation of all who believe, then salvation won’t be our merit but God’s mercy.  My spirit was thereby cheered.  For it’s by the righeousness of God that we’re justified and saved through Christ.  These words [which had before terrified me] now became more pleasing to me.  The Holy Spirit unveiled the Scriptures for me in the tower.”

LW vol 54 pg 193-194





Thomas Cranmer: On the comfort of the Lord’s Supper

20 12 2011

I was fortunate enough to recently acquire the complete works of Thomas Cranmer, along with several other wonderful original documents of the English Reformation such as the works of Nicholas Ridley, Hugh Latimer, Thomas Becon (Cranmer’s personal chaplain) as well as many other original letters of the English Reformation to and from the Lutheran and Genevan Reformers.  Slowly working through Cranmer’s writings, particularly those on the Lord’s Supper has been a tremendous blessing. 

All men desire to have God’s favour, and when they know the contrary, that they be in his indignation, and cast out of his favour, what thing can comfort them?  How be their minds vexed!  What trouble is in their consciences!  All God’s creatures seem to be against them, and do make them afraid, as things being ministers of God’s wrath and indignation towards them, and rest or comfort can they find none, neither within them, nor without them.  And in this case they do hate as well God, as the devil; God as an unmerciful and extreme judge, and the devil as a most malicious and cruel tormentor.

And in this sorrowful heaviness, holy scripture teacheth them that our heavenly Father can by no means be pleased with them again, but by the sacrifice and death of his only-begotten Son, whereby God hat made a perpetual amity and peace with us, doth pardon our sins of them that believe in him, maketh them his children, and giveth them to his first-begotten Son Christ, to be incorporate into him, to be saved by him, and to be made heirs of heaven with him.  And in the receiving of the holy supper of our Lord, we be put in remembrance of this his death, and of the whole mystery of our redemption.  In the which supper is made mention of his testament, and of the aforesaid communion of us with Christ, and of the remission of our sins by his sacrifice upon the cross.

Wherefore in this sacrament (if it be rightly received with a true faith) we be assured that our sins be forgiven, and the league of peace and the testament of God is confirmed between him and us, so that whosoever by a true faith doth eat Christ’s flesh and drink his blood, hath everlasting life by him.  Which thing when we feel in our hearts at the receiving of the Lord’s supper, what thing can be more joyful, more pleasant, or more comfortable to us?

Thomas Cranmer, Cranmer’s Works edt for the Parker Society Vol I pg 80-81





The Heart and Soul of Anglicanism: The Martyrdom of Ridley and Latimer

20 12 2011

Below is an account of the martyrdom of Ridley and Latimer.  Note Ridely’s remark at his last meal, that it was a “marriage feast.”  That is, Ridley is having a banquet before the bride of Christ meets her husband.  Read the whole account of the Marian persecutions here.

Dr. Ridley, the night before execution, was very facetious, had himself shaved, and called his supper a marriage feast; he remarked upon seeing Mrs. Irish (the keeper’s wife) weep, “Though my breakfast will be somewhat sharp, my supper will be more pleasant and sweet.”

The place of death was on the northside of the town, opposite Baliol College. Dr. Ridley was dressed in a black gown furred, and Mr. Latimer had a long shroud on, hanging down to his feet. Dr. Ridley, as he passed Bocardo, looked up to see Dr. Cranmer, but the latter was then engaged in disputation with a friar. When they came to the stake, Mr. Ridley embraced Latimer fervently, and bid him: “Be of good heart, brother, for God will either assuage the fury of the flame, or else strengthen us to abide it.” He then knelt by the stake, and after earnestly praying together, they had a short private conversation. Dr. Smith then preached a short sermon against the martyrs, who would have answered him, but were prevented by Dr. Marshal, the vice-chancellor. Dr. Ridley then took off his gown and tippet, and gave them to his brother-in-law, Mr. Shipside. He gave away also many trifles to his weeping friends, and the populace were anxious to get even a fragment of his garments. Mr. Latimer gave nothing, and from the poverty of his garb, was soon stripped to his shroud, and stood venerable and erect, fearless of death.

Dr. Ridley being unclothed to his shirt, the smith placed an iron chain about their waists, and Dr. Ridley bid him fasten it securely; his brother having tied a bag of gunpowder about his neck, gave some also to Mr. Latimer.

Dr. Ridley then requested of Lord Williams, of Fame, to advocate with the queen the cause of some poor men to whom he had, when bishop, granted leases, but which the present bishop refused to confirm. A lighted fagot was now laid at Dr. Ridley’s feet, which caused Mr. Latimer to say: “Be of good cheer, Ridley; and play the man. We shall this day, by God’s grace, light up such a candle in England, as I trust, will never be put out.”

When Dr. Ridley saw the fire flaming up towards him, he cried with a wonderful loud voice, “Lord, Lord, receive my spirit.” Master Latimer, crying as vehemently on the other side, “O Father of heaven, receive my soul!” received the flame as it were embracing of it. After that he had stroked his face with his hands, and as it were, bathed them a little in the fire, he soon died (as it appeareth) with very little pain or none.

Well! dead they are, and the reward of this world they have already. What reward remaineth for them in heaven, the day of the Lord’s glory, when he cometh with His saints, shall declare.





The Heart and Soul of Anglicanism II: The Martyrdom of Thomas Cranmer

20 12 2011

Below is an extended account of the trial and martyrdom of Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury.  The account picks up with his imprisonment and degradations and includes his famous recantations, where he repented of his previous reformation convictions.  Nevertheless, as the account shows, Cranmer recovered his Gospel convictions at the hour of his death.  His language about the Pope may be offensive to modern ears, however it must be remembered that for Cranmer, as for many of the Reformers, the Pope was thought to have instituted many practices that undermined the free grace of God in the Gospel.  This doesn’t lessen the forcefulness of the language, however it does put it in context.  Read the whole account of the persecutions that took place during “Bloody” Mary’s reign here. Read the rest of this entry »





Zwingli: Living daily in sin

20 12 2011

Two notes on the following text.  First, the text was written by the Swiss reformer Huldrych Zwingli.  Zwingli often gets lost between Luther and Calvin, although he shouldn’t be so easily displaced.  He was a remarkable thinker, gifted leader, and incredibly gracious in his dealings with a hostile Luther.  Second, and more importantly, this text deals with the common problem of Christians and continuing, even daily sin.  Pay attention to where Zwingli places confidence.  Is it in performance or Christ?  Pay attention to what Zwingli believes is a sign that God has entered into a person’s life, and to go further see if you can identify why he believes this.

“As long as we live, that rogue, the body, because of the temptation, will never let us live a godly life.  However, if we have trusted in God through Christ, then the flesh cannot throw us into damnation.  Rather, as Christ said to Peter: ‘See!  The devil has lain in waiting for you so that he may sift you as wheat.  But I have prayed for you, Peter, that your faith become neither unsteady nor weak” (Luke 22.31f).  Thus we must remain firm so that all our sins will be forgiven through Christ, although both the devil and the flesh will force us through the sieve and entice us with sin to despair.  But, as Peter’s external denial di dnot bring him into damnation, so also may no sin bring us to damnation, save one: unbelief.  Here, however, the true non-Christians say: “I firmly believe in Christ.”  Yet they do nothing Christian.  Herein one sees that they are non-Christians, for one recognizes a tree by its fruit.  Therefore, note for better understanding:  as has often been pointed out before, whoever has securely trusted in teh grace of God through Christ, after recognizing his sin, cannot be without the love of God.  Who would not love him who has so graciously taken away his sin and has begun first to love him, as 1 John 4.19 says, and to draw him to himself?  Where, now, the love of God is, there is God; for God is love himself and whoever is in the love of God is in God and God is in him, as 1 John 4.16 says.  Now if God is in the right believer and he nevertheless sins, then it follows that it is as Paul says in Romans 8.10: “If now Christ is in you, then the body is dead because of sin, but the spirit or soul lives because of justification.”  This justification is nothing but a person’s placing himself in and devoting himself to the grace of God.  This is true belief.  So the opinion of Paul is that our body is always dead and gives birth to works of death and sin.  However, the same sins cannot damn us if we are righteous in faith, so that we trust with certainty the grace of God through the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Huldrych Zwingli, A Short Christian Instruction Zwingli’s Works vol II pg 58-59