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!





The account of Augustine’s conversion in his own words

20 12 2011

The account begins with Augustine in despair over both his sins and his sinful condition…

I sent up these sorrowful cries: “How long, how long? Tomorrow and tomorrow? Why not now? Why not this very hour make an end to my uncleanness?”

I was saying these things and weeping in the most bitter contrition of my heart, when suddenly I heard the voice of a boy or a girl I know not which–coming from the neighboring house, chanting over and over again, “Pick it up, read it; pick it up, read it.”  Immediately I ceased weeping and began most earnestly to think whether it was usual for children in some kind of game to sing such a song, but I could not remember ever having heard the like. So, damming the torrent of my tears, I got to my feet, for I could not but think that this was a divine command to open the Bible and read the first passage I should light upon. For I had heard Doubtless from Ponticianus, in their earlier conversation. how Anthony, accidentally coming into church while the gospel was being read, received the admonition as if what was read had been addressed to him: “Go and sell what you have and give it to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come and follow me.”  By such an oracle he was forthwith converted to thee.

So I quickly returned to the bench where Alypius was sitting, for there I had put down the apostle’s book when I had left there. I snatched it up, opened it, and in silence read the paragraph on which my eyes first fell: “Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh to fulfill the lusts thereof.” I wanted to read no further, nor did I need to. For instantly, as the sentence ended, there was infused in my heart something like the light of full certainty and all the gloom of doubt vanished away.

Augustine, Confessions Book VIII Ch. XII





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





What does it mean to be a Reformed Christian? Part III

20 12 2011

A good friend in Charleston recently asked the question “What does it mean to be Reformed?” That question sparked this most recent series on AwakeningGrace which I suspect will go on for several weeks if not months.

Access Part I by clicking here

Access Part II by clicking here

In the previous post I examined how an individual’s experience of the sovereign grace of God through Jesus Christ creates a desire in the human heart to live for the glory of God.  In this post I would like to examine a bit more closely the most common means by which this happens.

Forty days after the resurrection of Jesus from the dead he appeared for the last time to the disciples.  He gave them one final note of encouragement and instruction before he ascended into Heaven.  Luke records it in his book, The Acts of the Apostles.

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.  (Acts 1:8-9 ESV)

There is much that could be said regarding this little excerpt from Acts but for our present purpose I will zero in on two things.  First, Jesus has promised that the Holy Spirit is coming and more than that, he will “come upon you.”  Second, Jesus will no longer be physically present with the disciples as the following exchange with the disciples makes clear.

And while they (the disciples) were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”  (Acts 1:10-11 ESV)

The very simple point following from this is that Jesus is not physically present with us any longer.  There was a time when people experienced the sovereign grace of God in a very earthy, physical way.  For example when the Son of God placed his hand on a sick person, called the dead out from their grave, and spoke a word of pardon over desperate sinners.  But Jesus was “taken up from you,” and though there are notable exceptions in the unreached places of the world, by and large we should not expect to have a personal visitation from Jesus.  That is, we should not expect to have an experience of sovereign grace in the same way as those who walked the earth with Jesus did 2000 years ago.

So how then can we, who can no longer enjoy the direct benefit of Jesus’ physical presence, experience the sovereign grace of God in Jesus Christ?  While in college I remember reading an excellent book by Civil War historian Shelby Foote.  The book was called Shiloh and I found it to be a real page turner.  Foote had such a vivid style about him that at times I was convinced I could feel the wet, spring dew of the Tennessee countryside and smell the pungent stink of black powder spewing from the Enfield rifled muskets of the combatants.  The point I’m trying to make is that if you can’t be present at an event one of the best ways to experience the event is through a well written book.  You and I cannot see the miracles of Jesus however much we wish we could have.  You and I cannot see the savior’s eyes when he says “Son, your sins are forgiven.”  Nor can we behold the man on the cross, who gave up his life with the cry “It is finished!”  But just because we can’t see these things doesn’t mean we can’t have some experience of them.  One way by which people for thousands of years have experienced the sovereign grace of God through Jesus Christ has been through a good book, a book so vivid that the characters and events within its pages spring to life.

In an interview with Albert Einstein first published in the Saturday Evening Post, Oct 26th1929, the famed theoretical physicist had this to say of his experience reading the New Testament:

“No one can read the Gospels without feeling the actual presence of Jesus.  His personality pulsates in every word.  No myth is filled with such life.”

Einstein’s experience reading the New Testament is worth drawing particular attention to two features.  First, he said that reading the Gospels made him feel “the actual presence of Jesus.”  Second, he remarked that no matter how well told the story, “no myth is filled with such life.”  What are we to make of this?  What we might ask is whether or not the Bible is more than just a good story.  No matter how engrossed I was in Shelby Foote’s Shiloh, never for a moment did I feel the actual presence of General Ulysses S. Grant, or any of the protagonists at Shiloh for that matter.  And yet, when I read the Bible I find that I have an experience remarkably similar to what Einstein described.  Why is this?

The night before Jesus was murdered he spoke of his “going away.”  He said that it was necessary that he go away so that something special would happen.  Here’s what he said:

Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you. (John 16:7 ESV)

What does this mysterious “Helper” do?  Jesus said that the Helper would come and convict us of sin (John 16.8), of righteousness (John 16.10) and judgment (John 16.11).  Also, Jesus said that the Helper would come and lead us into all truth (John 16.13).  As a crescendo to this whole section, Jesus said that the Helper would “glorify me,” that is the Helper in a very special way brings glory to Jesus (John 16.14).  I would suggest, if you wanted to simplify the work of the Holy Spirit, you could say that everything he does can be summed up under the banner of bringing glory to Jesus.

So the Holy Spirit, Jesus’ “Helper” has a job to do.  Most jobs require tools.  The doctor uses the scalpel.  The construction worker uses the hammer.  The writer uses the pen.  The Holy Spirit in this regard is no different.  He has a job to do and he has a tool.  The Holy Spirit’s tool for bringing glory to Jesus is principally done through Scripture.  Paul says in 2 Tim 3.16 that all Scripture is “breathed out” by God.

This is why when Einstein read the Gospels it felt to him as if a living, breathing Jesus was present alongside of him.  This was nothing short of the Holy Spirit of God, playing the chords of the reader’s heart like a skilled musician gently pulls on strings to make a beautiful melody.

This not only gives us a way of thinking through why the Bible has a vitality which other books do not, but it also gives us an important clue as to how we are meant to read the Bible.  If the Holy Spirit’s principle work is to bring glory to Jesus, then this must also be the principle work of the Bible.  The concept is put well in the Jesus Storybook Biblefrom which I excerpt a long quote from their introductory chapter:

Now, some people think the Bible is a book of rules, telling you what you should and shouldn’t do.  The Bible certainly does have some rules in it.  They show you how life works best.  But the Bible isn’t mainly about you and what you should be doing.  It’s about God and what he has done.

Other people think the Bible is a book of heroes, showing you people you should copy.  The Bible does have some heroes in it, but (as you’ll soon find out) most of the people in the Bible aren’t heroes at all.  They make some big mistakes (sometimes on purpose).  They get afraid and run away.  At times they are downright mean.

No,  the Bible isn’t a book of rules, or a book of heroes.  The Bible is most of all a Story.  It’s an adventure story about a young Hero who comes from a far away country to win back his lost treasure.  It’s a love story about a brave Prince who leaves his palace, his throne- everything- to rescue the one he loves.  It’s like the most wonderful of fairy tales that has come true in real life

You see, the best thing about this story is- it’s true!

There are lots of stories in the Bible, but all the stories are telling one Big Story.  The Story of how God loves his children and comes to rescue them.

One more thing remains to be said.  The Bible is but one of many voices that proclaim the wonderful story of “how God loves his children and comes to rescue them.”  C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is one such voice that proclaims the Gospel story through allegory.  Your Pastor may be another voice that proclaims the Gospel story through preaching.  And of course the church, throughout the centuries has endeavored to be a voice for this wonderful story of how God “loves his children and comes to rescue them.”  What, if anything, differentiates the voice of the Bible as it proclaims the Gospel from the voice of the church, or your pastor, or C.S. Lewis?  To answer this most important question we turn to Jesus’ trusted disciple Peter who had this to say of the Bible:

And we have something more sure, the prophetic word, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. (2 Peter 1:19-21 ESV)

Lewis is helpful, but we have something “more sure.”  Your pastor may be helpful, but we have something “more sure.”  The Church has indeed throughout history been very helpful, but we have something “more sure.”  What is this that we have?  The “prophetic word,” which Peter here understands to the be the Scriptures.  He says that in the Bible men speak, but they speak as “from God,” because they were “carried along by the Holy Spirit.”  In no other book, speaker, or institution is the promise to hear directly from God attached.  Thus it is in Scripture alone, or as the Reformers said Sola Scriptura, that one has the assurance that he hears from God.  And because it is in Scripture alone that we have the promise that God himself speaks “you will do well to pay attention to is as to a lamp shining in a dark place.”  Thus the Reformed Christian pays attention to the Scriptures like a man lost in a mine will look for sun’s light.  Here are three quick applications in closing.

  1. The Reformed Christian loves the Scriptures as a man lost in a mine loves sun’s light.  It is after all through seeing the sun’s light that the lost man is given hope for a way out.
  2. The Reformed Christian follows Scripture in the same way that a man lost in a mine will follow the path laid out for him by sun’s light.  It is after all through following this light that the man has a course charted for his own salvation.
  3. The Reformed Christian adheres to Scripture in the same way that a man lost in a mine will adhere to sun’s light.  Other voices may encourage the lost man.  Other voices may seek to guide the lost man.  Those voices that encourage the man to love and follow the light he listens to.  Those voices who seek to guide him closer to the light he is grateful for.  Those voices who cause him to stray from the light he disregards.  He disregards these voices because he adheres to the light, and he judges every encouragement, suggestion, claim, and guidance by how well it too adheres to the light.

In closing, I will say that just because we have something “more helpful,” does not discount other things from being helpful.  It simply means that whatever help you do find, you will find nothing as helpful as the Bible for it is the only place where we are spoken to as if “from God.”  In my next post, I would like to identify some helps and spell out exactly how they are helpful.  Topics I will address in the next post will be the Church in general, the role of tradition, and the continuing work of the Holy Spirit.





J.C. Ryle on the many voices of Scripture

20 12 2011

Stumbled upon this little gem while preparing to preach…

“The waters of the sea have many different shades. In one place they look blue, and in another green. And yet the difference is due to the depth or shallowness of the part we see, or to the nature of the bottom. The water in every case is the same salt sea. The breath of a man may produce different sounds according to the character of the instrument on which he plays. The flute, the bagpipe, and the trumpet, have each their peculiar note. And yet the breath that calls forth the notes is in each case one and the same. The light of the planets we see in heaven is extremely various. Mars, and Saturn, and Jupiter, each have a individual color. And yet we know that the light of the sun, which each planet reflects, is in each case one and the same. Just in the same way the books of the Old and New Testaments are all inspired truth, and yet the aspect of that truth varies according to the mind through which the Holy Spirit makes it flow. The handwriting and style of the writers differ enough to prove that each had a distinct individual being; but the Divine Guide who dictates and directs the whole is always one. All are inspired. Every chapter, and verse, and word, is from God.

Oh, that men who are troubled with doubts, and thoughts about inspiration, would calmly examine the Bible for themselves! Oh, that they would take the advice which was the first step to Augustine’s conversion, “Pick it up and read it! Pick it up and read it!” How many difficulties and objections would vanish away at once like mist before the rising sun! How many would soon confess, “The finger of God is here! God is in this Book, and I did not know it.”

-J.C. Ryle, “Bible-Reading” in Practical Religion pg 99





Martin Luther: On skepticism, scripture and Christ

20 12 2011

The following is an excerpt from Martin Luther’s exchange with Erasmus which has come to be known as “The Bondage of the Will”.  If you are lucky enough to have this volume in Martin Luther’s collected works you will find the following excerpt in vol. 33 pg starting on pg 23.  However, the translation below is not what you will find in Luther’s Works but comes from an online edition that you can findhere.  To set the scene Martin Luther wa a reasserter of classic Christian doctrine in the Augustininian tradition, which upheld (among many things, but relevant for this discussion) that the will of a human being was corrupted by sin and therefore sinful by nature.  For the sinful human it is unnatural to do anything in a “Godly” manner, therefore the human’s nature must be changed by “new birth” from above (1 Pet 1.3).  The reassertion of this fundamental truth of the scriptures and of Christian theology caused a massive stir (called the Reformation) in medieval Europe.  Enter Erasmus, who had Reformation sympathies but who also wished to maintain peace within the Roman Catholic Church.  In seeking middle road to stroke his Reformation sympathies while also seeking to appease the Roman Catholic Church he developed a squishy theology which Martin Luther was swift to address.  The excerpt below is remarkable for several reasons and the whole section is really worth a read.  Below Luther deals with the role of skepticism in the life of the believer, the clarity of scripture, and the purpose of scripture.  Enjoy mining these paragraphs.  You could do it for weeks.

In a word, these declarations of yours amount to this—that, with you, it matters not what is believed by any one, any where, if the peace of the world be but undisturbed; and if every one be but allowed, when his life, his reputation, or his interest is at stake, to do as he did, who said, “If they affirm, I affirm, if they deny, I deny:” and to look upon the Christian doctrines as nothing better than the opinions of philosophers and men: and that it is the greatest of folly to quarrel about, contend for, and assert them, as nothing can arise therefrom but contention, and the disturbance of the public peace: “that what is above us, does not concern us.” This, I say, is what your declarations amount to.—Thus, to put an end to our fightings, you come in as an intermediate peace-maker, that you may cause each side to suspend arms, and persuade us to cease from drawing swords about things so absurd and useless.

What I should cut at here, I believe, my friend Erasmus, you know very well. But, as I said before, I will not openly express myself. In the mean time, I excuse your very good intention of heart; but do you go no further; fear the Spirit of God, who searcheth the reins and the heart, and who is not deceived by artfully contrived expressions. I have, upon this occasion, expressed myself thus, that henceforth you may cease to accuse our cause of pertinacity or obstinacy. For, by so doing, you only evince that you hug in your heart a Lucian, or some other of the swinish tribe of the Epicureans; who, because he does not believe there is a God himself, secretly laughs at all those who do believe and confess it. Allow us to be assertors, and to study and delight in assertions: and do you favour your Sceptics and Academics until Christ shall have called you also. The Holy Spirit is not a Skeptic, nor are what he has written on our hearts doubts or opinions, but assertions more certain, and more firm, than life itself and all human experience.

Sect. 3.—Now I come to the next head, which is connected with this; where you make a “distinction between the Christian doctrines,” and pretend that some are necessary, and some not necessary.” You say, that “some are abstruse, and some quite clear.” Thus you merely sport the sayings of others, or else exercise yourself, as it were, in a rhetorical figure. And you bring forward, in support of this opinion, that passage of Paul, Rom xi. 33, “O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and goodness of God!” And also that of Isaiah xl. 13, “Who hath holpen the Spirit of the Lord, or who hath been His counselor?”

You could easily say these things, seeing that, you either knew not that you were writing to Luther, but for the world at large, or did not think that you were writing against Luther: whom, however, I hope you allow to have some acquaintance with, and judgment in, the Sacred Writings. But, if you do not allow it, then, behold, I will also twist things thus. This is the distinction which I make; that I also may act a little the rhetorician and logician—God, and the Scripture of God, are two things; no less so than God, and the Creature of God. That there are in God many hidden things which we know not, no one doubts: as He himself saith concerning the last day: “Of that day knoweth no man but the Father.” (Matt. xxiv. 36.) And (Acts i. 7.) “It is not yours to know the times and seasons.” And again, “I know whom I have chosen,” (John xiii. 18.) And Paul, “The Lord knoweth them that are His,” (2 Tim. ii. 19.). And the like.

But, that there are in the Scriptures some things abstruse, and that all things are not quite plain, is a report spread abroad by the impious Sophists by whose mouth you speak here, Erasmus. But they never have produced, nor ever can produce, one article whereby to prove this their madness. And it is with such scare-crows that Satan has frightened away men from reading the Sacred Writings, and has rendered the Holy Scripture contemptible, that he might cause his poisons of philosophy to prevail in the church. This indeed I confess, that there are many places in the Scriptures obscure and abstruse; not from the majesty of the thing, but from our ignorance of certain terms and grammatical particulars; but which do not prevent a knowledge of all the things in the Scriptures. For what thing of more importance can remain hidden in the Scriptures, now that the seals are broken, the stone rolled from the door of the sepulcher, and that greatest of all mysteries brought to light, Christ made man: that God is Trinity and Unity: that Christ suffered for us, and will reign to all eternity? Are not these things known and proclaimed even in our streets? Take Christ out of the Scriptures, and what will you find remaining in them?

All the things, therefore, contained in the Scriptures; are made manifest, although someplaces, from the words not being understood, are yet obscure. But to know that allthings in the Scriptures are set in the clearest light, and then, because a few words are obscure, to report that the things are obscure, is absurd and impious. And, if the words are obscure in one place, yet they are clear in another. But, however, the same thing,which has been most openly declared to the whole world, is both spoken of in the Scriptures in plain words, and also still lies hidden in obscure words. Now, therefore, it matters not if the thing be in the light, whether any certain representations of it be in obscurity or not, if, in the mean while, many other representations of the same thing be in the light. For who would say that the public fountain is not in the light, because those who are in some dark narrow lane do not see it, when all those who are in the Open market place can see it plainly?