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

Martin Luther: What a glorious thing to have the word of God!

24 01 2012

Oh!  How great and glorious a thing it is to have before one the Word of God!  With that we may at all times feel joyous and secure; we need never be in want of consolation, for we see before us, in all its brightness, the pure and right way.  He who loses sight of the Word of God falls into despair; the voice of heaven no longer sustains him; he follows on the disorderly tendency of his heart and of world vanity, which lead him on to his destruction.

Rob Sturdy: What is the Bible?

20 12 2011

This was originally prepared for our new believers class

The great Baptist preacher from England, Charles Spurgeon, once remarked:

 “I was thoughtless like others; I laughed religion to scorn, and those who attended to it; my language was, Let us eat, drink and enjoy the sunshine of life, but now through Christ Jesus I find the Bible a honeycomb, which hardly needs to be pressed to let the drops of honey run out; it is so sweet and precious to my taste that I wish I could sit down and feast on my Bible forever.”[1]

Our topic is what is the Bible, and to that end Spurgeon’s quote helps us significantly as we seek to understand more fully what it is.  To put it quit simply, it is a feast for the soul, it is food that endures and satisfies.But in order to be truly helpful we need to pull the Bible out of the abstraction of Spurgeon, no matter how beautiful and speak more concretely as to what the Bible is.  So first we must pick up our Bible!  The Bible you have in your hands is an English translation of two primary languages, Hebrew in the Old Testament and Greek in the New Testament.  If you open your Bible to the Table of Contents you will notice that the Bible is broken up into two major sections.  These sections are the 39 books of the Old Testament and the 27 books of the New Testament.  And though your Table of Contents will not make these divisions, you can further divide both Testaments further if you wish.  Perhaps you might want to take a pen or highlighter and make these divisions yourself.

The Old Testament

The Pentateuch, The Torah, The Books of Moses






The Books of History




1 & 2 Samuel

1 & 2 Kings

1 & 2 Chronicles




Wisdom Literature





Song of Solomon

The Major Prophets






The Minor Prophets













The New Testament

They Synoptic Gospels




John’s Gospel


Paul’s Letters to the Churches


1 & 2 Corinthians





1 & 2 Thessalonians

Paul’s Letters to Individuals

1 & 2 Timothy




The Catholic Epistles

1 & 2 Peter

1, 2, 3, John




The above list does, in a bare bones way answer the question “what is the Bible?” However, we as Christians would like to say that the Bible is more than this.  As Anglicans, we agree that at the bare minimum the Bible “contains all things necessary for salvation” and “whatever is not read in the Bible or can be proven by the Bible is not required to be believed by any man” (Article VI).  What does this mean?  It means as Anglicans we believe that God has revealed enough of His truth within the pages of the Bible to lead a man or woman to saving knowledge of God.  Furthermore, as Anglicans we believe that the Church is not free to lay requirements (whether beliefs, morality, or actions) upon individuals that cannot be explicitly or implicitly proven by Scripture.  The presupposition behind these assertions is that God has spoken authoritatively in the pages of Scripture on salvation, faith, history, morality, and life.  This is not all that one can say about Scripture.  In fact the clergy of this church believe far more about Scripture than this.  But we believe this is a good starting point.

One thing we must say before we go further is our commitment to the Scriptures as ademocratizing force in the congregation.  By this we mean everyone has a Bible, everyone can read along with us in the Bible as we preach, and each and everyone person who reads along is free to confirm our interpretation or challenge it.  The pastors of a church are set apart to preach the word, but they are not above the word.  Their actions must be consistent with the word.  Therefore, this doctrine of scripturekeeps pastors from becoming dictators by holding them accountable to God by his word and the collective interpretation of the church (past and present). 

These are some large truths that the Anglicans are making about Scripture.  How are they justified?  To go back to our theme for this confirmation course, “what is the reason for the hope you have in…” to believe in the authority of the Bible?

Four Reasonable Arguments for the Authority of the Bible:

  • Jesus is the Son of God.  Jesus treated the Old Testament as authoritative.  Therefore the Old Testament is an authoritative word of God.  What about the New Testament?  The Apostles were charged to “teach everything that Jesus taught them”.  They claim to have done so.  Their teachings are consistent with the meaning of the Old Testament as explained by Jesus.
  • Internal Consistency: Within the 15,000 manuscripts we have of the Old and New Testaments the level of contradiction within them is slender and inconsequential (number of angels at the tomb for instance).  As opposed to the level of variation within Aristotle which is literally in the thousands, and on major philosophical points.  Consider the mann in which we received Aristotle.  For example, Felix Grayeff’s article “The Problem of the Genesis of Aristotle’s Text” published inPhronesisA Journal for Ancient Philosophy outlines the process by which we have received Aristotle’s works.  Aristotle died, his library (including his writings) go to Theoprhastus who bequeathed them to Neleus who took them to his native Corsica.  Neleus’ relatives in inherited Aristotle and greatly neglected the books and journals.  They were hidden for a time to escape the King of Pergamon and were buried under ground where the suffered irreparable damage due to moth and moisture.  150 years later the only surviving copies, greatly damaged, were gathered and edited by Tyrannion who wrote the missing paragraphs himself.  Desiring to publish the works, he contracted the copying work out to copyists, who were recognized even by Tyrannion to be inferior and their job.  Finally these works were given to booksellers who edited them once again producing myriad faulty editions.  All this to say one simple point.  You will, without thinking, pick up Aristotle and believe you are reading Aristotle, but you have far better reason to trust the manuscript of the Bible than you do Aristotle on those grounds.  This leads Purtil, in his book Thinking About Religion to write:

“If the biblical narratives did not contain accounts of miraculous events…biblical history would probably be regarded as much more firmly established than most of the history of say, classical Greece and Rome.”

  • Well preserved manuscripts:  “It is indeed a great relief against the inconvenience of corrupt translations, to consider that although some of them be bad enough, yet, if all the errors and mistakes that are to be found in all the rest should be added to the worst of all, every necessary, saving, fundamental truth, would be found sufficiently testified therein.”[2]  The manuscripts are remarkably well preserved, however there are some variants and inconsistencies.  What shall we say about these things?  Do the variants and the inconsistencies actually change the narrative?  In other words, if we removed those instances with variants and inconsistencies would we lose the story that God became flesh, lived as Jesus of Nazareth, died on a cross and rose again three days later?  This story stays intact.

One Persuasive Argument for the authority of the Bible

We live in an age of rationalism, which is something quite different than simply being rational.  Rationalism for the purposes of this discussion, believes that human beings come to knowledge strictly through intellectual and deductive reasoning in a closed system, that is without the aid of divine assistance.  In our time, this has manifested itself with an overdependence upon logic and what can be proven by the scientific method.  This method works quite well when we want to understand cellular biology, analytical physics, or geometry.  However, rationalism does not do us much good when we want to discuss the deeper experiences of being human.  By this we mean concepts such as justice, love, mercy, compassion, anger, the desire for purpose, the concept of the divine.  To this we must look for something beyond rationalism, because at this very point where we need something most rationalism fails to account for the deep needs of our humanity.  This of course does not prove that the Bible is the book to meet those deep needs, nevertheless the Bible acknowledges those deep needs and provides answers.  It is now up to you to see if the answers it provides are persuasive.  But in order to that, you must pick it up and read it!

If the Bible is authoritative, what does it say? 

The Bible says a lot!  And the best way to determine what it says is to jump right in and learn it for yourself.  Unfortunately, many people are intimidated by the Bible and not certain how to read it.  For one, the Bible ought to be read as a whole.  One must not pick up Paul’s letter to the Romans and let that letter stand on its own.  Rather, the Romans should be placed within the larger framework of the unified story that the Bible is telling.  The essential story of the Bible is about God, his creation, its fall and subsequent redemption through act of Jesus, and final restoration.  The Bible has many different ways of expressing that story, with themes such as substitution, forgiveness, restoration, release, healing, and many others.  We will pick one theme that is demonstrated well throughout the whole Bible so that we might become familiar with reading the Bible as a unified whole.  I have chosen the theme of Ransom.  Ransom is a good theme for our purposes because it literally runs from the first book of the Bible to the very last.  Below are texts that we will read together.  See if you can piece the story together for yourself with the scripture listed below.

Salvation History (for the perspective of the theme of Ransom):

Gen 1.27

Gen 3.1-20

Gen 5.3

Gen 15

Exodus 6.6

Leviticus 25.25

Ruth ch. 3

Job 33.24

Isa 53

Psalm 22

Hos 13.14

Zech 12.10

Mark 10.45

1 Peter 1.18

Rev 5.9

[1] Spurgeon, “Confirming the Witness of Christ”  vol II pg 226


[2] John Owen, Of the Divine Original of the Scriptures, Owen’s Works vol 16

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…