Faithlife Sermons

Making Wise the Simple: The Use of "Ordinary Means" in the Interpretation of Scripture

Sermon  •  Submitted
0 ratings
Sermon Tone Analysis
View more →


The Question Stated

By what means are we to come to the knowledge of God and of ourselves through Holy Scripture?  Given what we understand to be the purposes of the scriptures, we may put the question this way: "What are we to do with this sacred deposit of divine truth in order to be made "wise unto salvation," to be kept and sanctified, and to be made 'thoroughly furnished unto every good work?'"[1]  If, as already shown in this conference, the Bible is the authoritative and all-sufficient guide for every good work, does it not follow that it must also be the authoritative and sufficient guide for the work of expounding the scriptures themselves, and, if of expounding, then necessarily of understanding the scriptures to be expounded and applied? 

The Importance of the Question

This was an important issue for the authors of our Savoy Declaration and it is no less important for today.  The greatest challenges facing our forefathers were directly related to the question of Scriptural authority.  At that time, there were two principle challenges to the position taken by Savoy.  1) On the one hand, there was the claim of the Romanists that the ultimate authority for the Christian on earth was the Roman church.  This was so not only because the church allegedly possessed the authority to determine the extent of the canon, but also because only the church, with its deposit of unwritten tradition and the promise of its infallibility, would be able to competently interpret the Scriptures.  Since he lacked both of these (not to mention lacking skill in the original languages and in scholastic philosophy), permitting the layman to interpret Scripture was to invite damnation for his soul, and heresy and schism for the church.  2) On the other hand, there were those who had rejected the authority of the church for something more personal, something that had its center in the "self."  This personal center of ultimate authority expressed itself as ultimate confidence in the mind, or reason (rationalism), or as ultimate confidence in the heart, or feeling (mysticism).  Though in some cases this led quite early to the outright rejection of the authority of the Bible, more commonly it was not the Bible, per se, that was rejected, but some received doctrine.  For the rationalist, the Bible would be subjected to supposed rational analysis, with the rejection of any interpretation that did not prove acceptable to "right reason."  Interpretations they thought to be unreasonable or impractical, such as the doctrine of the Trinity, or predestination or regeneration, could not be true or necessary.  For the mystic, the Bible would mean what the interpreter subjectively "sensed," or felt" for in such ways it was alleged that "the Christ," or "Spirit," or "inner light" would speak, or would confirm or dismiss the thoughts of the interpreter.  An interpretation giving rise to strong feelings of joy or sorrow would likely be true, but one lacking the confirmatory feeling (or vision, or voice) or giving rise to feelings of dismay or disgust (such as the doctrines of reprobation or substitutionary atonement) must be rejected. 

The Reformed confidence in the rationality of God's word (a revelation given in human languages, in particular historical contexts) and its conviction that the Holy Spirit was truly active in the illumination of the reader, required one sailing from Rome to Jerusalem to be able to navigate between the Charybdis of the rationalism and the Scylla of "enthusiasm."  There were other forms of these three basic challenges, but all must be rejected by the sincere Christian,  as depriving the soul of the voice of his true Captain and Pilot, through the intrusion of a substitute. 

Though the language has changed, modern Christians are still paying great heed to substitutes.  The Roman church has indeed "unchained" the Bible from the pulpit, but its meaning is still chained to the "chair" of the papacy.  It simply cannot be supposed that only the "Liberal Protestant" interprets the Bible rationalistically, any more than it may be taken for granted that only the Pentecostal interprets the Bible mystically.  The distressing      outcomes, however, include a generally low level of biblical literacy, a general lack of confidence in the Bible as a practical guide for faith and life, the substitution of guides, a plethora of contradictory theological formulations, and a widespread acceptance of relativism in doctrine and life.  The very failure of Protestantism to arrive at unity of doctrine is given as justification for returning to Rome with its unwritten tradition. 


Surely, modern Christians need two things.  The first need is not merely a renewed confidence that the Bible is God's word, but a confidence that its riches are available to them.  Second, they need that confidence to be well grounded through the "due use of the ordinary means."  It will be my objectives in this paper 1) to demonstrate that, as stated in our Savoy Declaration, the Holy Scriptures do, in fact, teach us that "not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordi­nary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them," and 2) to describe those means. 

Proof that Biblical Means are Sufficient

It is necessary for us first to address the question, "Sufficient for what?"  It is true that we are to be "bringing every though captive to Christ."  Nevertheless, it is, we believe, a point difficult to prove that this means we can draw from Scripture any more than the most general principles and rudimentary maxims concerning natural science, economics, art and politics.  These general principles ought to be drawn, and their applications carefully made, but the value, the utility of Scripture is not to be determined by its applicability to these questions for that is not its purpose.  The Savoy Declaration is quite specific here: what we are asserting is that the Bible is sufficient for "those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation."  To make us "wise unto salvation" is the end of Holy Scripture. 

That biblical means are sufficient unto that end is clear from the following considerations:  1) The nature of scripture as revelation, 2) The fact that, as promised, the biblical characters, using biblical means came to understand the  scriptures sufficiently,  3) The guilt of those who failed to arrive at such ends when the means were available.  Let us look at each of these points.

Scripture is Revelation

Scripture, as stated in the Savoy, is the revelation of God Himself, and the declaration of His will.  Whether or not "new revelations of the Spirit" may be expected (the topic of another paper), the fact remains, those that have been received have been revelation indeed.  By them, God was showing Himself, disclosing the otherwise unknowable, i.e., His name, His attributes, purposes and plans, explaining His actions, expressing His knowledge of, and will for, man.  Furthermore, He was doing so for the precise redemptive purpose that His name and mind might be thus known by man.

This refers not merely to the initial verbal expression of revelation, in the divers ways God spoke in the past to the fathers by the prophets, and in these last times by a Son.  God did not ordain the writing of his word merely for its physical preservation, but He did so in order that through it the revelation of Himself might be continuous and present.  That is, whether or not there were living and powerful prophets or apostles on hand, the word of God would always be living and powerful through the reading and preaching of Holy Scripture.  While this is seen in the Old Testament, it is, perhaps, nowhere more obvious than in the book of Hebrews.  Here the author plies argument after argument from the Old Testament text, all the while insisting that God is presently addressing them from heaven through these texts.  They are not dissuaded from going against sage advice drawn from history, they are warned against drawing back from the God who is saying to them, "Today, hear my voice and harden not your hearts." 

The point of this is that, with the obvious exception of punitive revelation, the purpose of God's giving revelation is that it be received, understood, embraced by faith, and that when it is so received, understood, and embraced, it imparts, to the soul and to the church, the true knowledge of Himself. 

The Scriptures assume that the biblical characters would obtain come to salvation and blessing using biblical means, and asserts that they did.

Though we have not yet described those means, we may prove this point.  The question is, "Were the people of God, through the written and preached word of God, enabled to become wise unto salvation, to be kept, sanctified, and equipped for living in obedience to God?" Let us consider some examples.

The Promise to Israel

In the 29th chapter of Deuteronomy, Moses exhorts the people saying, “Therefore keep the words of this covenant, and do them, that you may prosper in all that you do"  (Deut. 29:9) before warning them of the dire consequences of failing to keep the covenant.  What is clear in the chapter is that the words Moses was saying pertained to the written covenant, the things "written in this book."  Their response was “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but those things which are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law."  In the following chapter he tells them, 

1“Now it shall come to pass, when all these things come upon you, the blessing and the curse which I have set before you, and you call them to mind among all the nations where the Lord your God drives you, 2“and you return to the Lord your God and obey His voice, according to all that I command you today, you and your children, with all your heart and with all your soul, 3“that the Lord your God will bring you back from captivity, and have compassion on you,  . . .   6“And the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live. 7“Also the Lord your God will put all these curses on your enemies and on those who hate you, who persecuted you. 8“And you will again obey the voice of the Lord and do all His commandments which I command you today. 9“The Lord your God will make you abound in all the work of your hand, in the fruit of your body, in the increase of your livestock, and in the produce of your land for good. For the Lord will again rejoice over you for good as He rejoiced over your fathers, 10“if you obey the voice of the Lord your God, to keep His commandments and His statutes which are written in this Book of the Law, and if you turn to the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul.  11“For this commandment which I command you today is not too mysterious for you, nor is it far off. 12“It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will ascend into heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ 13“Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ 14“But the word is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may do it."

In these two chapters, we see the curse of disobedience, and the blessing of repentance unto obedience to the written covenant.  Beyond the regenerating work of the Spirit (the circumcising of the heart) which results in love to God, nothing is required of the people for their souls to live and for them to enjoy the blessing of God but that they keep the word of the covenant.  Furthermore, this is asserted to be neither mysterious nor far off.   Both Moses and Paul (in his application of the passage to the gospel) strictly deny that there is anything intrinsic to the covenant making sufficient understanding beyond the capacity of the hearer.  


To Joshua as generally to all the rulers of Israel, prosperity is attached to reading and meditating on the Book.  Thus, Joshua is told,

Only be strong and very courageous, that you may observe to do according to all the law which Moses My servant commanded you; do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, that you may prosper wherever you go. 8This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate in it day and night, that you may observe to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success. (Joshua 1:7-8)

Joshua not only did so, but also, at Mount Gerizim and Ebal, carried out the commandment given him of reminding the nation to continue faithful to the covenant.  Again, he admonished them to renew the covenant, and wrote a copy of it. 


Near the end of his life, David tells his son Solomon, in First Kings, chapter 2,

3“And keep the charge of the Lord your God: to walk in His ways, to keep His statutes, His commandments, His judgments, and His testimonies, as it is written in the Law of Moses, that you may prosper in all that you do and wherever you turn;  . . .

David knew the value of the Word, as he tells us in Psalm 19,

 7The law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul; The testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple;

8The statutes of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; The commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes;

9The fear of the Lord is clean, enduring forever;

The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.

10More to be desired are they than gold, Yea, than much fine gold; Sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb.

11Moreover by them Your servant is warned,

And in keeping them there is great reward.

The great introduction to the Psalter describes the righteous, prosperous, and secure man as one who delights in, and meditates on, the Law of the Lord day and night, and the point is made quite conclusively by nearly every verse of that longest of biblical meditations, the acrostic Psalm 119.   To highlight some of the evidence we observe that the use of the written word has the following results: The user of the word is blessed, undefiled, unashamed, upright in heart, rejoicing, delighting, observing wondrous things, counseled, revived, with eyes turned away from worthless things, with answers against reproach, walking at liberty, comforted in affliction, taught good judgment and knowledge, wiser than enemies, ancients and teachers, imparting gladness to others, secured in the midst of great affliction, and possessing great peace. 

Though toward the end of his reign Solomon forgot his own inspired writing, the Book of Proverbs testified strongly to the utility of the word of God through ordinary means.  The sufficiency of Scripture has already been addressed by Dr. Davis, but the point here, again, is that it yields its sufficiency to ordinary means that the simple, the ordinary and unlearned may employ: receiving, treasuring the words of God, inclining the ear, applying the heart, crying out with the voice, obeying what is revealed, etc.

The Prophets

The prophets were the Lord's advocates with his people, charging them with violations of the covenant, promising His judgment (i.e., reminding them of the curses of the covenant), reasserting the basis for the hope of the penitent, and reasserting the promises of blessing for those who repent and/or remain faithful to the covenant.  Fidelity to the covenant was the touchstone of all true preaching: "To the Law and to the Testimony!  If they speak not according to this word it is because there is no light in them."  This not to say that there is nothing obscure for us, nor to suggest that they, the prophets themselves, knew everything which they spoke, for more light was to be shed on their prophecies by the fulfillment of them.  The point here, again, is that the word of the Lord, which came through them, was sufficient, if heard, heeded, mixed with faith, and obeyed, to make them wise unto salvation, uphold their spirits in hope, and direct the people in the reformation of their "manners" and worship.  The same was true for post-exilic prophets.

The Example and Teaching of Our Lord Jesus Christ

Whether it was a case of doctrine or ethics, the consistent response of the Lord Jesus to enquirers and challengers alike was to appeal to scriptural means within the grasp of his hearers.  Did they need proof of his Messiahship?  Let them search the Scriptures.  Did they challenge the doctrine of the Resurrection?  Let them reason from the Scriptures.  Did he speak to them of heavenly things such as the new birth?  The "teacher of Israel" should have understood the concept from the promises of the Scripture.   Did they challenge him about the application of Scripture (e.g., the writ of divorce allowed under Moses, or the Sabbath)?  He answered them with an appeal to a more fundamental scriptural principle ("from the beginning it was not so," "the Sabbath was made for man," etc.)  Did He, the Son of God, face temptation from the devil?  Yes, and He, the son of man, met the devil with Holy Scripture.  Did He want a directory for life, and a comfort in his dying hour?  He found both in the promises, commandments, and prayers of the Old Testament

 What was sufficient for the Master was sufficient for the disciple.  When he says that He will build His church, we are left in no doubt as to how this will be: through the work of the ministry as pastors and teachers preach the word of truth to those who heed and obey it.

The Bereans

One notable example of doing it right was the Bereans, who examined the Scriptures in order to test the preaching of Paul.   Peter tells us that the word of prophecy is "more sure."  In both of these references, we find the Old Testament assumed to be both reliable and usable for the confirmation even of New Testament revelation.  If so, then it must have been by means available to the original readers.

The guilt of those who failed to arrive at such ends when the means were available

Not since God said to Adam, "Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you that you should not eat?" have men been able to plead a lack of sufficient revelation or any inability to understand it as an excuse for sin.  However, not only for the particular point of disobedience are men guilty, but their guilt is increased by their neglect or refusal of the means available to them.  For example, men are commanded to "Take heed how you hear," they must "give the more earnest heed, to the things you have heard," they are warned against twisting the scriptures to their own destruction (implying that the scriptures may profitably be read without twisting).  We find them cutting up sacred scrolls, leaning to their own understandings, failing to mix the message received with faith, failing to recognize Jesus as the Messiah from the witness of the Old Testament, failing to deduce right doctrine from the plain assertions of Scripture, failing to become teachers after adequate time.  Even the judicial blindness of various groups is not the result of any obscurity inherent in the scriptures, but the result of refusing to respond to the truth plainly manifested there.

Problems Notwithstanding

All this is true in spite of the obvious fact that, as the Bible says, there are things difficult to understand (2 Peter 3:16), there are things which will be understood later (John 13:7), and there are cases of judicial blindness where God has "blinded the eye and hardened the heart" of some men "lest they turn and be healed (Isaiah 6:9-10).

First, the things difficult to understand are things which are either capable of being understood by the serious application of the means, or are things beyond human understanding which are to be received as revealed.  In either case, whatever must be known, believed and observed for salvation is obtainable.  

Second, it is granted that not all things are clear to God's people at any given time.  Concerning these things, we are to imitate the prophets who "have inquired and searched carefully."  We are to imitate the apostles who inquired of the Lord the things they did not understand, and to patiently wait in hope for the full revelation of those things that are reserved for later.  God has His reasons for withholding the fullness of light, but requires us to walk according to the light he has given.

Thirdly, in the case of those judicially blinded and hardened, it is not that the message ceases to be revelation (i.e., ceases to have the capacity of holding forth true and therefore believable knowledge of God) but that the recipient is permitted to remain in his inexcusable condition of unbelief.  Indeed, the very point of being warned about this condition is that we might "take heed how you hear," and "Walk while you have the light."  The word is still "a lamp unto our feet."


If the Bible alone is sufficient for the ends of the Bible, and if these ends are for all of God's children, including "the simple" as the Bible says, then the means for understanding it must be accessible to all of them as well.  To argue that a certain course of study (beyond that available through the normal means of the biblically prepared teaching office of the church) or that a certain spiritual experience (beyond that promised to every believer), or that the powers invested in a certain institution (beyond those present in the local church) are necessary for the right understanding of Scripture is simply to go beyond Scripture.   

The reason why there is not more understanding of the Scriptures, as well as more unity among those who claim to understand it, is that the means available are not sufficiently employed, or that too much reliance is placed on what are not biblically endorsed means.  Therefore, we turn now to the biblically endorsed means.


The Biblical Means Described

General Assumptions

The Bible is the Word of God

The means described here all rest on five undeniable presuppositions.  The First is that the Bible is the Word of God, giving it certain qualities not shared by any other literature.  We believe in the verbal, plenary inspiration of the Bible.  "Verbal" means that, like our Lord and Paul, we will take the individual words of the Bible most seriously.  "Plenary" inspiration requires us to take   it all most seriously.  It must be without error.  Any interpretation of any text that is truly contradictory to another is an indication that one or both texts have been misinterpreted.  It would be as possible for Scripture to contradict itself as for it to "be broken."  The Lord of Christians has told us that it "cannot be."

Since there is one ultimate Author of the Bible, we believe that there is a unity in the biblical message that is far more significant than any diversity among its human authors, and that that the old maxim of "scripture interpreting scripture" is most true.    This also justifies the hermeneutical principle of respecting the "analogy of Scripture."  The "analogy of Scripture" means that we may interpret "unclear, difficult, or ambiguous passages of Scripture by comparison with clear and unambiguous passages that refer to the same teaching of event."[2]   It also means that, God having guided His church to recognize a number of clear and unambiguous truths in the scriptures, the meaning of any less clear or ambiguous text of scripture must be consistent with these.  This is called the "analogy of faith."

Obviously, we must reject any hermeneutic which depends on the ignorance of the writers, since we know that they wrote by inspiration of the Spirit things that they did not fully understand.  Finally, it means that we must be willing to receive its teachings no matter how they conflict with perceived personal interests or the opinions of men.  "Let God be true, and every man a liar."

Written by men to men

Second, the Bible is written by men, to men giving it certain qualities in common with other literature.[3]    For instance, it consists of words of human language in grammatical construction, making the knowledge of the meanings of those words in their original contexts necessary.  There is no substitute for this.  It also means that it must be truly read, with attention given to the context, intent, plan, and method of the human author. 

Regard must be had for the literary genre used.  By literary genre, I am not advocating that every reader of the Bible needs to undertake a study in "genre analysis," but simply pointing out that readers need to be taught that history is different from poetry and prophecy, that proverb and parable are different from law and letter and must be interpreted differently.

Over the Course of Time

Third, the revelation in scripture is progressive.  Just as the redemptive work of God had its periods of preparation and completion, so the revelation of God's person and work, and will is gradual and progressive also.  The fulfillment of prophecy is always more detailed than the prophecy itself.  The Lord tells his very disciples that they would understand things later that were obscure to them at present.  The standing and privileges of the Gentiles as the people of God is described as a formerly hidden mystery.  Like so much in the New Testament, it was in the Old but not in focus as it was to become through the ministry of the Apostle to the Gentiles. 

Many passages that are obscure (and many which may not appear to be obscure) in the Old Testament find their explanation in the New. Consequently, the due use of ordinary means would involve accepting New Testament interpretations for Old Testament types, promises, and prophecies.  Where this is done, we find that principle of "literal interpretation" as cherished and practiced by dispensationalists must sometimes be seen to be contrary to the hermeneutic of the Apostles.  It is not surprising that the conclusions reached by Dispensationalism are contrary to the conclusions reached by the Apostles

At the same time, where the New Testament is silent on a given subject, we may assume that what God wishes us to know on that subject, for our knowledge, faith, and observance, has been satisfactorily revealed in the Old so that further revelation on it was unnecessary.  We are not in any position to require God to reveal it again in the New Testament.

As a Covenant Document

Fourth, despite the sad fact that this is a matter of dispute, we take "Covenant Theology" as axiomatic.  If prejudice and party interest are put aside and we humbly permit the Scriptures to speak for themselves, they testify clearly to their own covenantal nature.  The most thorough proof of this is the great work by Herman Witsius, The Economy of the Covenants Between God and Man, but the main lines of proof are well summarized in the fine introduction to that work by James I. Packer.  Packer says that "the Bible 'forces' covenant theology on all who receive it as what, in effect, it claims to be--God's witness to God's witness to God's work of saving sinners for God's glory." 

The proof of this must await another conference, (or the reading of Witsius).  The question for the present is, "What difference does it make to my understanding of the Bible?"  The answer is that it will make all the difference.  As Packer says,

    . . . , the Word of God is not properly understood till it is viewed within a covenantal frame.

Covenant theology, as was said above, is a biblical her­meneutic as well as a formulation of biblical teaching. Not only does it spring from reading the Scriptures as a unity, it includes in itself specific claims as to how this should be done. Covenant theology offers a total view, which it is ready to validate from Scripture itself if chal­lenged, as to how the various parts of the Bible stand re­lated to each other. The essence of the view is as follows. The biblical revelation, which is the written Word of God, centers upon a God-given narrative of how successive and cumulative revelations of God’s covenant purpose and provision were given and responded to at key points in history. The backbone of the Bible, to which all the expository, homiletical, moral, liturgical, and devotional material relates, is the unfolding in space and time of God’s unchanging intention of having a people on earth to whom he would relate covenantally for his and their joy. The contents of Scripture cohere into a single con­sistent body of truth about God and mankind, by which every Christian—indeed, every human being—in every generation is called to live. The Bible in one sense, like Jesus Christ in another, is God’s word to the world.

. . . .

So the unifying strands that bind together the books of the Bible are, first, the one covenant promise, slogan­ized as “I will be your God, and you shall be my people,” which God was fulfilling to his elect all through his suc­cessive orderings of covenant faith and life; second, the one messenger and mediator of the covenant, Jesus Christ the God-man, prophet and king, priest and sacri­fice, the Messiah of Old Testament prophecy and New Testament proclamation; third, the one people of God, the covenant community, the company of the elect, whom God brings to faith and keeps in faith, from Abel, Noah and Abraham through the remnant of Israel to the worldwide New Testament church of believing Jews and Gentiles; and fourth, the one pattern of covenant piety, consisting of faith, repentance, love, joy, praise, hope, hatred of sin, desire for sanctity, a spirit of prayer, and readiness to battle the world, the flesh, and the devil in order to glorify God. . . a pattern displayed most fully, perhaps, in Luther’s “little Bible,” the Psalter, but seen also in the lives of God’s servants in both Testaments and reflected more or less fully in each single one of the Old and New Testament books. Covenant theologians insist that every book of the Bible in effect asks to be read in terms of these unities, and as contributing to the exposition of them, and is actually misunderstood if it is not so read.

To Accomplish God's Purpose

Fifth, the Bible has a unique purpose, a divine one, which has a direct bearing on its proper use.   It is not a source of divine advice for men and women seeking to improve themselves, or find peace, happiness, or the answers to the troubling questions of life.  Though it does these things, they are the by-products of its intended purpose, which is to be the means for the Spirit-given transforming vision of the glory of God in the face of Christ Jesus.  The Bible is the inscripturated word, which shows us, through the energies of the Spirit, the Incarnate Word, who "of God is made to us wisdom, righteous, sanctification, and redemption." 

As He was the author of Scripture, so also is the Holy Spirit the “principal efficient cause” in the understanding of it. As John Owen says, “There is an especial work of the Spirit of God on the minds of men, communicating spiritual wisdom, light, and understanding unto them, necessary unto their discerning and apprehending aright the mind of God in his word, and the understanding of the mysteries of heavenly truth contained therein” (4:124-5). 

The Bible is not given to us to teach us about God, but to give us knowledge of God, and so must be studied with the intent of drawing near to God, of understanding his mind and will for the purpose of becoming like His Son.  It must be studied as part of a life of normal Christian piety, in the fear of God, with dependence on the Spirit.  It is a disciple's book.

The principle author of the Savoy, John Owen, wrote at length on this subject because he saw it as crucial for the edification of believers and for the doctrine of Scriptural authority.  At the outset, we must observe that Owen recognizes a two-tiered understanding of Scripture.  On the one hand, he insists that the basic meaning of Scripture is accessible to any student of it.  There is nothing esoteric, nothing hidden, no code available only to the initiated.  Even the unregenerate may employ the tools of "gramatico-historical exegesis" and discover the teaching of the passage.  Owen argues that by such means men may arrive at great heights of biblical knowledge, can write great tomes of theology, and still come short of true theology, i.e., what we are calling the saving, keeping, sanctifying, God-glorifying understanding of His revelation.  The truth of this was greatly impressed upon me in my second semester Greek course in seminary.  I was writing an exegetical paper on John 10 and made use of the commentary by Rudolf Bultmann, a great Greek scholar.  At one point Bultmann correctly asserted what John believed, but then asserted that we cannot believe it.  

In his great treatise, The Causes, Ways, and Means of Understanding the Mind of God as Revealed in His Word, with Assurance Therein,[4] he divides the subject into "That which is general and absolutely necessary," and "Such as consist in the due improvement thereof." While not limiting ourselves to Owen's remarks, we will approach this subject making use of his general outline. 

The General and Absolutely Necessary Means: Reading

The “general and absolutely necessary” means for understanding the mind of God in the Scripture” is the “diligent reading of the Scripture, with a sedate, rational consideration of what we read” (4:199).  Putting it another way, how shall we read?


What is involved in the "diligent reading of the Scripture"?  This of necessity would require the reading of Scripture to be regular, extensive, and comprehensive.  The regular, i.e., daily, reading of Scripture is not only suggested in Scripture itself, in passages such as Psalms 1 and 119, but it is understood as normative upon the assumptions that 1) the Christian is to be in communion with God daily, and 2) the Bible (read and heard) is the vehicle chosen by God for the revelation of himself to his children.  Besides, by definition, the Christian (if not suffering grave spiritual sickness), loves it. 

Extensively and Comprehensively

What is not so obvious, perhaps, is that the reading is to be extensive and comprehensive.  I put it in this seemingly redundant manner to emphasize the reading of all of the Scriptures within such a period as to enable the entire Bible, in its principal message and characters, and movement, to be comprehended by the mind.  The advantages of this kind of reading for the understanding of Scripture are tremendous.  Imagine, for example, the advantage in understanding such an important Scriptural concept as the person and work of Christ if, within the space of one year, one reads the accounts of the protoevangelion of Genesis 3:15, the book of Revelation, and of all of the manifold ways in between which depict the coming of the incarnate God as prophet, priest, and king.  If, as we are certain, one portion of Scripture sheds light on another, the effect of this lighting will be greatly multiplied if one portion of Scripture is viewed in the light of many others, before these lights are obscured by the mists of time.  Our Lord proved the advantage of comprehensive study by taking His disciples through the Old Testament (from the beginning) to show that they testified of Him.  Afterwards, his disciples freely went back and forth between Old Testament prophecy and the things that were accomplished in their time.  Among other things, this shows that neither the Old Testament prediction nor the New Testament fulfillment was fully understood completely without the other.  On the other hand, with the fulfillment in view, the Old Testament can be understood.

Surely, it is presumptuous to expect to understand a book like the Bible by reading a few minutes per day.  Is it too much to expect the student of the word to read it through once per year?  There are some helpful guides for this kind of reading, but the best I have found is Donald A. Carson's For the Love of God.  This book combines Robert Murray M'Cheyne's plan for daily family and private devotional reading with Carson's own commentary, a useful boost over some of the rough spots. 


We are told to search the Scriptures, as one searches for hidden treasure.  One of the best illustrations of this is the case of John Bunyan.  Bunyan, in one of his visits to "Doubting Castle," in the dungeon of Giant Despair, had a vague remembrance of a promise, but was too wise to attempt a key which for all he knew was not genuine.  Therefore, he searched and searched and searched his Bible until he found it.  Naturally, such a procedure resulted in a greater acquaintance with the sacred volume.  With similar results, Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones made it a general habit to avoid the use of a concordance when he was in doubt about the location of a text.  It was more profitable to search the scriptures. 


"In His law he meditates day and night."  Perhaps the most frequently cited and infrequently observed means of growing in grace is meditation on the Scriptures.  This "chewing of the cud" is a procedure most beneficial, both for aiding in the mental apprehension of the text but also in its retention and application.  This last fact concerning meditation is crucially important.  This meditation is not merely a powerful mental exercise; as it is really a prescribed practice of Christian piety.    As such, it is a most appropriate means, because it most aptly brings the soul and the word together for the ends designed by the Creator of both, i.e., the transformation of the soul by the Spirit into the image of Christ.  If Scripture is not known in this way, as the mold is known by the metal that fills it, adhering to it in its every surface and crevice, it is not truly known.

For help in this duty of meditation one might read Nathanael Ranew's Solitude Improved by Divine Meditation, or, for examples, the many meditations of John Bradford.  As with learning to type, play an instrument, or pilot an aircraft, there is no substitute for actual practice.


That is, study it, with the intent of coming to the knowledge of spiritual things.  John Owen complains that many diligently study other writings, but “their reading of the Scripture is for the most part superficial, without that intension of mind and spirit, that use and application of means, which are necessary unto the understanding of it, as the event doth manifest” (4:201). 

With Consideration

Certain things mentioned earlier are always to be born in mind when dealing with any given passage. Owen mentions first, the analogy of faith.  This will keep us from many a hermeneutical by path.  Secondly, "The design and scope of the place," or, where is the Holy Spirit leading me at this point, and how is He going about getting there?  Third, Owen mentions "the antecedents and consequents," i.e., what we generally call the "context."  To these he adds the observance of "all those general rules which are usually given as directions in the interpretation of Scripture."

Making Reading More Profitable

For the better understanding of what is read, Owen adds the use of a number of means that he calls spiritual, disciplinary, and ecclesiastical.

Spiritual Means


The first of the "spiritual" means is prayer.  Agreeably to his fundamental conviction of the need of the Holy Spirit for the understanding of the mind of God, Owen emphasizes the importance of “fervent supplications, in and by Jesus Christ, for supplies of the Spirit of grace . . . to give him an understanding of the Scriptures and the will of God therein” (4:204).  Applying this to the theological conflict of his time, he adds that “the practical neglect of this duty is the true reason why so many that are skilful enough in the disciplinary means of knowledge are yet such strangers to the true knowledge of the mind of God” (4:202; cf., 21:311).

For what should I pray?  For a revelation of the meaning of some otherwise unknown word?  For a voice, or an impression to confirm the opinion I have already formed concerning the interpretation?  It seems, rather, that I should ask that God would, to his glory, bless His word to the promotion of my conformity to Christ: that I would behold his glory in it and be transformed into his very image.  I should pray for a humble, receptive, and obedient heart, that takes his word seriously, which by it is made wise to the stratagems of the evil one and the deceitfulness of sin and guarded against the choking effects of the cares and pleasures of this world.  I should confess my pride of knowledge, acknowledge that I know nothing as I should, and pray that I would not be so heard hearted and blockheaded as to fail to see the uses of the teaching for myself and others.  The problem is not that I need new objective revelation of some meaning of scripture beyond what is written, so much as that I need 1) freedom from the mental blindness (sometimes just plain sloth, sometimes an information gap) that prevents me from making the connections between the various parts of scriptural revelation, and 2) freedom from sinful independency which hinders me from making the connection between what is revealed and my life. 

A Receptive Heart

To prayer Owen adds that there must be a “Readiness to receive impressions from divine truths as revealed unto us, conforming our minds and hearts unto the doctrine made known” (4:205).  This is because the “end of all divine revelations” is to “beget the image and likeness of themselves in the minds of men” (4:205).  One of the most forceful applications of this principle, however, may be found in Owen’s preface to the Vindiciae Evangelicae.  Owen says,

When the heart is cast indeed into the mould of the doctrine that the mind embraceth; when the evidence and necessity of the truth abides in us; when not the sense of the words only is in our heads, but the sense of the things abides in our hearts; when we have communion with God in the doctrine we contend for,--then shall we be garrisoned, by the grace of God, against all the assaults of men.  And without this all our contending is, as to ourselves, of no value.  What am I the better if I can dispute that Christ is God, but have no sense or sweetness in my heart from hence that he is a God in covenant with my soul?  What will it avail me to evince, by testimonies and arguments, that he hath made satisfaction for sin, if, through my unbelief, the wrath of God abides upon me, and I have no experience of my own being made the righteousness of God in him,--if I find not, in my standing before God, the excellency of having my sins imputed to him and his righteousness imputed to me. . . .  It is the power of truth in the heart alone that will make us cleave unto it indeed in an hour of temptation.  Let us, then, not think that we are any thing the better for our conviction of the truths of the great doctrines of the gospel, for which we contend with these men, unless we find the power of the truths abiding in our own hearts, and have a continual experience of their necessity and excellency in our standing before God and our communion with him (12:52).

The Active Pursuit of Practical Biblical Godliness

In addition, there must follow the “Practical obedience in the course of our walking before God” (4:206).  Also, “A constant design for growth and a progress in knowledge, out of love to the truth and experience of its excellency, is useful, yea, needful, unto the right understanding of the mind of God in the Scriptures” (4:206).  Owen expects “no great or useful discoveries of the mind of God” from those who rest satisfied in the knowledge of a system of theology (4:206-7).  Owen believed that divine truths are inter-related, but he is equally convinced that the “stores of truth laid up” in the Scriptures are “inexhaustible,” that those who have gone before “are yet far from having discovered the depths of this vein of wisdom” (4:205).  Finally, Owen stresses participation in “ordinances of spiritual worship” (4:207).  These are God-ordained means for growth in the knowledge of himself. 

These three principles reflect an essential aspect of biblical piety; the Christian is a viator, a pilgrim, who feeds upon Zion’s “thousand sacred sweets” as he makes his journey,[5] but this is a pilgrimage made with Christ, who imparts his wisdom with those who come under his yoke.  

Disciplinary Means

By disciplinary means Owen refers to “the due use and improvement of common arts and sciences” (4:209).  These “have no moral good in themselves, but being indifferent in their own nature, their end, with the manner of their management thereunto, is the only measure and standard of their worth and value” (4:209).


The most important of disciplinary means these for the interpreter of Scripture was skill in the original languages.  Of course, this was needed for the   interpretation of the Scripture in general.  In the preface to the Vindiciae Evangelicae Owen stresses its value in dealing with Socinianism. 

He that is not in some measure acquainted with these will scarcely make thorough work in dealing with them.  There is not a word, nor scarce a letter in a word (If I may so speak), which they do not search and toss up and down; not an expression which they pursue not through the whole Scripture, to see if any place will give countenance to the interpretation of it which they embrace (12:50).

One example of fallacious Socinian exegesis mentioned by Owen is their use of Hebrew words related to the doctrine of satisfaction.  Knowledge of the original language is essential:

Unless a man can debate the use of words with them in the Scripture, and by instances from other approved authors, it will be hard so to enclose or shut them up but that they will make way to evade and escape.  Press them with any testimony of Scripture, if of any one word of the testimony, whereon the sense of the whole in any measure depends, they can except that in another place that the word in the original hath another signification, and therefore it is not necessary that it should here signify as you urge it, unless you are able to debate the true meaning and import of the word with them, they suppose they have done enough to evade your testimony (12:50).

But knowledge of the languages alone would not suffice.  This skill must be exercised “with that humility, sobriety, reverence of the Author of the Scripture, and respect unto the analogy of faith, which ought to bear sway in the minds of all men who undertake to expound the oracles of God” (4:216).  Owen emphasizes that this lack of humility, a tendency of “effecting eminency by singularity,” was “a snare of Satan” which had done much harm to the cause of evangelical theology (4:217-219, 224-226); 12:49-50).

How does this relate to the Savoy's position that the  "unlearned" may arrive at a sufficient knowledge.   1) Ordinary (biblical) means includes the possession of the Scriptures in one's own tongue.  The ancient Jews and Greeks possessed this of course, but others must have translations.  2) Even for the ancients, translation and exposition (where the "sense of the words" was given), was carried out by those who understood the languages better.  3) Among the "ordinary means," for the unlearned is the teaching office, which bears the responsibility of "rightly dividing the word of truth," and which could shed light, for those who require it, on any matter where the received translation was inadequate.

"Skill in the ways and methods of reasoning"

The student of scripture also needs “skill in the ways and methods of reasoning” (4:223).  Owen says, “An ability to judge of the sense of propositions, how one thing depends on another, how it is deduced from it, follows upon it, or is proved by it; what is the design of him that writes or speaks in any discourse or reasoning; how it is proposed, confirmed, illustrated,--is necessary unto any rational consideration to be exercised about whatever is so proposed unto us” (4:223).  At the same time Owen insists that this must be admitted with its limitations; for whatever perfection there seems to be in our art of reasoning, it is to be subject to the wisdom of the Holy Ghost in the Scripture . . . .  In the consideration of all the effects of infinite wisdom, there must be an allowance for the deficiency of our comprehension; when humble subjection of conscience, and the captivation of our understandings to the obedience of faith, is the best means of learning what is proposed unto us (4:224).  

This last point is especially important, as its due observation will prevent many theological errors.  Both Socinianism and Arminianism arise from their common failure to admit the principle that the most logical thing for a creature to do is to tremble at the Creator's word.  What is principally behind Arminianism for example, but a refusal to take Scripture at its face value, when its clear pronouncements run contrary to an unscriptural, philosophical, notion of freedom and responsibility?  A reader with a philosophical bias against the Divine determination of man's free choices will simply not rightly interpret Romans 9-11, regardless of his alleged belief in the inspiration of Scripture.  

That the Scriptures themselves require the use of logic is well demonstrated by John M. Frame in his book The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God.  This is because logic has to do with the fundamental task of thinking clearly.  Logical argument is used by God in the Old Testament, by Christ and His apostles in the New.  It is not necessary to study formal logic to think logically, but it helps.  More importantly and practically, pastors may teach, by demonstration, sound principles of clear and logical thinking in their expositions of Scripture.  To give another personal illustration, through the study of science God had prepared me somewhat for analytical thinking, but what helped me most in my initial encounters with liberal, Arminian, and evangelical distortions of the Scriptures were the insights gained from reading Martin Lloyd-Jones' expositions of Romans.    Lloyd-Jones, Thomas Brooks, and Jeremiah Burroughs provide excellent demonstrations of the application of sound logic to the text of Scripture.  All of the Puritans do, but Brooks and Burroughs are mentioned as being particularly good at doing so in sermons for the unlearned.  For a disciple who is ready for it, Donald A. Carson's Exegetical Fallacies will provide great insight into careful handling of Scripture texts   Owen is unsurpassed

History & Geography

After knowledge of the languages Owen stresses the importance of “the history and geography of the world,” and “chronology” (4:219).  Owen gives two general reasons for this: the first pertains to the observation of God’s witness to himself in the creation and providential rule in the world (i. e., in natural revelation); the second pertains to the observation of redemptive history.  Knowledge of history is necessary for the due exposition of prophecies, while biblical chronology, when applied to the prophecy of Daniel 9:24-27, affords a strong testimony to Jesus’ identity as the Messiah, despite the difficulties involved in being precise (4:219-23; 18:262-348).

The abuse of these means (i.e., dependence upon them as sufficient of themselves), Owen insists, arises from the “secret persuasion that the Scripture indeed is not, what it pretends to be, the word of the living God, or that it doth not indeed express the highest effect of his wisdom and deepest counsel of his will” (4:225).  It is also from a failure to appreciate God’s purpose in giving the Scripture as “a sanctified means of our illumination” (4:225).

Ecclesiastical Means

The only understanding of ecclesiastical means which Owen understands to be allowable in the interpretation of Scripture is “the due consideration and improvement of that light, knowledge, and understanding in, and those gifts for the declaration of, the mind of God in the Scripture, which he hath granted unto and furnished them withal who have gone before us in the ministry of the gospel” (4:228).  I am, however, including under this category other means available in the context of the local church.


Does not the assertion that the unlearned may arrive at a knowledge of the scriptures suggest that there is no warrant or need for the teaching office in the church?  Far from it, for the Scriptures themselves demonstrate that the exposition of the word by those divinely called to do so is the principal means of understanding the Scripture.  How is this demonstrated?  Answer: By --

1.     The responsibility placed on teachers in the old and new testaments. 

2.     The description of their activity as "giving the sense" of scripture, and as servants of the word.  The prophet, apostle, and sub-apostolic teacher are all covenant advocates, announcing, illustrating, proving, i.e., expounding the covenant.  God has entrusted this work to them with no other official means to accomplish it.

3.     The assertion that through the action of this gift, the church is equipped to build itself up into the perfect man.

4.     The description of their activity as indispensable

Exposition is essentially the explanation and application of what is in the text, i.e., of what the hearer might discover for himself if he took the time to employ the same means as the expositor.  Good exposition will not try to bring some meaning from outside the text, for then the hearer would be unable to arrive at that meaning from the text itself and so it will come to him with the authority of the preacher instead of the authority of God.  But when the preacher can show, by employing the undeniable principles of the hearer's own mind then the hearer must acknowledge that the text really means what the preacher says it means, and it then speaks with its own Divine authority.


By modeling, I mean the expositor's open demonstration of the right way to interpret scripture.  Sometimes, in the opening of the text, the preacher will be sure to tell not only what the text means, but how he knows it means what he says, how he came to his conclusion by his careful reading of the text.  He will describe how the text might be misinterpreted, and will thereby, over time, train the congregation in the disciplinary means of the ways and methods of reasoning, and the right application of the "analogy of faith."


Frequent referral, in worship, to the creeds and confession of the church will keep the "analogy of faith before the reader."  The church's confessions are the summary statements of doctrine compiled by pious men, the truths of which the church has, presumably, been led to embrace by the Holy Spirit. 

Of course, the fact that there are numerous and contradictory confessions requires the admission that they provide no infallible rule.  Nevertheless, the presence of the confession will mean that when one is tempted to understand the Scriptures differently, he has need to proceed with caution.

Confessions should be backed up by referring to them in scripture exposition so that it is clear that we are not interpreting scripture based on the "traditions of the fathers," but rather holding the "faith once delivered to the saints."


Catechetical instruction will help in the understanding of scripture in at least two ways.  First, by going over the supporting scriptures, the teacher will be able to explain their meanings, and demonstrate how they support the answers given.  Second, the use of the catechism will provide an early acquaintance with the "analogy of faith."  


"Iron sharpening iron."  It has been argued that the right use of proper exegesis would eliminate the need of historical theology, but the plea is rather arrogant, and attempts to dispense with historical theology have often resulted in the interpreter blithely walking into the quick sands of some ancient heresy while supposing he was displaying some new and brilliant insight.  Whether with a living saint, or an ancient one, we have need of the grace of God which comes through our association with the gifted members of Christ's body, whether they are correcting our exegesis, or rebuking our want of due application.


As the Scriptures were the voice of God given for the purpose of man’s restoration in the divine image through the revelation of Jesus Christ, they must be humbly received as such, and can only be rightly understood when employed by regenerate people in the pursuit of growth in grace, continuing in prayer and holding fast the analogy of faith.  At the same time they are the words of God speaking rationally to men in a particular historical context, so the Christian use of an accurate translation (or the original languages), the employment of principles of clear and careful thought, and acquaintance of biblical history are also needful. 

Where these means are dutifully employed, the soul may rest assured of becoming "wise unto salvation," of becoming, according to his calling, "thoroughly furnished unto all good works," and ultimately of being transformed into the image of Christ.  What more could we desire?


VI. The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either ex­pressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary conse­quence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men. [2Tint3:15-17;GalI:S,9; 2Thess.2:2,15]. Nevertheless, we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word: [John 6:45; 1 Cor. 2:9-12] and that there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the Church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature, and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed. [I Cor. 11:13, 14; 14:26, 40]

VII.  All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all: [2Pet 3:16] yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation are so clearly pro­pounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordi­nary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them. [Psalm 119:105,130; Heb.2:2-3]

VIII. The Old Testament in Hebrew (which was the native lan­guage of the people of God of old), and the New Testament in Greek (which, at the time of writing of it, was most generally known to the nations), being immediately inspired by God, and, by His singular care and providence, kept pure in all ages, are therefore authentic; [Matt. 5:13] so as, in all controversies of religion, the Church is finally to appeal unto them. [Isa 8:20;Acts l5:15; John 5:39, 46]  But, because these origi­nal tongues are not known to all the people of God, who have right unto, and interest in the Scriptures, and are commanded, in the fear of God, to read and search them, [John 5:39] therefore they are to be translated in to the vulgar language of every nation unto which they come, [I Cor. 14:6,9, II, 12, 24, 27, 28] that, the Word of God dwelling plentifully in all, they may worship Him in an acceptable manner; [CoI.3:16] and, through patience and comfort of the Scriptures, may have hope. [Rom. 15:4.]

IX. The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scrip­ture itself: and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly. [2Pet. 1:20, 21; Acts 15:15, 16]

X. The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the holy Scripture delivered by the Spirit; into which Scripture so delivered, our Faith is finally resolved. [Matt.22:29,31; Eph.2:20; Acts2S:25]


[1] Psalm 1; 19:7-11; 119; John 8:51; 17:17; 2 Tim. 3:15-17.

[2] Richard A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms, Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, Michigan 1985, p. 33.

[3] Contrary to popular opinion, this in no way compromises its inerrancy, infallibility, nor authority.  As has been demonstrated earlier in this conference.

[4] The Works of John Owen, Vol. 4.

[5] J.I. Packer employs this figure well in the Forward to his Knowing God.

Related Media
Related Sermons