Amandus Polanus on Interpreting Scripture through Meditation

As the previous two posts demonstrated (#1, #2), Amandus Polanus envisioned Christians interpreting the Scriptures with the help of the church. In colloquial terms, this means that no Christian can read their Bibles well by themselves on a private island with no external aids or input. Yet it remains a duty for all believers to read, interpret, and profit from the Bible in order to be wise for salvation through faith in Christ. In Polanus’ view, the best way for individuals to study, understand, and apply the Scriptures is by learning to meditate on Scripture. He did so broadly by laying out rules for meditating on Scripture, by showing the nature of meditating on understanding and applying Scripture, and by relating meditation on Scripture to the continual reading of Scripture (Syntagma, 684). His treatment of meditation on Scripture shows the close connection between the proper understanding of Scripture and personal piety in Reformed theology.
In Polanus’ estimation, meditation on Scripture primarily involved reflecting on the meaning and use of Scripture. This led Polanus to describe several prerequisites to meditation.
  1. The first step lay in reflecting on the end and scope of Scripture, which was knowing God, through Christ, by the Spirit (684-685).
  2. Second, meditating on Scripture requires prayer to God from true faith and from a pure and humble heart (685).
  3. Third, this leads to seeking the experimental knowledge of God through Scripture, which involves sincere piety, the fear of God, and humility, as passages such as Psalm 25:14, 111:10, and Proverbs 1:7 illustrate (686).
  4. Fourth, those meditating on Scripture must love and desire to truth as it is set forth in Scripture (687, citing Ps. 119:40, 47-48).
  5. Fifth, they must be teachable (687, citing Jn. 3:12, 33).
  6. Sixth, they must desire to practice the will of God (687, citing Jn. 7:17).
  7. Seventh, they must be catechized in the doctrine of faith and good works (687, citing Heb. 5:12-14). This involves gaining a sense of the teaching of Scripture as a whole, approximating the analogia fidei, in order to understand the parts of Scripture in relation to one another.
  8. Eighth, readers must understand the languages from which Scripture is drawn (687, citing 1 Cor. 14:5). This does not negate the need for translating the Scriptures into vernacular languages, for which Polanus argued in chapter forty. His comments on understanding biblical languages related more directly to ministers.
  9. Ninth, students of Scripture must come with that faith by which they receive the Scriptures as the Word of God with all of its divine qualities (687).

Readers should note that all of these prerequisites for meditating on Scripture related to the disposition of the reader rather that to a set of interpretive techniques. The point was that who a person was in relation to God, through Christ, by the Spirit, and the prayerful disposition resulting from saving faith was more important to biblical interpretation than mere exegetical method. Students of Scripture must have the right disposition to meditate on Scripture before they could use the right means of understanding and using it.

Polanus next treated twelve hermeneutical techniques needed to understand Scripture as a whole and in its parts (687-691). These directions, in his view, exhibited the media of meditation set forth in Scripture itself. Scripture was thus not only the object of meditation, but Scripture was sufficient to teach believers how to mediate on Scripture.
  1. The first step was the careful reading and scrutiny of Scripture, involving the diligent investigation and observation of its testimonies concerning the dogmas of faith and the precepts of good works (688). This reflected the fact that Reformed authors taught that the Scriptures were sufficient for Christian faith and life.
  2. Second, all translations of Scripture must be judged by the original Hebrew and Greek text of Scripture (688).
  3. Third, interpreters must keep the end and scope of Scripture in view, which is Christ Jesus the Lord and the true knowledge of him (688). This meant that any interpretation of specific texts of Scripture must aim at the end of Scripture as a whole.
  4. Fourth, interpreters must observe and discriminate between the law and the gospel (689). He added that the primary error of the Papists lay in confounding the law and the gospel, by which he meant that they blurred the distinction between God’s promises of salvation and those duties that he required of his people as a result.
  5. Fifth, readers must observe proper order and method in investigating the sense and use of Scripture (689). This involved considering propositions, themes to which propositions led, and arguments that confirmed and explained these themes. In modern terms, we would call this situating verses in their particular contexts.
  6. Sixth, readers must consider whether the senses of the words in a text are proper or figurative (689).
  7. Seventh, they should compare texts with similar places in other parts of Scripture and they should interpret less clear passages in light of clearer ones (689).
  8. Eight, it can be helpful to compare dissimilar passages in Scripture in order to reconcile statements that might appear to be contradictory to one another at first glance (690).
  9. Ninth, readers must seek to retain the things taught in Scripture as well as words and phrases used in Holy Scripture (690).
  10. Tenth, they ought to examine whether their interpretations of Scripture fit with the rule of faith (regula fidei) as it is comprehended in summaries such as the Apostle’s Creed and the Decalogue (691).
  11. Eleventh, students of Scripture should consider the interpretations of others on specific passages, especially those of church councils and creeds (691).
  12. Twelfth, some understanding of the arts of grammar, rhetoric, dialectic, and physics are secondary helps in interpreting Scripture properly (691). He referred here to a broad training in the liberal arts, which could help equip students of Scripture read and think well in general.

Eleven of these hermeneutical rules for meditating on Scripture grew out of the Reformed view of the sufficiency and authority of Scripture as its own interpreter. Only the last rule acknowledged that skills acquired through other fields of study may have some auxiliary use.

Polanus drew his treatment of mediating on Scripture as a means of biblical interpretation to a conclusion by listing several necessary media following the process of Scripture mediation that would facilitate the continual reading of Scripture (691-693). These included gratitude to God for granting the proper sense and use of Scripture (691-692), repeatedly reading and hearing the Scriptures and ruminating over both (692), growing in communion with the triune God through the saving truths of Scripture (692), and using translations of Scripture properly in order to excite piety (692). Meditation on Scripture is contrary to carnal wisdom (693. Carnis sapientia ac prudentia), natural blindness in sinners, impiety, hatred of the truth, unteachableness and prejudice, neglecting the divine will, ignorance of the first doctrines of religion (catechisis), ignorance of the biblical languages (for teachers), and to doubting the truth of Scripture (693-695). He then added twelve impediments to mediating on Scripture that resulted from the four general causes of ingratitude, neglect, ignorance, and disobedience (695-696).
This sketch of Polanus’ treatment of mediation as a means of private interpretation of Scripture illustrate several important points about the Reformed view of biblical interpretation.
  1. First, meditation was an act of piety and devotion to God. One third of Polanus’ treatment of meditation describes a right disposition created by saving faith in Christ and leading to true devotion to God. This illustrates that piety was integral to classic Reformed theology.
  2. Second, meditation encompasses the entire process of biblical interpretation. While this requires correct rules for interpreting Scripture, it aims at the use of Scripture in cultivating communion with God as well.
  3. Third, private meditation on Scripture was not independent of drawing from the interpretation of the church. Private meditation, especially by ministers, presupposed catechesis, creeds and councils, and the reflections of others on Scripture. This connects well with the two preceding posts on the role of the church in interpreting Scripture.
  4. Fourth, meditation on Scripture is possible for the regenerate alone. It grew from the soil of saving faith, true piety, and worship and obedience.

The thrust of Polanus’ treatment of the private interpretation of Scripture was that to those who have, more will be given. Scripture is clear in itself and it will be increasingly clear to those who meditate properly on its meaning and uses through faith in Christ.

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