October 20, 2014
People who have an excellent understanding of the Scriptures really impress me. If there's one thing I detest, besides Manchester United, it's Bible studies or theological discussions where the Scriptures function like the crumbs in a bag of chips: you get to them only if you're desperate.
As someone who has had the pleasure and displeasure of examining candidates for the ministry, I can tell you that many candidates suffer from a lack of basic bible knowledge. They (kind of) know their five points of Calvinism - I wish they knew the other twenty - but they have no idea what the five Levitical offerings are. They know two Latin words (duplex gratia), which they say ad infinitum, ad nauseam, but they don't even know whether the cupbearer, the baker or the candlestick-maker forgot Joseph in prison.
In the church today, man's words are quickly eclipsing God's words. This is true particularly in our hymns (i.e., we don't sing Psalms anymore) and preaching, but also especially in the pastoral prayer. If we (ministers) could just remove "just" from our pastoral prayers and instead have Scripture-saturated prayers we might actually get God to do something and inspire a sense of reverence and awe in our worship.
Of course, memorizing or quoting the Bible without learning how to use the Bible can be a dangerous thing. The Socinian polemicist, John Biddle, supposedly had almost the entire New Testament memorized in English and in Greek. The wrong hermeneutic can cripple even the smartest of men.
But we still need to know the word of God (see Matt. 22:29; Josh. 1:8; Deut. 17:18; Ezra 7:10; Job 23:12; 1 Peter 2:2; Acts 17:11).
John Owen makes a searching comment in connection with this point:
"And truly I must needs see that I know not a more deplorable mistake in the studies of the divines, both preachers and others, than their diversion from an immediate, direct study of the Scriptures themselves unto the studying of commentators, critics, scholiasts, annotators, and the like helps...Not that I condemn the use and study of them, which I wish men were more diligent in, but desire pardon if I mistake, and so only surmise, by the experience of my own folly for many years, that many which seriously study the things of God do yet rather make it their business to inquire after the sense of other men from the Scriptures than to search studiously into them themselves." (Works, 4:213)
These sentiments hit me hard when I first read them, and they still do today. How many ministers are really comfortable in God's word, even in the English translation?
According to Thomas Goodwin's son, the authors that Goodwin most valued and studied were: "Augustin, Calvin, Musculus, Zanchius, Paraeus, Waleus, Gomarus, Altingius, and Amesius; among the Schoolmen Suarez and Estius."
However, his son adds,
"the Scriptures were what he most studied; and as he had furnished his Library with a very good Collection of Commentators, he made good use of them. And as the Scriptures are an inexhaustible Treasure of Divine Knowledge, so by an eager search into them, and comparing one with another, he discovered those truths which are not to be found in other Authors."
Goodwin makes his own plea to students of theology:
"Especially you who are scholars, you come hither and live under those who are wholesale men, and you should, whilst you are here, treasure up as much and as many precious truths as you can, and grace withal to vent by retail in the country, when you are sent abroad.
First, Inquire and learn where these treasures are to be had, even in the Scriptures. The merchant who knew the pearl, was fain to buy the field; Timothy, from a child had known the Scriptures, and so should you.... That is, by doing as merchants do, travelling from place to place, comparing one with another, knowledge will be increased.
Secondly, Go to the markets and warehouses of those who have discovered much of this treasure; that is, use the help of godly men's writings... The angels do learn of the church, and why not we?"
As you can tell, Owen and Goodwin are not against reading deeply from the works of other men. But there is a clear priority of God's word over man's words. Owen could never have made so many contributions to Christian theology if he had not been immersed (baptized?) in God's word.
Ministers are to be men of the Word before they are men of Facebook, twitter, blogs, and even books. Consider how Spurgeon described Bunyan:
"Read anything of his, and you will see that it is almost like the reading the Bible itself. He had read it till his very soul was saturated with Scripture; and, though his writings are charmingly full of poetry, yet he cannot give us his Pilgrim's Progress--that sweetest of all prose poems -- without continually making us feel and say, "Why, this man is a living Bible!" Prick him anywhere--his blood is Bibline, the very essence of the Bible flows from him. He cannot speak without quoting a text, for his very soul is full of the Word of God. I commend his example to you, beloved."
If you are not reading the Word, do not waste your time here instead with our words. Once you begin to read God's Word you'll quickly see that there isn't much around here worth reading, anyway.
Pastor Mark Jones is thankful he doesn't have to preach from a confession on Sunday nights, though he still has to preach.