"I want to know one thing, the way to heaven. . . .God himself has condescended to teach the way. . . . He hath written it down in a book. O give me that book: At any price give me the book of God! I have it: here is knowledge enough for me. Let me be Homo unius libri . . . . I sit down alone: only God is here. In His presence I open, I read his book; for this end, to find the way to heaven. . . .Does anything appear dark and intricate? I lift up my heart to the Father of Lights. . . .I then search after and consider parallel passages. . . .I meditate thereon. . . .If any doubt still remain, I consult those who are experienced in the things of God: and then the writings whereby, being dead, they yet speak. And what I thus learn, that I teach.
John Wesley, quoted in Packer, J.I., "Fundamentalism" and the Word of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans) 1958. Page 75.
The above quotation from John Wesley, the great eighteenth-century evangelist, demonstrates several things. Firstly, it demonstrates the desire for salvation that motivates the Christian. If we are not concerned with the "way to heaven," what are we concerned with? Secondly, it demonstrates the importance of scripture and that what we need to know is from God, who has "written it down in a book." Thirdly we see that the reading of scripture is a spiritual experience, for the book is read "in His presence." Fourthly we observe that some effort is required, to "consider parallel passages" and to "meditate thereon." Fifthly it is clear that the student must be humble in the quest for knowledge, and be prepared to "consult those who are experienced in the things of God." Finally it is also clear that, as soon as we learn something in connection with the good news of Christ, we will then want to share it; to teach it.
Perhaps these things seem obvious. Yet in the history of the church, the role, authority and interpretation of scripture has been anything but obvious to human (i.e., flawed and sinful) understanding.
In the above book, Packer discusses three sources of authority for Christians: Holy Scripture, Church tradition and Christian reason (p.46). Evangelical or confessional protestants prefer the first, Romanists, Anglo-Catholics and Orthodox opt for the second, and liberal Protestants or subjectivists rely on the third (p.47). Packer thoroughly discusses all three schools of thought and makes a convincing case that the evangelical view of scripture as being the final authority for the Christian is the correct one. He states:
The Bible is inspired in the sense of being word-for-word God-given. It is a record and explanation of divine revelation which is both complete (sufficient) and comprehensible (perspicuous); that is to say, it contains all that the Church needs to know in this world for its guidance in the way of salvation and service, and it contains the principles for its own interpretation within itself. Furthermore, the Holy Spirit, who caused it to be written, has been given to the church to cause believers to recognize it for the divine Word that it is, and to enable them to interpret it rightly and understand its meaning. (Page 47).
Reading the Bible is no mere intellectual or logical exercise. When we receive the words of the Bible, we are receiving a holy gift and are guided into understanding it by the Holy Spirit.
Does this mean it is always easy to understand the Bible? Experience tells us it is not, and we must of course bring all of our resources-our logic, our learning, and in a word, our "reason" to the fore. But there is a big difference between letting our reason sit in judgment on scripture and letting scripture sit in judgment on reason.
Nor may reason be viewed as an independent authority for our knowledge of God's truth. Reason's part is to act as the servant of the written Word, seeking in dependence on the Spirit to interpret Scripture scripturally, to correlate its teaching and to discern its application to all parts of life. We may not look to reason to tell us whether Scripture is right in what it says (reason is not in any case competent to pass such a judgment); instead, we must look to Scripture to tell us whether reason is right in what it thinks on the subjects with which Scripture deals. (Page 48).
For some, these ideas are not readily acceptable. It is easy to see how the resort to human reason as authority seems like a seductive option when there is a stumbling block in interpretation, or a difficulty in understanding historical or literary context. Does Packer's defense of Scripture lead to a blind, heavy-handed literalism?
No. After acknowledging the complex variety of literary forms contained in the Bible, Packer goes on to state:
It should be clear, therefore, that when we assert that what Scripture contains is a body of truths, embracing both matters of fact and general principles about God and man, and that these truths together constitute His Word, we are not prejudging the literary character of Scripture as a whole, or any part of it. There is nothing in this position to cramp one's exegetical style, as some of the critics of Evangelicalism seem to fear. (Page 94).
Indeed, perhaps true freedom in interpreting scripture can be found by first acknowledging the obvious-the Bible is not a product of human reason and we should not expect it to read like any other book. We read it in faith and receive it in faith. It is Almighty God's word to us and we should expect to be amazed, astonished and challenged by it.
And in the end, of course, we will be overjoyed by it. No matter how many times we hear or read John 3:16, we will never fully understand it, nor will we ever tire of it:
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. (ESV).
Here is our great gift, the assurance that makes sense out of life and death and the creation of the universe. Here is our mystery, which we are delighted to share with a sinful and bewildered world. Here is our faith, which bonds us together as Christians as we face the future with courage and love.
In faith and fellowship,
More on meditating on Scripture: