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TEXT: I Timothy 3:16-17
SUBJECT: Puritans #8: The Bible
This is the third Sunday afternoon of the month, and time for another lecture on the Puritan View of Life. The Puritans-you know-were Reformed Christians who flourished from about 1550 to 1700 in England and America. The book we're using to guide us is called Worldly Saints: The Puritans as They Really Were. The author is Leland Ryken, a professor of English at Wheaton College in Illinois. The book is still in print, easy to read, and well worth your time.
Thus far, we've looked at them on work, marriage, family, money, preaching, the church and public worship. Now, we'll move on to another topic: The Puritans on the Bible.
WHAT IS THE BIBLE?
The Puritans did not agree on every point. But on one thing they were unanimous: The Bible is the Word of God.
Thomas Watson said,
"Think in every line you read
that God is speaking to you".
John Eliot, missionary to the American Indians added,
"The writings of the Bible are
the very word of God".
The most learned Puritan was John Owen, yet he was not embarrassed to affirm the full inspiration of the Bible,
"The whole authority of Scripture depends
solely on its Divine origin. The Scripture
hath all its authority from its Author".
They differed somewhat on what the Bible teaches, but they had no quarrel about what the Bible is. The Bible is the Word of God.
WHO SHOULD READ THE BIBLE?
What they said is true, of course, but it's not unique to them. The Church of England said the same thing. And so did the Roman Catholics.
What is unique on their view of the Bible, however, is this: who's book it is!
The Roman Catholic Church believed the Bible belongs to the Church. And the Church, it said, is the organization: Pope, Cardinals, Archbishops, Bishops, and so on. It was their duty to study the Bible and to tell the people what it teaches. Nothing wrong with that, of course: teachers ought to teach, after all. But they went on to add that the people ought not to study the Bible for themselves! For centuries the Bible was on the Church's list of Forbidden Books!
The Church of England men were better than this in theory. They believed the Bible ought to be translated into the common language and could be read by the people. But-for the most part-they did not emphasize Bible-reading or urge their people to do much of it or to think for themselves. Believers who did were called enthusiasts (or, what we'd call fanatics).
The Puritans, though, were crystal clear on this one: The Bible belongs to the People of God! The farmer had as much right to it as the minister; the milkmaid should read it for herself and judge her pastor by what she finds in it!
John Ball put it well,
"Doth the knowledge of the Scriptures belong to
every man? Yes, all men are not only allowed,
but exhorted and commanded to read, hear, and
understand the Scripture".
This was the theory. But what about the practice? It matched the theory. Thus the Puritans translated the Bible into English. The first modern translation was William Tyndale's (who was an early Puritan). Thirty years after he was burned at the stake, the persecuted Puritans living in Switzerland produced the great Geneva Bible. For more than fifty years it was the most read Bible in England and America.
Anticipating modern study Bibles, it was full of marginal notes and cross references. On almost every page it taught something about Calvinism or something against the Roman Catholic Church. We can't agree with everything they put in it, but when books were expensive and good preaching was rare, it was very helpful to people who wanted to understand the Scripture.
As for the King James Bible of 1611? It was called for by John Rainolds, a Puritan Divine. About half the scholars who worked on it were also with the Puritan party. The English Bible most used in its preparation was the Geneva Bible.
PERSONAL BIBLE READING
Having a Bible in English is a great thing. But it does you no good unless it is read. The Puritans called for this too.
John Cotton commanded his church to
"Feed upon the Word".
Richard Baxter begged his readers to
"Love, study, obey, and stick close to the Scripture".
In his diary, John Winthrop wrote of his
"Insatiable thirst after the Word of God".
The Bible was not only to be read; it was to be read daily. Cotton Mather pleaded with his church to
"Let not a day ordinarily pass you wherein
you will not read some portion of Scripture,
with a due meditation and supplication over it".
We'd call this "personal devotions". They also stressed family worship, in which the father would read the Bible and tell his wife, kids, and servants what it means. Matthew Henry published a sermon called
"A Church in the House".
He didn't mean "home churches", but turning your home into a church by daily Bible reading, prayer, and teaching.
The Bibles, that were read at home, were also brought to church! Henry Newcombe was a young pastor who was sharply rebuked by an older man,
"The people came with Bibles and
expected quotations of Scripture".
They didn't come for a lecture on philosophy or a history lesson. They came to hear the Word of God!
Reading the Bible is good, but to understand it, you've got to interpret it correctly. The Puritans had a strong opinion on how to understand the Bible.
First of all, they were strongly against allegorizing the Bible. The Medieval Church believed the Bible had multiple meanings. For example the six water pots at the wedding of Cana stood for the six days of creation! My favorite is the verse in the Song of Solomon where the woman's two breasts are said to represent the Old and New Testaments (why one is three times the size of the other, they don't explain!).
The Puritans dismissed this kind of thinking as nonsense. William Tyndale said,
"The Scripture hath but one sense, which is the
literal sense, and that literal sense is the root
and ground of all, and the anchor that never
Thomas Gateker agreed,
"Sir, we dare not allegorize the Scriptures,
where the letter of it yields us a clear and
Does this mean everything in the Bible should be taken literally? Of course not! Some things are figurative. But that's determined by the context and the kind of writing it is. If it's called a parable, then it's a parable. Nobody reads poetry as though it were a repair manual for you car.
William Bridge said,
"Though the sense of Scripture be one entire sense,
yet sometimes it is to be understood literally, some-
Well, of course it is! When it says we rest in the shadow of God's wings, we don't think He's a giant chicken! This is obviously figurative! It means we're safe with God. But when it says, "If your enemy hungers, feed him, if he thirsts give him a drink", we dare not say that really means preach the Gospel to the lost. It doesn't.
Literal parts of the Bible are to be taken literally. Figurative parts are to be taken figuratively. Generally speaking, it's not hard to know which is which.
James Durham put it best,
"There is a difference an allegorical exposition
of Scripture and an exposition of allegorical
The Puritans believed in the literal interpretation of the Bible because they said the Bible written for the ordinary man and clear to him.
John Arrowsmith said,
"Scripture is so framed as to deliver all things
necessary to salvation in a clear and perspic-
John Owen concurs,
"All necessary truth is plainly and clearly
revealed in Scripture".
Poets are not always clear, but the greatest Puritan poet, John Milton, thought the Bible was,
"The very essence of Truth is plainness and
brightness. The Scriptures protest their own
plainness and clarity, calling them to be
instructed, not only the wise and learned,
but the simple, the poor, the babes".
Because of their view of the Bible's plainness, they stayed away from the allegory and numerology that has misled so many sincere people. The Bible can be understood--without resorting to nonsense!
The third principle is check the context. William Bridge,
"If you would understand the true sense of a disputed
Scripture, then look well into the coherence, the scope
And the context thereof".
William Perkins is even more helpful,
"Who wrote it? To whom was it written?
Upon what occasion? At what time? In
What place? For what end? What goeth
Before? What followeth?"
If you want to know what a verse means, don't open a concordance and find every use of the word. Just read the paragraph and figure it out in context. It's not always easy. But it's generally safe and sound.
THE UNITY OF SCRIPTURE
The fourth principle for interpreting the Bible is the unity of Scripture. This means the Bible does not contradict itself. It also means that if the doctrine is important, it will be taught in more than one place. Thus, you cannot base a whole on one verse.
That's what the cults always do. Take the Mormons for example. From one verse-I Corinthians 15:29-they get their whole doctrine of "baptism for the dead". Frankly, I'm not sure what the verse means, but I know the Mormons are wrong about it-because it's nowhere else in the Bible and contradicted in many other places. John Owen,
"In our search after truth, our minds are greatly to be
influenced and guided by the analogy of faith. There
is a harmony and a proportion in the whole system of
faith. Particular places are to be interpreted as they
do not break or disturb this order."
The last principle for interpreting the Bible is the illumination of the Holy Spirit. Thomas Goodwin,
"The same Spirit Who guided the Holy Apostles
and Prophets to write it must guide the People of
God to know the meaning of it; and as He first
Delivered it, so must He help men to understand it".
In other words, although the Bible is clear, our minds are not. Thus, we need the work of the Holy Spirit to help us understand the Word. That's why we pray for enlightenment,
"Open Thou mine eyes, that I may
behold, wondrous things out of
How do you interpret the Bible? The Puritans said you take the obvious meaning of the verse, look at it in context, compare it to other Scriptures, make sure it doesn't contradict other verses, and pray for God to open your mind to it. If we all followed these rules, we'd know the Bible a lot better than we do! And find more agreement than we have.
THE AFFECTIVE POWER OF THE BIBLE
One last thing: Ryken calls it The affective power of the Bible. In other words, the Bible not only informs us of things, but it spurs us to action. Nicholas Udall,
"The Scriptures lead us-not to be curious
searchers of the high mysteries-but to be
faithful doers of God's bidding".
Thus, we've got to always read the Bible with the intent of obeying it. The way to do this-the Puritans said-is to remember the Bible is not only God's Word, but God's Word to you. Henry Lukin,
"In reading any command or prohibition in Scripture
we must make particular application of it to ourselves,
as if God had directed to us in particular or had
spoken to us by name or sent a special message
from heaven to us".
It's not good enough to know that God commanded the Ephesians to pray or the Corinthians to flee fornication or the husbands "scattered abroad" to treat their wives with respect-no we've got to know God tells us to do these things!
This takes regular, careful, and humble reading on our part. So let's get to it.
Wherever else we can fault the Puritans, we sure cannot fault them for their reverence for the Bible and study thereof. Now, go and do likewise.
God bless you, everyone!
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