Thomas C. Miersma is pastor of the First Protestant Reformed Church, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.
“We confess that this word of God was not sent, nor delivered by the will of man, but that holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost, as the apostle Paul saith, And that afterwards God from a special care, which he has for us and our salvation, commanded his servants, the prophets and apostles, to commit his revealed word to writing; and he himself wrote with his own finger, the two tables of the law. Therefore we call such writings holy and divine scriptures.”
Confession of Faith, Article III.
With these words of our Confession of Faith we give expression to the Reformed truth that the Scriptures are the written Word of God. They are the written record of God’s revelation of Himself to us, “holy and divine scriptures” or writings. They are verbally inspired. The understanding of God’s Word and its interpretation therefore necessarily involves us in a study of the written text of Scripture. This is what Bible study and exegesis are all about. The principle, “Scripture interprets Scripture,” requires careful study of the text of Scripture. This also characterized the reformers’ doctrine of Scriptural interpretation.
As Scripture is the written Word of God it requires, if we are to be faithful to it, a careful study of what it says. Each word must be studied as to its meaning in the whole of Scripture. Each expression and word must also be studied in its grammatical relationship to the rest of the verse and sentence. Each sentence must be studied in its relationship to the whole of the passage. This study of the meaning and relationships of words, grammar, and language belongs to sound and careful Bible study and interpretation. It is well to consider this principle which the reformers taught us as we also begin another season of Bible study in our churches. The purpose of such study is exactly to let the text speak, and to hear exactly what God is saying to us. It keeps us from intruding our own thoughts and opinions into the text and twisting its meaning. It will guard our societies from becoming a mere exchange of our own opinions and feelings about the text, all of which are worthless and meaningless if they are not rooted in the text of Holy Scripture. I want to take the time therefore in this article and a few which follow to treat these doctrinal principles also from the practical point of view of our own Bible study, that we might not simply learn about the reformers but also follow in their footsteps.
Where do you begin with such study? Ideally you begin with the original languages of Scripture. God gave His Word in the Greek (New Testament) and Hebrew (Old Testament) languages and it is to them we turn first of all. That is why we require of our ministers that they both know these languages and use them. The reformers themselves were students of the original languages for the same reason. Indeed, so desirable did they consider the study of Scripture in the original languages that Luther even advocated that they be taught, both Greek and Hebrew, in the Christian day school. Having said this however, we recognize that this is an ideal which is beyond the reach of most, save the minister.
Two things should be noted however in this connection. First of all there are tools available which can be used to assist us in some measure to get around this barrier, and a few will be mentioned below. Secondly, part of the value of studying Scripture in the original languages is that it is being studied in another language, which necessarily forces the reader to pay more attention to what he is reading. If you know a language other than English, or learned one in school, such as Dutch, Spanish, French, or German, use it! Try reading the text you are studying in that language and translating it into English. It is surprising how much can be learned in this way. Note the differences between it and our King James translation and ask yourself the question, Why? It is exactly this process of questioning, meditation, and spiritual reflection which is at the heart of good Bible study.
What then do you do if you have access only to the English Bible, and how is this principle, “Scripture interprets Scripture,” to be applied to the text? It is to this question that we turn our attention. This is as the reformers themselves intended. It was in harmony with the recognition that Scripture is the holy and divine Word of God that they sought to put in the hands of God’s people faithful translations of the Scriptures. It is one of the particular blessings of our King James translation as opposed to many so-called modern translations, that it lends itself to careful Bible study.
The place to begin our answer to this question is first of all to look at our Bibles for a moment and say something about the many Bible translations available. Many of these modern translations slide over difficulties in the text or attempt to simplify them. They are so often not so much translations as paraphrases, in which the translator, so-called, attempts to put into his own words what he thinks or feels the text means rather than translating what it actually says. There is no good reason for this, and it makes Bible study in English more difficult, not easier.
To use but one example drawn from the current and popular New International Version. The opening words of Colossians 3:14 in that version read: “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, . . . ” while our King James translation reads, “Put on therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, bowels of mercies, . . . ” Notice two differences here. First, ourKing James Version uses such historic Reformed doctrinal terminology as “elect.” The KJV has itself helped to shape our theological vocabulary in English and this is one of the advantages of using it in Bible study. But secondly, notice the difference between “bowels of mercies” and “compassion.” The text says “bowels of mercies” in the original. If the text of Scripture is verbally inspired, as we maintain it is, then in our study we want to know as much as is possible what the Holy Spirit actually said and how He said it. Bowels draws a vivid picture before our minds which the mere word compassion does not, though that may be the meaning of the figure here. Fundamentally such paraphrasing is a departure from the Reformed doctrine of verbal inspiration.
What else can we notice about the Bibles we use? There are certain things about our KJV which we tend to overlook, although we know them, which can serve us in Bible study. The use of the pronouns “thee” and “thou” for instance, regardless now of whether they are more reverent or not, are an aid to understanding the text. It can make a significant difference in the meaning of a passage if “thy” (second personsingular) rather than “you” (second person plural) is used. For example, in a passage of the Word of God in which the church is addressed as “thou,” we are pointed to the fact that the church as an organic whole, one body, and therefore singular is being addressed. But where God addresses the church as “you,” the living members of that body are addressed individually. See for example I Thessalonians 1:4.
Another familiar matter is the distinction between the names Jehovah and Lord in the KJV. The name Jehovah, the exact spelling of which is not exactly clear in the original, is translated by the word “Lord” but is printed differently in our Bibles than the English translation of the Hebrew word Adonai, meaning Lord. Jehovah is usually spelled LORD but with all the letters in capitals, the last three letters being reduced in size, while the name meaning Lord is printed normally with only the first letter capitalized. ThusPsalm 23 begins, “The LORD (Jehovah) is my shepherd,” emphasizing by that name the covenant character of Him Who is our shepherd, as He Who takes us into His covenant fellowship in Christ, and not simply the sovereign lordship of our shepherd.
Similarly, our KJV carefully distinguishes as far as is possible between the words of the original text and those which were inserted by the translator to make a smooth English sentence and meaning. These inserted words are necessary and we ordinarily ignore the fact that they are insertions when we read. But in Bible study it is worthwhile to take note of them. They are the words usually printed in italics in the text. Sometimes reading the text without them brings out the meaning more sharply and vividly and with even greater power. Try reading Psalm 36 this way, particularly verses 4, 5, and 6, noticing the parallels and equations which are drawn in each verse and the way they are brought home.
These tools are given us to use in understanding God’s Word as we read it and to aid our study of that Word. This does not mean that these things are always going to be helpful to us in our Bible study, but they are intended to bring us as close to the original language of the text in its inspired form in the original languages as is possible. We are to use them. Good Bible study begins with a good and faithful text and translation, and this we have in our Authorized Version. This is but a beginning however, and we will pursue this subject further, the Lord willing, in a coming article.
(to be continued)