Taught of God by the Word and Prayer

We have been considering the reformers’ doctrine of Scripture and its interpretation. Rome taught that Scripture was a dark book which would not be understood by the ordinary believer. According to Rome, Scripture needed to be supplemented by the traditions of the church which served as an additional revelation alongside of Scripture. Moreover, Rome taught that only the hierarchy of the church, popes, and councils could explain that Word of God. The believer therefore might not draw his own interpretation and understanding out of the Word of God but must trust in the pronouncements of the church, even if they appeared to contradict the Word of God itself.

Over against this view of Rome the reformers taught that Scripture is clear and understandable in itself, and complete in itself. That Word of God the believer could understand directly for himself because he is taught of God. The reformers taught that all believers in the church possessed the Spirit and that under the illuminating work of the Holy Spirit they were able to understand the Word of God for themselves. This ability belongs to the priesthood of all believers and to the believer’s anointing with the Spirit.

This position of the reformers is of fundamental importance. The inner principle of understanding and interpreting Scripture is this: that we are taught of God to know and understand His Word, which is itself objectively clear. This stands over against all other sources of authority as a sure and certain source of authority, which is of God and not of men. The believer is taught of God, by His Spirit and Word, and by Him alone.

It is well in our day and age to underscore this principle. Often the child of God in the church approaches the matter of Bible study with doubt of his ability. He is not learned, not theologically trained like the minister, not a scholar or learned professor. Because of this he doubts his ability to understand the plain meaning of God’s Word or to study’ it. The result is that a new priesthood is gradually rearing its head in the Reformed community, a priesthood of scholars, who, more and more today, teach strange doctrines and the opinions of men. The believer is intimidated by them because of their supposed learning. This spirit of doubt strives also to make an entrance into our own Protestant Reformed Churches, so that rather than studying the Word of God for ourselves, we immediately flee to commentaries or to the writings of men. This is not intended to downgrade the many excellent writings produced in the midst of our churches. The believer does not live in isolation from his fellow saints or from the leading of the Spirit in the church. We may and must certainly use such writings and avail ourselves of them. But when they become a substitute for serious, personal Bible study, we are in trouble, serious trouble. Nor may we ignore the truth that God has not given to all the same gifts and calling. But, nevertheless, the believer, as he stands in the church with the gifts God has given, is able to understand God’s Word because he is taught of God. Lose this and you will lose the preaching of the Word also, for preaching then becomes the mere learned pronouncements of the preacher and no more God’s Word, for also in the preaching we must be taught of God.

To this principle the reformers always added the necessity of prayer, prayer for illumination and divine guidance in the study of His Word. Sin also mars our understanding. As we must be taught of God, so also He must illuminate our understanding, and prayer is that means which He has appointed to seek this grace from Him. This is the cure both for our doubts and for our lack of understanding. Sin will lead astray in the understanding of God’s Word. It will tempt us to come to God’s Word and impose upon it our own meaning and interpretation, to speak instead of listening to what God has to say to us. Prayer is therefore necessary that we might be spiritually prepared to hear and to receive at God’s hand what He will say. This is most important. We do not come to Scripture to impose our views upon it, but to be taught.

These points the reformer Ulrich Zwingli raises in his sermon on the clarity and certainty of God’s Word. We do well to hear what he has to say.

How then should I approach him and pray to him? In this way: First, put away that view of your own which you want to read into Scripture, for it is quite valueless, as I shall clearly show. I know that you will reply that you have worked through the Scriptures and discovered texts which support your opinion. Alas! here we come upon the canker at the heart of all human systems. And it is this: we want to find support in Scripture for our own view, and so we take that view to Scripture, and if we find a text which, however artificially, we can relate to it, we do so, and in that way we wrest Scripture in order to make it say what we want it to say. . . . Note, then, that we must not approach Scripture like that. But how are we to come? In this way: If you want to speak on any matter, or to learn of it, you must first think like this: Before I say anything or listen to the teaching of man, I will first consult the mind of the Spirit of God.

Psalm 85:8:

“I will hear what God the Lord will speak.” Then you should reverently ask God for his grace, that he may give you his mind and Spirit, so that you will not lay hold of your own opinion but of his. And have a firm trust that he will teach you a right understanding, for all wisdom is of God the Lord. And then go to the written word of the Gospel. (Zwingli and Bullinger, The Library of Christian Classics, Volume XXIV, translated by G.W. Bromiley. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1953, pp. 88-89.)

So approaching the Word of God, to be taught of Him, we will both understand it and know the truth, and be taught of God. Being thus taught of God, the believer need not run to some human arbiter or interpreter to explain the Word of God to him. This Rome would have done by removing the Word of God from the hands of the people of God, that only the holy and learned few might understand it, leaving the people in darkness. Nor is the fruit of such study a matter of mere human opinion, of my opinion and your opinion. For if we are truly taught of God we arrive at sure and certain truth. Rome would have clouded the issue by pointing to many conflicting interpretations and opinions, casting doubt upon the truth and setting up the church as arbiter among many opinions, as if only thus could the truth be known and not by the believer in his own study. The reformers however upheld consistently the principle that prayerful study of God’s Word brings us to a certain conviction of the truth, that this also is the mark of true preaching of the Word.

To turn to the reformer Zwingli once more, he writes,

When you say then that an arbiter is needed to decide the issue and to compel those who are defeated, I deny it: for even the most learned of men are fallible except in so far as they are led by God. If they are not certain, God will guide them, but I myself can come to the same teacher and guide, and he will undoubtedly guide me also. You say: How do you know whether he will teach you or not? Answer: From his own words in

Matthew 21

and

Mark 11:

“All things whatsoever—that is, all things which it is right and proper for God to give—ye shall ask in prayer, believing, ye shall receive.” Then, St. James teaches me to go to God for wisdom

James 1,

saying: “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him. But let him ask in faith, nothing wavering.” Note that James points us to God and not to men. You say: But today we have men to preach to us: should we not ask of the preachers and doctors? Answer: No matter who a man may be, if he teaches you in accordance with his own thought and mind his teaching is false. But if he teaches you in accordance with the Word of God, it is not he that teaches you, but God who teaches him. For as Paul says, who are we but ministers of Christ and dispensers or stewards of the mysteries of God? (Ibid., p. 90).

What then does this mean for us? If God promises us wisdom and understanding and Himself teaches us, then we both can study His Word and are in fact enabled to do so, and under His-guidance we shall rightly understand it. The fruit of that study will be a true knowledge of His Word. This does not mean that we shall attain to perfect understanding, for sin will always cleave to us even in this matter of the study of God’s Word. Yet that which we learn of God is true, though it be but in part, though in this life we see through a glass darkly.

Too often we make the excuse that we do not know how to study God’s Word, or know where to begin. We forget that this study and understanding is not first of all a matter of methods of Bible study, but of God, Who teaches us by His Spirit and Word, in the way of prayer. We do not need a course in the proper method of Bible study before we begin to study His Word. Rather we need prayer and a believing heart, that God Who has promised to guide us into all truth will also teach us both the meaning of His Word and the method of study also. For all the principles of proper Bible study and interpretation are themselves taught in the Word of God. It is easy to make our perceived lack of ability and lack of formal training an excuse for spiritual laziness. To do so is to deny that God does indeed give wisdom to those who ask of Him. If it is true that we are taught of God, as Scripture and the reformers set before us, then there is no child of God who is unable to study God’s Word. The problem lies with our own unbelief and doubt of His promises.

While principles and proper methods of Bible study are important, and we will consider some of them in coming articles, the Lord willing, the principal thing is to begin. No more does a child learn to walk in any other way than by doing, so also we do not learn how to study God’s Word other than by prayer and by doing that study, out of a believing heart. That begins by taking up God’s Word, reading and meditating upon it, and simply asking one question: What does God have to say to His people here and to me? And then we must listen to His Word that He may teach us. He Who promises to give us wisdom and to teach us will do it, by His Spirit which is given us.