I came across a comment recently which struck me as decidedly back to front. It was a recommendation to read a chapter about providence from a theology book, particularly emphasising the doctrine of sovereignty. The book was Louis Berkhof’s Summary of Christian Doctrine, so that wasn’t the problem. It was the portentous piece of advice which was meant to encourage you to read it, along the lines that ‘If you don’t understand sovereignty, you can’t understand Scripture!’
I’m sure the comment was well meant, but it really doesn’t make sense. Like probably most of the doctrines that are expounded in systematic theologies, you would have no way of knowing about them, or even guessing at them, if they weren’t already in the bible. So far from needing to get your head round a doctrine before you can hope to understand the bible, the first step is always to acquaint yourself with what scripture says, in order for you to be able to evaluate whether a particular doctrine is in fact worth believing. What this person should have said instead is, ‘If you aren’t familiar with the bible, you won’t be able to understand sovereignty!’
Of course the principle applies much more widely than just to the doctrine of God’s sovereignty. (It strikes me that I’ve been writing here a lot recently on issues related to that; it’s not intentional and I’ll probably stop sometime soon.) Eg, as I was discussing with a friend recently, you wouldn’t know what to pray for, if the bible didn’t provide us (a) with examples of prayers to pray and (b) almost more importantly, with the assurance that God hears prayers. If you weren’t familiar with the scriptures, you might be hard pushed to convince yourself that God would even listen to the prayer of a sinful human being, or that it was acceptable to address him in terms such as Hosea provides – ‘Take with you words and turn to the Lord: say unto him, Take away all iniquity and receive us graciously…’ In short, without knowing the bible you wouldn’t know that there are three persons in the Godhead, or that there is such a thing as the Lord’s day, or that such a weak instrument as faith can be the instrument of saving your soul, and so on.
I’m not sure I’d go so far as to say that reading the Bible is the most important of the ‘means of grace’, but it’s worth affirming that the Bible is absolutely fundamental to everything we know about God and our relationship to him. Apart from the fact that there is a God, almost everything else I can think of that we know, we could never have known if he hadn’t told us. It’s just as well that he’s formulated that revelation not only in writing, as a more sure word of prophecy, but also in a way that’s suited to the state and condition of any person at all who reads it. If someone doesn’t understand about sovereignty, or about atonement, or about repentance, or whatever – that’s no reason not to read the bible – it’s actually the very reason why they should read it. Both perspicuous and reliable: if you’re not familiar with the scriptures, you won’t be able to understand any of the things that you really need to know.
“Through thy precepts I get understanding … Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path.” Psalm 119:104-105
[PS: something went funny when I tried to post this the other day and I can’t see it published even though it appears in my list of published posts, so apologies if you’re seeing it twice over.]