Exegetical Tools Used by the Puritans to Interpret Scripture

The Westminster Confession of Faith makes some important points about the interpretation of Scripture, including chapter 1.9: “The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture, is the Scripture itself; and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it may be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly.” A text may demand an allegorical interpretation because it literally is an allegory, but theologians are not to go to the text with the fourfold method (the literal sense “is that which is gathered immediately out of the words,” which is then coupled with the “spiritual sense,” divided into allegorical, tropological, and anagogical) in mind as a basic presupposition for interpreting the Bible. The Scriptures themselves must dictate how they are to be interpreted.

Another specific exegetical tool used by the Puritans to interpret Scripture is the analogy of faith (analogia fidei). Needed explained are the differences between the analogy of faith and the analogy of Scripture (analogia Scripturae). The Scriptures interpret the Scriptures, so that “when there is a question about the true and full sense of any scripture,… it may be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly.” The analogy of faith (analogia fidei) resulted from the fact that the Bible is the Word of God and therefore possesses an intrinsic consistency and unity. That is to say, the Scriptures do not contradict themselves. The analogy of faith maintains the internal consistency of the Scriptures, which are not contradictory. The analogy of faith differs from the analogy of Scripture (analogia Scripturae) insofar as the analogy of faith is a principle whereby a theologian uses the “general sense of the meaning of Scripture, constructed from the clear or unambiguous loci [passages] as the basis for interpreting unclear or ambiguous texts.” The analogy of Scripture, however, more specifically has in view the interpretation of unclear passages by comparing with clearer passages that are related to the difficult text in question.

Another specific exegetical tool used by the Puritans to interpret Scripture is to understand the limits of human reasoning. John Owen did not mince any words when it came to another fundamental aspect of interpreting the Bible. Those who attempt to interpret the Scriptures “in a solemn manner, without invocation of God to be taught and instructed by his Spirit, is a high provocation to him; nor shall I expect the discovery of truth from anyone who so proudly and ignorantly engageth in a work so much above his ability to manage.” Owen affirmed that the Holy Spirit works on the minds of the elect so as to enable them to understand the Scriptures since He is the immediate author of all spiritual illumination. Christians cannot assume this will happen, as if to take for granted this spiritual privilege; rather, they must pray that God would enable them to understand His mind and will, which apart from the Spirit is impossible. We must not allow our fallible reasoning a place of preeminence above the Scriptures. The Holy Spirit enables Christians to receive all of the truths of Scripture without letting reason dominate the way. If reason was to dominate our interpretation this will lead to various theological errors. Goodwin claims that the cause of all theological errors “hath been for the want of reconciling these things together.” He clearly has in mind those who exalt reason over revelation, which meant that so many glorious truths were denied in favor of reason. Reason cannot work out the mysteries of the Bible. If reason becomes the primary principle, and not faith, we will understand nothing, or little, of the mysteries of salvation. In the same way, Flavel suggests that reason is no better than a “usurper when it presumes to arbitrate matters belonging to faith and revelation.” Instead, reason sits at the feet of faith. Indeed, God’s works are not unreasonable, “but many of them are above reason.”

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