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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John Owen’s Thoughts on Supernatural Revelation

The inspiration of Scripture
In view is the Word of God, which for Owen has a threefold meaning: “hypostatikos, endiathetos, and prophorikos.”  The hypostatic (“personal”) Word has reference to the person of Christ.  The latter two Greek terms speak of the “internal” or “inherent” (endiathetos) Word and the “spoken” (prophorikos) Word.  The Bible, God’s supernatural revelation, is expressed in words and committed to writing.  Faith arises from the authority and truth of God in the Scriptures, and the Holy Spirit bears witness to the truth of God’s Word because the Spirit is truth.  The internal testimony of the Holy Spirit infallibly assures believers that Scripture is God’s Word.

The truth of the Bible
Owen states that an internal, efficacious work of the Holy Spirit must illuminate the minds of believers so that they not only recognize the divine authority of Scripture, but also embrace the truths contained therein.  The internal witness of the Spirit persuades believers that the Scriptures really are the very words of God.  Thus Scripture, for Owen, is self-evidencing and has an innate efficacy because of its Author.  Light and power constitute the self-evidencing nature of Scripture as the Word of God.  Light, like God and Scripture, does not require proof of authenticity.

Christ the source of knowledge
Owen speaks of Christ as the “sacred repository” of all truth.  Owen provides the ontological basis, in the glory of Christ’s person as the God-man, for revelation to be communicated from God to humanity; He is the Mediator not only in salvation, but also in all communication between God and fallen humanity.  No one but the God-man has the ability to declare perfectly the revelation of God.  So the “great end” of Christ’s coming was to reveal God (Matt. 13:35; John 1:18).

Covenantal context for the knowledge of God
God revealed Himself to Adam in the context of a covenant (the covenant of works). If this was true for Adam in the garden, how much more for the elect in the covenant of grace?  Owen would argue that all true theology is based on a covenant, which means that supernatural theology is best understood covenantally.  In the covenant of grace, God reveals His love and grace toward His people.  But those truths are all proposed to God’s people in the various post-lapsarian covenants in and by Christ.  Owen would demonstrate in his own writings, revelation was progressive along covenantal lines, but in the new covenant God speaks definitively and most gloriously in the person of Jesus Christ.


What was John Owen’s threefold understanding on the Inspiration of Scripture?

The Word of God for John Owen has a threefold meaning “hypostatikos, endiathetos, and prophorikos.” The “hypostatic” (personal) Word has reference to the person of Christ. The latter two Greek terms found commonly  in patristic literature and used by Philo of Alexandria, speak of the (internal or inherent) “endiathetos” Word and the spoken “prophorikos” (spoken) Word. The logos prophorikos is the Bible, God’s supernatural revelation, expressed in words and commited to writing. Supernatural revelation provides objective ground for supernatural illumination, and John Owen constantly ties together the fact of divine revelation and the concept of approaching it.


How for John Owen and other Puritans was Christ the source of knowledge?

John Owen described Christ as the “sacred repository” of all truth. Puritan Edward Reynolds (1599-1676) similarly acknowledges that Christ is the “sum and center of all divinely revealed truth.” Because He is God incarnate, Christ makes theology possible. Owen distinguishes between the theology of the God-man, Jesus Christ and the theology of everyone else. Christ theology is innate in Himself (Col.2:3) as so this theology far exceeds that of anyone whose knowledge of God must be acquired from without. Christ knowledge of God is something utterly beyond believers, He nevertheless provides the ontological basis, in the glory of His person as the God-man, for revelation to be communicated between God and humanity; He is the mediator not only in salvation, but also in all communication between God and fallen humanity.


The Puritan Practical Use of Election

The Puritans used this doctrine to preach to the unconverted, knowing that it humbles man and can alarm man. Puritan Dickson wrote on this topic,

“Election and reprobation may be safely taught, others say it could make men despair, let none take offense at this doctrine, because Christ’s sheep will hear his voice, forces men to turn to God or force men to become reprobates, either turn to God or take home the black news that they are reprobate, very needful to put men to their decisions.”

The Puritans used the doctrine to the comfort and awakening of distressed souls. Thomas Horton wrote on the matter,

“Doctrine of comfort takes all out of ourselves and deserts, doctrine of arrogance, presumption are of despair they will not hold out or support a man when he is in need of them, doctrines of free grace are doctrines of comfort because it reduces everything to God that he will fulfill what he has promised.”

Parr writes,

“Unworthiness may dismay thee, but remember it is God’s will that matters. Use this doctrine of election for believers to teach them of their privileges and safety, use their election as a motive to live holy unto God.”

Owen writes,

“God makes a consideration of electing love as free and undeserved, his principal argument for obedience, (Col. 3) as elect of God, bowels of mercies, also an encouragement to holiness, the fountain of electing grace will never fail us.”