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Preparations for the Christian Ministry – Special Study of the Scriptures by Charles Bridges

By April 9, 2011April 12th, 2016Preaching

THE connection of this section with the preceding, is peculiarly important. Habits of General study, however well regulated and perseveringly maintained, will reflect no light or spiritual apprehension of the Gospel, independent of the special study of the sacred volume. Nor is it sufficient merely to combine these courses of study. Their connection is not that of equality, but of the direct subserviency of General study to this specific purpose–a more enlightened and fruitful study of the word of God.

The intellectual excitement of literary or even theological study needs much watchfulness, lest it should deaden the freshness of our mind to the more spiritual study of the Scriptures. We must be careful also, that our studies draw us to the Bible, and that we draw our studies to the Bible; instead of merely drawing the Bible to our studies, in which case they will be worse than unprofitable. When commencing the study of Divine truth, amid all the jarring opinions of human authors, it is of inexpressible moment to begin with studying the pure word of God, and to go regularly through the whole of that word before we prepossess our minds with human opinions. While continuing the study of Divine truth, it is also of vast moment to keep up the daily reading of considerable portions of the pure word of God, and so to keep Scriptural truth (as it has been observed) continually revolving in the mind. It will be the only effectual preservative against the taint and deterioration, which the mind might otherwise receive from reading human authors.

The Bible then must be, in a true Protestant sense, the Liber Sacerdotalis. ‘The chief and top of the knowledge of the Country Parson consists in the Book of Books–the storehouse and magazine of life and comfort–the Holy Scripture. As no one can pretend to be a Christian without a competent acquaintance with it; so no one can be qualified for the sacred office without such an accurate and spiritual insight into its contents, as shall prove him to be, like Ezra, ‘”a ready scribe in the law, ”–not only “a faithful man,” but “able to teach others also.” “It is of the Gospel,” (Archbishop Secker reminded his clergy) “that you are ministers; all other learning will leave you essentially unqualified; and this alone, (the doctrine and precepts of the Gospel,) comprehends every thing that is necessary.” With this end he recommends a diligent perusal of the Holy Scriptures. Indeed, if the Bible be the fountain of light and truth, it is impossible to distinguish light from darkness, or truth from error in human writings, without an enlightened and enlarged apprehension of the word of God. By this touchstone we must “prove all things,” so as to “hold fast that which is good.”

But we want a study–a searching into the Scriptures–the patient investigating spirit of the miner, digging into hidden treasure. Some with good intentions and competent capacities, are in danger of becoming crude and inexperienced throughout their course, by substituting warm impressions of Scripture for that close study of its sacred contents, which can alone form a solid and efficient Ministry. “In general,” (Mr. Scott remarks) “I have found it advantageous sometimes to read the Scriptures with such exactness, as to weigh every expression, and the connection, as if I were about to preach upon every verse; and then to apply the result to my own case, character, experience, and conduct, as if it had been directly addressed to me–in short–to make the passages into a kind of sermon, as if about to preach to others, and then to turn the whole application on myself, as far as suited to my case. At other times I have read a passage more generally, and then selected two or three of the most important observations from it, and endeavored to employ my mind in meditation on them, and consider how they bore on the state of my heart, or on my past life, or on those things which I heard or observed, in the world or the Church, and to compare them with the variety of Sentiments, experiences, conduct, or prominent characters, with which we become gradually more and more acquainted.” It is most important also, that our research should compass, as far as possible, the whole extent of the mine. The wise scattering of the truth over the whole surface of Scripture is far more adapted to the ends of instruction, than would have been a compression of its component parts within their several departments. None of us probably are wholly free from undue partialities; and, had our favorite doctrines been concentrated in particular divisions of the volume, an exclusive or disproportioned attention to those parts would have contracted our views of the whole System. The present disposition of truth, however, compels us to study the entire volume; and thus, by considering the whole mind of God, our views are extended to the length and breadth of the land, while we insensibly imbibe more of the enlarged Spirit of the Divine revelation.

Perhaps the Pentateuch, the Prophecies, and the Epistles, may be marked out as the peculiar subjects of study. On the Pentateuch–Dean Graves’s Lectures may be referred to for much valuable criticism and information, equally illustrative of the wisdom and of the difficulties of the Mosaic code. Faber’s Hore Mosaice opens a diversified, instructive, and Christian view of this sacred field. On the Prophecies– Mede stands fore-most as the Prince among the Interpreters of this mysterious revelation. Bishop Newton’s Dissertations also are full of important illustration respecting fulfilled Prophecy. Davison’s Lectures lay open the scope with much solid, serious, and original contemplation. After all that has been written in the present day upon unfulfilled prophecy, upon different principles of interpretation, (and not always with suitable humility, forbearance, and patience,) a dark cloud still hangs over the development of the prospects of the Church. Faber’s “Sacred Calendar of Prophecy,” must however be deemed on all sides worthy of an attentive perusal, though serious doubts will be entertained on particular parts of his System. Mr. Bickersteth’s “Practical Guide to the Prophecies,” though it throws out some uncertain views, is fraught with glowing scriptural motives and valuable information. Comparison of the different chains of prophecy in the sacred volume in a simple, dependent, investigating spirit opens a most interesting and profitable course of study, to which indeed the signs of the present times imperiously call us. The Epistles, in some respects, may be considered the most important portion of Scripture to the Minister, in order to obtain a connected and comprehensive System. Perhaps Scott’s Commentary–with as large a selection of his references as may be practicable–may be regarded upon the whole as the best source of solid and spiritual instruction upon the grand subjects discussed by the different inspired writers.

Our obligation to “keep back nothing that is profitable” to the people, sufficiently marks the importance of this research. Adults must be fed as well as babes. Those that have successfully exercised the diligence of faith, must not be hindered in their advance to higher attainments by being bound up in the same line and measure with others, who from the neglect of the same advantages have come short. The main design of the Ministry is to carry our people forward–to “present every man perfect in Christ Jesus.” The reverent exposition, therefore, of “the deep things of God,” is included in our commission, and demands a deep and accurate study of the sacred volume. Difficulties indeed will remain to the end; most profitably exercising our subjection to the authority of Scripture, and our habitual dependence upon Divine teaching. Indeed, this spirit of humble submission to the word, is the requisite preparation for admittance in every part of this heavenly treasure; where the lowest possessor of this Christian Spirit will not fail to realize a most valuable blessing.

In speaking of Commentaries–the value of Scott’s Commentary, as exhibiting a matured knowledge of Scripture, sound principles of interpretation, and a body of solid practical instruction–is generally acknowledged. Henry’s Commentary (though inferior to Scott in luminous view of doctrine) may be said to excel him in simplicity of style and fertility of illustration. Yet for that exegetical and critical explanation necessary for the elucidation of Scriptural difficulties, we must go to Calvin’s Commentaries–Poole’s Synopsis–or Patrick, Lowth, and Whitby in a lower and (as respects Whitby) an unscriptural standard of theology.

It is, however, most important to remember, that the service or disservice of commentaries wholly depends upon the place which they occupy in the system of study. Let them not be discarded as utterly useless; for many of them comprise the labours of men, who had a far deeper insight into the word of God than those who despise them are generally likely to attain. But let them not be placed before the word, nor be consulted (habitually at least), until the mind has been well stored with the study of God’s own book. Professor Campbell speaks most admirably upon this point–“I would not have you at first,” (says he) “recur to any of them. Do not mistake me as though I meant to signify, that there is no good to be had from commentaries. I am far from judging thus of the commentaries in general, any more than of systems. But neither are proper for the beginner, whose object it is impartially to search out the mind of the Spirit, and not to imbibe the scheme of any dogmatist. Almost every commentator has his favorite system, which occupies his imagination, biases his understanding, and more or less tinges all his comments. The only assistances which I would recommend, are those, in which there can be no tendency to warp your judgment. It is the serious and frequent reading of the Divine oracles, accompanied with fervent prayer; it is the comparing Scripture with Scripture; it is the diligent study of the languages in which they are written; it is the knowledge of those histories and antiquities, to which they allude. These indeed will not tell you what you are to judge of every passage: and so much the better.–God has given you judgment, and requires you to exercise it. ‘And why even of yourselves judge ye not what is right?’ ‘ In answer to the question–‘when it is proper to recur to systems and commentators’–the Professor replies–“after you have acquired such an insight into the spirit and sentiments of sacred writ, that you are capable of forming some judgment of the conformity or contrariety of the doctrine of these authors to that infallible standard. With the examination of such human compositions, the studies of the theologian ought in my judgment to be concluded, and not begun.” This appears to be the only profitable and safe use of commentaries. We thus avail ourselves freely of all the store of wisdom within our reach: while at the same time our “faith does not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God.”

To illustrate the importance of this principle–Suppose a Theological student of ardent mind, but with uninformed or unfixed biblical principles, to sit down to Poole’s invaluable Synopsis, or even to make it a book of frequent reference; this digest of Critici Sacri would soon prove to him a Sylva Critica. He would find opinions successively overthrown, which had passed before him with more or less conviction. Or–more frequently, two conflicting sets of opinion would demand his attention, while–having no umpire to decide between them –his judgment (if indeed he were able to form any under such circumstances) would be formed with hesitation, or taken up with haste or partiality, rather than as the result of deliberate and enlightened conviction. Or suppose him to have heard much commendation of Mr. Scott’s Commentary, or his general views of Theology. He knows them to have given an influential tone to the religion of his day. He reads them with avidity; he receives them as the standard of orthodoxy, and feels himself impregnably entrenched in the strong positions of Divine truth. But he may hear Mr. Scott’s principles controverted with considerable force and subtlety of argument, and apparently upon an equal basis of Scriptural authority. Now, if his mind has not been exercised in the field of Holy Writ, he will be incompetent to bring the opposing dogmas to an infallible standard, by comparing them respectively with the analogy of faith; and there-fore (though from partiality, respect, or hesitating conviction he may still maintain his ground) his basis of truth–not having been fixed upon the sole and immovable rock of the Bible–will be materially shaken. His standard (if he should be “a standard-bearer”) will be lifted up with a feeble and trembling hand; and the indecisive character of his ministerial system will preclude any sanguine prospect of efficiency.

We may trace many of the differences subsisting in the Church, to a feeble, uninfluential recognition of the supreme authority of Scripture. Different tracts are taken at the commencement of the inquiry–“What is truth?” The mind is controlled by the bias of some human system. And thus the unity of truth is destroyed: and the clear and heavenly light of scriptural revelation is darkened by the prejudices of men, conflicting with each other, instead of bowing implicitly to the obedience of faith. In fact, from the constitution of the human mind, genuine independence is a matter of extreme difficulty and of rare occurrence. Attachment to some particular system is a spiritual self-indulgence, which too often guides our Scriptural reading, and gives an individual character to it, rather than receives a complexion from it.

The book of God is indeed the living voice of the Spirit. To be intent therefore upon the study of it, must result in a clear apprehension of the mind of God. Hence the maxim–Bonus textuarius, bonus Theologus. Most beautifully does Witsius set out the value of this primary Ministerial qualification–mighty in the Scriptures. “Let the Theologian ascend from the lower school of natural study, to the higher department of Scripture, and, sitting at the feet of God as his teacher, learn from his mouth the hidden mysteries of salvation, which ‘eye hath not seen, nor ear heard; which none of the princes of this world knew;’ which the most accurate reason cannot search out; which the heavenly chorus of angels, though always beholding the face of God, ‘desire to look into.’ In the hidden book of Scripture, and no where else, are opened the secrets of the more sacred wisdom. Whatever is not drawn from them–whatever is not built upon them–whatever does not most exactly accord with them–however it may recommend itself by the appearance of the most sublime wisdom, or rest upon ancient tradition, consent of learned men, or the weight of plausible argument–is vain, futile, and, in short, a very lie. ‘To the law and to the testimony. If any one speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them.’ Let the Theologian delight in these sacred oracles: let him exercise himself in them day and night; let him meditate on them; let him live in them; let him derive all his wisdom from them; let him compare all his thoughts with them; let him embrace nothing in religion which he does not find here. Let him not bind his faith to a man–not to a Prophet–not to an Apostle–not even to an Angel himself, as if the dictum of either man or angel were to be the rule of faith. Let his whole ground of faith be in God alone. For it is a Divine, not a human faith, which we learn and teach; so pure that it can rest upon no ground but the authority of God, who is never false, and never can deceive. The attentive study of the Scriptures has a sort of constraining power. It fills the mind with the most splendid form of heavenly truth, which it teaches with purity, solidity, certainty, and without the least mixture of error. It soothes the mind with an inexpressible sweetness; it satisfies the sacred hunger and thirst for knowledge with flowing rivers of honey and butter; it penetrates into the innermost heart with irresistible influence; it imprints its own testimony so firmly upon the mind, that the believing soul rests upon it with the same security, as if it had been carried up into the third heaven, and heard it from God’s own mouth; it touches all the affections, and breathes the sweetest fragrance of holiness upon the pious reader, even though he may not perhaps comprehend the full extent of his reading. We can scarcely say, how strongly we are opposed to that preposterous method of study, which, alas! too much prevails among us–of forming our views of Divine things from human writings, and afterwards supporting them by Scripture authorities, the result either of our own inquiry, or adduced by others too rashly, and without further examination or bearing upon the subject; when we ought to draw our views of Divine truths immediately from the Scriptures themselves, and to make no other use of human writings, than as indices marking those places in the chief points of Theology, from which we may be instructed in the mind of the Lord.” This exquisite Master of Theology proceeds in the same strain to remark the importance of the Student giving himself up to the inward teaching of the Holy Spirit, as the only mean of obtaining a spiritual and saving acquaintance with the rule of faith; “it being needful that he that is a disciple of Scripture should also be a disciple of the Spirit.” But the whole Oration De Vero Theologo, and its accompaniment, De Modesto Theologo, are so intrinsically valuable for the elegance of their Latinity, the beauty of their thoughts, and most of all for the heavenly unction that breathes through-out the compositions, that nothing further seems needed, than to commend them to the earnest consideration of the Ministerial Student.

The serious exhortation of our Ordination Service–referring generally to study, and specifically to the study of the Scriptures will fitly sum up this section in connection with the preceding–“You will apply yourselves wholly to this one thing, and draw all your cares and studies this way; continually praying to God the Father by the mediation of our only Saviour Jesus Christ, for the heavenly assistance of the Holy Ghost; that by daily weighing of the Scriptures, you may wax riper and stronger in your Ministry.”