|Reformed Perspectives Magazine, Volume 10, Number 40, September 28 to October 4 2008|
This article is taken from his Works Vol. IV, The Work of the Holy Spirit, published by the Banner of Truth, pp. 199-209.
John Owen (1616-1683). No outline of Owen's life can give an adequate impression of the stature and importance to which he attained in his own day. He was summoned to preach before Parliament on several occasions, most notably on the day after the execution of Charles I. During the Civil War, Owen's merit was recognized by General Fairfax, then by Cromwell who took him as Chaplain to Ireland and Scotland. He was adviser to Cromwell, especially though not exclusively on ecclesiastical affairs, but fell from the Protector's favour after opposing the move to make him King. In 1658 he was one of the most influential members of the Savoy Conference of ministers of Independent persuasion. After the Ejection he enjoyed some influence with Charles II who occasionally gave him money to distribute to impoverished ejected ministers. All in all, he was, with Richard Baxter, the most eminent Dissenter of his time.
THE means to be used for the right understanding and interpretation of the Scripture are of two sorts: — I. That which is general and absolutely necessary. II. Such as consist in the due improvement thereof.
I. The first is diligent reading of the Scripture, with a sedate, rational consideration of what we read. Nothing is more frequently commended unto us; and, not to insist on particular testimonies, the whole 119th Psalm is spent in the declaration of this duty, and the benefits which are attained thereby. Herein consists the first natural exercise of our minds in order unto the understanding of it. So the eunuch read and pondered on the prophecy of Isaiah, though of himself he could not attain the understanding of what he read, Acts viii. 30, 31. Either reading, or that which is equivalent there-unto, is that whereby we do, and without which it is impossible we should, apply our minds to know what is contained in the Scriptures; and this is that which all other means are designed to render useful. Now, by this reading I understand that which is staid, sedate, considerative, with respect unto the end aimed at; reading attended with a due consideration of the things read, inquiry into them, meditation on them, with a regard unto the design and scope of the place, with all other advantages for the due investigation of the truth.
Frequent reading of the word more generally and cursorily, where-unto all Christians ought to be trained from their youth, 2 Tim. iii. 15, and which all closets and families should be acquainted withal, Deut. vi. 6-9, is of great use and advantage; and I shall, therefore, name some particular benefits which may be received thereby: —
By this reading of the Scripture I mean the studying of it, in the use of means, to come to a due understanding of it in particular places; for it is about the means of the solemn interpretation of the Scripture that we now inquire. Hereunto, I say, the general study of the whole, and in particular the places to be interpreted, is required. It may seem altogether needless and impertinent to give this direction for the understanding of the mind of God in the Scripture, namely, that we should read and study it to that end; for who can imagine how it should be done otherwise? But I wish the practice of many, it may be, of the most, did not render this direction necessary; for in their design to come to the knowledge of spiritual things, the direct immediate study of the Scripture is that which they least of all apply themselves unto. Other writings they will read and study with diligence ; but their reading of the Scripture is for the most part superficial, without that intension of mind and spirit, that use and application of means, which are necessary unto the understanding of it, as the event doth manifest. It is the immediate study of the Scripture that I intend. And hereunto I do refer, — 1. A due consideration of the analogy of faith always to be retained; 2. A due examination of the design and scope of the place; 3. A diligent observation of antecedents and consequents; with all those general rules which are usually given as directions in the interpretation of the Scripture. This, therefore, in the diligent exercise of our minds and reasons, is the first general outward means of knowing the mind of God in the Scripture and the interpretation thereof.
II. The means designed for the improvement hereof, or our profitable use of it, are of three sorts: — 1. Spiritual; 2. Disciplinary; 3. Ecclesiastical. Some instances on each head will farther clear what I intend.
FIRST. 1. The first thing required as a spiritual means is prayer. I intend fervent and earnest prayer for the assistance of the Spirit of God revealing the mind of God, as in the whole Scripture, so in particular books and passages of it. I have proved before that this is both enjoined and commanded unto us by the practice of the prophets and apostles. And this also, by the way, invincibly proves that the due investigation of the mind of God in the Scripture is a work above the utmost improvement of natural reason, with all outward advantages whatsoever ; for were we sufficient of ourselves, without immediate divine aid and assistance, for this work, why do we pray for them? with which argument the ancient church perpetually urged the Pelagians as to the necessity of saving grace. And it may be justly supposed that no man who professeth himself a Christian can be so forsaken of all sobriety as once to question whether this be the duty of every one who hath either desire or design to attain any real knowledge of the will of God in the Scripture. But the practical neglect of this duty is the true reason why so many that are skilful enough in the disciplinary means of knowledge are yet such strangers to the true knowledge of the mind of God. And this prayer is of two sorts: —
(1.) That which respects the teaching of the Spirit in general, whereby we labour in our prayers that he would enlighten our minds and lead us into the knowledge of the truth, according to the work before described. The importance of this grace unto our faith and obedience, the multiplied promises of God concerning it, our necessity of it from our natural weakness, ignorance, and darkness, should render it a principal part of our daily supplications. Especially is this incumbent on them who are called in an especial manner to "search the Scriptures" and to declare the mind of God in them unto others. And great are the advantages which a conscientious discharge of this duty, with a due reverence of God, brings along with it. Prejudices, preconceived opinions, engagements by secular advantages, false confidences, authority of men, influences from parties and societies, will be all laid level before it, at least be gradually exterminated out of the minds of men thereby. And how much the casting out of all this "old leaven" tends to prepare the mind for, and to give it a due understanding of, divine revelations, hath been proved before. I no way doubt but that the rise and continuance of all those enormous errors which so infest Christian religion, and which many seek so sedulously to confirm from the Scripture itself, are in a great measure to be ascribed unto the corrupt affections, with the power of tradition and influences of secular advantages; which cannot firm their station in the minds of them who are constant, sincere suppliants at the throne of grace to be taught of God what is his mind and will in his word, for it includes a prevailing resolution sincerely to receive what we are so instructed in, whatever effects it may have upon the inward or outward man. And this is the only way to preserve our souls under the influences of divine teachings and the irradiation of the Holy Spirit; without which we can neither learn nor know any thing as we ought. I suppose, therefore, this may be fixed on as a common principle of Christianity, namely, that constant and fervent prayer for the divine assistance of the Holy Spirit is such an indispensable means for the attaining the knowledge of the mind of God in the Scripture as that without it all others will not be available.
Nor do I believe that any one who doth and can thus pray as he ought, in a conscientious study of the word, shall ever be left unto the final prevalency of any pernicious error or the ignorance of any fundamental truth. None utterly miscarry in the seeking after the mind of God but those who are perverted by their own corrupt minds. Whatever appearance there be of sincerity and diligence in seeking after truth, if men miscarry therein, it is far more safe to judge that they do so either through the neglect of this duty or indulgence unto some corruption of their hearts and minds, than that God is wanting to reveal himself unto those that diligently seek him. And there are unfailing grounds of this assurance; for, —  Faith exercised in this duty will work out all that "filthiness and superfluity of naughtiness" which would hinder us so to "receive with meekness the ingrafted word" as that it should "save our souls." [2.] It will work in the mind those gracious qualifications of humility and meekness, whereunto the teachings of God are promised in an especial manner, as we have showed. And,  Our Saviour hath assured us that his heavenly Father will "give the Holy Spirit unto them that ask him," Luke xi. 13. Neither is any supplication for the Holy Spirit more acceptable unto God than that which designs the knowledge of his mind and will that we may do them. [4.] All those graces which render the mind teachable and meet unto the reception of heavenly truths are kept up unto a due exercise therein. If we deceive not ourselves in these things we cannot be deceived; for in the discharge of this duty those things are learned in their power whereof we have the notion only in other means of instruction. And hereby whatever we learn is so fixed upon our minds, possesseth them with such power, transforming them into the likeness of it, as that they are prepared for the communication of farther light, and increases in the degrees of knowledge.
Nor can it be granted, on the other hand, that any sacred truth is learned in a due manner, whatever diligence be used in its acquisition, or that we can know the mind of God in the Scripture in any thing as we ought, when the management of all other means which we make use of unto that end is not committed unto the hand of this duty. The apostle, desiring earnestly that those unto whom he wrote, and whom he instructed in the mysteries of the gospel, might have a due spiritual understanding of the mind of God as revealed and taught in them, prays with all "fervency of mind that they might have a communication of "the Spirit of wisdom and revelation" from above, to enable them thereunto, Eph. i. 16-19, iii. 14-19; for without this he knew it could not be attained. That which he did for them we are obliged to do for ourselves. And where this is neglected, especially considering that the supplies of the Spirit unto this purpose are confined unto them that ask him, there is no ground of expectation that any one should ever learn the saving knowledge of the mind of God in a due manner.
I shall, therefore, fix this assertion as a sacred truth: Whoever, in the diligent and immediate study of the Scripture to know the mind of God therein so as to do it, doth abide in fervent supplications, in and by Jesus Christ, for supplies of the Spirit of grace, to lead him into all truth, to reveal and make known unto him the truth as it is in Jesus, to give him an understanding of the Scriptures and the will of God therein, he shall be preserved from pernicious errors, and attain that degree in knowledge as shall be sufficient unto the guidance and preservation of the life of God in the whole of his faith and obedience. And more security of truth there is herein than in men's giving themselves up unto any other conduct in this world whatever. The goodness of God, his faithfulness in being the "rewarder of them that diligently seek him," the command of this duty unto this end, the promises annexed unto it, with the whole nature of religion, do give us the highest security herein. And although these duties cannot but be accompanied with a conscientious care and fear of errors and mistakes, yet the persons that are found in them have no ground of troublesome thoughts or fearful suspicions that they shall be deceived or fail in the end they aim at.
(2.) Prayer respects particular occasions, or especial places of Scripture, whose exposition or interpretation we inquire after. This is the great duty of a faithful interpreter, that which in, with, and after, the use of all means, he betakes himself unto. An experience of divine guidance and assistance herein is that which unto some is invaluable, however by others it be despised. But shall we think it strange for a Christian, when, it may be after the use of all other means, he finds himself at a loss about the true meaning and intention of the Holy Spirit in any place or text of Scripture, to betake himself in a more than ordinary manner unto God by prayer, that he would by his Spirit enlighten, guide, teach, and so reveal the truth unto him? or should we think it strange that God should hear such prayers, and instruct such persons in the secrets of his covenant? God forbid there should be such atheistical thoughts in the minds of any who would be esteemed Christians! Yea, I must say, that for a man to undertake the interpretation of any part or portion of Scripture in a solemn manner, without invocation of God to be taught and instructed by his Spirit, is a high provocation of him; nor shall I expect the discovery of truth from any one who so proudly and ignorantly engageth in a work so much above his ability to manage. I speak this of solemn and stated interpretations; for otherwise a "scribe ready furnished for the kingdom of God" may, as he hath occasion, from the spiritual light and understanding wherewith he is endued, and the stores he hath already received, declare the mind of God unto the edification of others. But this is the first means to render our studying of the Scripture useful and effectual unto the end aimed at.
This, as was said, is the sheet-anchor of a faithful expositor of the Scripture, which he betakes himself unto in all difficulties; nor can he without it be led into a comfortable satisfaction that he hath attained the mind of the Holy Ghost in any divine revelation. When all other helps fail, as he shall in most places find them to do, if he be really intent on the disquisition of truth, this will yield him his best relief. And so long as this is attended unto, we need not fear farther useful interpretations of the Scripture, or the several parts of it, than as yet have been attained unto by the endeavours of others; for the stores of truth laid up in it are inexhaustible, and hereby will they be opened unto those that inquire into them with humility and diligence. The labours of those who have gone before us are of excellent use herein, but they are yet very far from having discovered the depths of this vein of wisdom; nor will the best of our endeavours prescribe limits and bounds to them that shall come after us. And the reason why the generality of expositors go in the same track one after another, seldom passing beyond the beaten path of former endeavours, unless it be in some excursions of curiosity, is the want of giving up themselves unto the conduct of the Holy Spirit in the diligent performance of this duty.
2. Readiness to receive impressions from divine truths as revealed unto us, conforming our minds and hearts unto the doctrine made known, is another means unto the same end. This is the first end of all divine revelations, of all heavenly truths, namely, to beget the image and likeness of themselves in the minds of men, Rom. vi. 17, 2 Cor. iii. 18; and we miss our aim if this be not the first thing we intend in the study of the Scripture. It is not to learn the form of the doctrine of godliness, but to get the power of it implanted in our souls. And this is an eminent means of our making a progress in the knowledge of the truth. To seek after mere notions of truth, without an endeavour after an experience of its power in our hearts, is not the way to increase our understanding in spiritual things. He alone is in a posture to learn from God who sincerely gives up his mind, conscience, and affections to the power and rule of what is revealed unto him. Men may have in their study of the Scripture other ends also, as the profit and edification of others; but if this conforming of their own souls unto the power of the word be not fixed in the first place in their minds, they do not strive lawfully nor will be crowned. And if at any time, when we study the word, we have not this design expressly in our minds, yet if, upon the discovery of any truth, we endeavour not to have the likeness of it in our own hearts, we lose our principal advantage by it.
3. Practical obedience in the course of our walking before God is another means unto the same end. The gospel is the "truth which is according unto godliness," Titus i. 1; and it will not long abide with any who follow not after godliness according unto its guidance and direction. Hence we see so many lose that very understanding which they had of the doctrines of it, when once they begin to give up themselves to ungodly lives. The true notion of holy, evangelical truths will not live, at least not flourish, where they are divided from a holy conversation. As we learn all to practise, so we learn much by practice. There is no practical science which we can make any great improvement of without an assiduous practice of its theorems; much less is wisdom, such as is the understanding of the mysteries of the Scripture, to be increased, unless a man be practically conversant about the things which it directs unto.
And hereby alone we can come unto the assurance that what we know and learn is indeed the truth. So our Saviour tells us that "if any man do the will of God, he shall know of the doctrine whether it be of God," John vii. 17. Whilst men learn the truth only in the notion of it, whatever conviction of its being so it is accompanied withal, they will never attain stability in their minds concerning it, nor come to the full assurance of understanding, unless they continually exemplify it in their own obedience, doing the will of God. This is that which will give them a satisfactory persuasion of it. And hereby will they be led continually into farther degrees of knowledge; for the mind of man is capable of receiving continual supplies in the increase of light and knowledge whilst it is in this world, if so be they are improved unto their proper end in obedience unto God. But without this the mind will be quickly stuffed with notions, so that no streams can descend into it from the fountain of truth.
4. A constant design for growth and a progress in knowledge, out of love to the truth and experience of its excellency, is useful, yea, needful, unto the right understanding of the mind of God in the Scriptures. Some are quickly apt to think that they know enough, as much as is needful for them; some, that they know all that is to be known, or have a sufficient comprehension of all the counsels of God as revealed in the Scripture, or, as they rather judge, of the whole body of divinity, in all the parts of it, which they may have disposed into an exact method with great accuracy and skill. No great or useful discoveries of the mind of God shall I expect from such persons. Another frame of heart and spirit is required in them who design to be instructed in the mind of God, or to learn it in the study of the Scripture. Such persons look upon it as a treasury of divine truths, absolutely unfathomable by any created understanding. The truths which they do receive from thence, and comprehend according to their measure therein, they judge amiable, excellent, and desirable above all earthly things; for they find the fruit, benefit, and advantage of them, in strengthening the life of God in them, conforming their souls unto him, and communicating of his light, love, grace, and power unto them.
This makes them with purpose of heart continually to press, in the use of all means, to increase in this wisdom, — to grow in the knowledge of God and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. They are pressing on continually unto that measure of perfection which in this life is attainable; and every new beam of truth whereby their minds are enlightened guides them into fresh discoveries of it. This frame of mind is under a promise of divine teaching: Hos. vi. 3, "Then shall we know, if we follow on to know the LORD." Prov. ii. 3-5, "If thou criest after knowledge, and liftest up thy voice for understanding; if thou seekest her as silver, and searchest for her as for bid treasures; then shalt thou understand the fear of the LORD, and find the knowledge of God." When men live in a holy admiration of and complacency in God, as the God of truth, as the first infinite essential Truth, in whose enjoyment alone there is fulness of all satisfactory light and knowledge; when they adore the fulness of those revelations of himself which, with infinite wisdom, he hath treasured up in the Scriptures; when they find by experience an excellency, power, and efficacy in what they have attained unto; and, out of a deep sense of the smallness of their measures, of the meanness of their attainments, and how little a portion it is they know of God, do live in a constant design to abide with faith and patience in continual study of the word, and inquiries into the mind of God therein, — they are in the way of being taught by him, and learning of his mind unto all the proper ends of its revelation.
5. There are sundry ordinances of spiritual worship which God hath ordained as a means of our illumination, a religious attendance whereunto is required of them who intend to "grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ." And this is the first head of means for the due improvement of our endeavours in reading and studying of the Scriptures, that we may come thereby unto a right understanding of the mind of God in them, and be able to interpret them unto the use and benefit of others. What is the work of the Holy Spirit herein, what is the aid and assistance which he contributes hereunto, is so manifest from what we have discoursed, especially concerning his operations in us as a Spirit of grace and supplication (not yet made public), that it must not be here insisted on.
It may be these means will be despised by some, and the proposal of them to this end looked on as weak and ridiculous, if not extremely fanciful; for it is supposed that these things are pressed to no other end but to decry learning, study, and the use of reason in the interpretation of the Scriptures, which will quickly reduce all religion into enthusiasm. Whether there be any thing of truth in this suggestion shall be immediately discovered. Nor have those by whom these things are pressed the least reason to decline the use of learning, or any rational means in their proper place, as though they were conscious to themselves of a deficiency in them with respect unto those by whom they are so highly, and indeed for the most part vainly, pretended unto.
But in the matter in hand we must deal with some confidence. They by whom these things are decried, by whom they are denied to be necessary means for the right understanding of the mind of God in the Scriptures, do plainly renounce the chief principles of Christian religion; for although the Scripture hath many things in common with other writings wherein secular arts and sciences are declared, yet to suppose that we may attain the sense and mind of God in. them by the mere use of such ways and means as we apply in the investigation of truths of other natures is to exclude all consideration of God, of Jesus Christ, of the Holy Spirit, of the end of the Scriptures themselves, of the nature and use of the things delivered in them; and, by consequent, to overthrow all religion. See Prov. xxviii. 5.
And this first sort of means which we have hitherto insisted on are duties in themselves, as well as means unto farther ends; and all duties under the gospel are the ways and means wherein and whereby the graces of God are exercised : for as no grace can be exerted or exercised but in a way of duty, so no duty is evangelical or accepted with God but what especial grace is exercised in. As the word is the rule whereby they are guided, directed, and measured, so the acting of grace in them is that whereby they are quickened; without which the best duties are but dead works. Materially they are duties, but formally they are sins. In their performance, therefore, as gospel duties, and as they are accepted with God, there is an especial aid and assistance of the Holy Spirit. And on that account there is so in the interpretation of the Scriptures; for if without his assistance we cannot make use aright of the means of interpreting of the Scripture, we cannot interpret the Scripture without it. The truth is, they who shall either say that these duties are not necessarily required unto them who would "search the Scriptures," and find out the mind of God for their own edification, or so as to expound those oracles of God unto others, or that they may be performed in a manner acceptable unto God and usefully unto this end, without the especial assistance of the Holy Spirit, do impiously, what lies in them, evert the whole doctrine of the gospel and the grace thereof.
That which, in the next place, might be insisted on is the consideration of the especial rules which have been, or may yet be, given for the right interpretation of the Scriptures. Such are those which concern the style of the Scripture, its especial phraseology, the tropes and figures it makes use of, the way of its arguing; the times and seasons wherein it was written, or the several parts of it; the occasions under the guidance of the Spirit of God given thereunto; the design and scope of particular writers, with what is peculiar unto them in their manner of writing; the comparing of several places as to their difference in things and expressions; the reconciliation of seeming contradictions, with other things of an alike nature. But as the most of these may be reduced unto what hath been spoken before about the disposal and perspicuity of the Scripture, so they have been already handled by many others at large, and therefore I shall not here insist upon them, but speak only unto the general means that are to be applied unto the same end.
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