Six Principles for Reading the Bible

My reading goal for 2023 is to go deeper rather than merely wider. From 2017 onward, I have aimed to read fifty-two books each year, and there are great benefits to be gained from reading widely. Yet my plan for this year is less about variety and more about meditative chewing. For example, I am tackling the Battle’s translation of Calvin’s Institutes, reading David Calhoun’s Knowing God and Ourselves: Reading Calvin’s Institutes Devotionally as my guide.

I am also intending to follow the advice that Spurgeon gave to his students: “Every minister ought to read Matthew Henry entirely and carefully through once at least. I should recommend you to get through it in the next twelve months after you leave college. Begin at the beginning, and resolve that you will traverse the goodly land from Dan to Beersheba.”[1] I do not know that I will make it through all six volumes of Henry’s commentaries in twelve months, but I have already begun with Genesis and have found his comments to be as spiritually nourishing as Spurgeon attests them to be.

Since I am beginning at the beginning, I read Henry’s preface for the first time and found myself greatly edified. Being the new year, it is all too tempting to focus almost exclusively on what Bible reading plan we will follow. Reading plans can, of course, be a great help toward structuring our way through God’s Word, so I certainly bring no word of condemnation against them. However, as important as it is to have a plan for reading Scripture, it is equally important to remind ourselves why we read Scripture in the first place. This is where I found much benefit from Henry’s preface, for he begins by laying “down those great and sacred principles which I go upon, and am governed by, in this endeavor to explain and improve these portions of holy writ.” The following six principles that governed how Henry commented upon Scripture should, likewise, govern how we read Scripture.

1. Religion is the one thing needful.

Henry goes on to clarify this point, which is particularly needed today when we have such a negative view of the word religion, saying: “to know, and love, and fear God our Maker, and in all the instances both of devout affection, and of good conversation, to keep his commandments, (Eccles. xii. 13.) is, without doubt, the whole of man; it is all in all to him.”

Or, we might put it this way, what could be more important in this life than to be certain of our eternal standing before God, the Judge of all the earth?

2. Divine revelation is necessary to true religion.

“Natural light [that is, natural revelation],” says Henry, “no doubt, is of excellent use, as far as it goes; but it is necessary that there be divine revelation, to rectify its mistakes, and make up its deficiencies, to help us out there where the light of nature leaves us quite at a loss, especially in the way and method of man’s recovery from his lapsed state, and his restoration to his Maker’s favour.”

Like the dry bones that Ezekiel was shown in the valley, only God’s Spirit working through God’s Word can bring our hearts that are dead in sin to life in Christ.

3. Divine revelation is not now to be found or expected any where but in the Scriptures.

Here is the Reformation principle that we call Sola Scriptura. While other writings and resources may be of help to us, only the Bible is God’s inspired Word to humanity.

Henry also answers a commonly raised objection:

It is true, there were religion and divine revelation before there was any written word; but to argue from thence, that the scriptures are not now necessary, is as absurd as it would be to argue that the world might do well enough without the sun, because in the Creation the world had light three days before the sun was made.

4. The Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments were purposely designed for our learning.

They might have been a divine revelation to those into whose hands they were first put, and yet we, at this distance, have been no way concerned in them; but it is certain that they were intended to be of universal and perpetual use and obligation to all persons, in all places, and all ages, that have the knowledge of them, even into us upon whom the ends of the world are come, Rom. xv. 4.

Of course, we also read this truth in Paul’s glorious words in 2 Timothy 3:16-17:

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.

5. The Holy Scriptures were not only designed for our learning, but are the settle rule of our faith and practice.

Henry notes that it is by God’s Word “by which we must be governed now, and judged shortly.” Again, the Scriptures are “for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16), and it is within them that we learn what righteousness is. A football player cannot properly train for football without first knowing how football is played. In the same way, the Scriptures illumine for us the ways of God by which we must live and by which we will be judged.

6. It is the duty of all Christians diligently to search the Scriptures, and it is the office of ministers to guide and assist them therein.

How useful soever this book of books is in itself, it will be of no use to us, if we do not acquaint ourselves with it, by reading it daily, and meditating upon it, that we may understand the mind of God in it, and may apply what we understand to ourselves, for our direction, rebuke, and comfort, as there is occasion. It is the character of the holy and happy man, that his delight is in the law of the Lord; and, as evidence thereof, he converses with it as his constant companion, and advises with it as his most wise and trusty counsellor, for in that law doth he meditate day and night, Ps. i. 2.

These six principles that guided Matthew Henry’s approach to Scripture ought to also be affirmed by every evangelical Christian. So, as you enact your plan to read Scripture this year, don’t miss the forest for the trees by focusing only on how to read the Bible to the neglect of why we read the Bible.

[1] Charles Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students, 565.

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