On The Theologian’s Study Of Scripture
[Lehre und Wehre, December 1885, Vol. 31, Nr. 12]
The forward of the current volume of the Lutheraner contains an urgent exhortation, intended for all Christians, to read the Bible. Since the Lord’s word, “Search the Scriptures” [John 5:39], applies to all Christians. However, the Apostle Paul particularly exhorts his son Timothy, the bishop: “Give attention to reading” [1 Tim. 4:13]. Thus, Bible reading, studying Scripture, is a particular and holy duty especially for the pastor, the theologian. In fact, it is one of the foremost duties of office of the Evangelical pastor. St. Paul calls to Timothy and thus to all who hold the same office: “Give attention to reading, to exhortation, to doctrine!” (1 Tim. 4:13) And so he makes the continual reading of Scripture a prerequisite for beneficial teaching and exhortation. Luther says: “In sum, the one who has grasped the text well is a true pastor. And this is also my best, most Christian counsel: that a person draw water from the fountain or well, that is, that one diligently read the Bible. For whoever is well grounded and experienced in the text becomes a good and rare theologian since a verse and text from the Bible has more value than many notes and glosses, which are neither strong nor plain nor are they able to stand the test.” (Erl. Ausg. 57, 7)
Precisely in these days, as if with an outstretched finger, God points us to the Scripture. The doctrinal battle of recent years has led us into the Scripture anew. We have once again been made aware of the essential principle of Lutheran theology—and that is the Scriptural principle. That is the position which we take up and hold firmly to against old and new opponents: We let the words of Scripture stand as they read and on principle reject every understanding according to reason. A fierce battle on the inspiration of Scripture has recently flared up in the German Church bearing Luther’s name. Without shame and timidity we confess the doctrine of the ancient Church, which has now come to be repugnant: the verbal inspiration of Holy Scripture. All who are called to serve the word and to teach have a double duty rightly to consider their attitude; that they always examine the Scripture anew, and to be well exercised and grounded in the text of Scripture. It should not at all be unusual or superflous for each pastor to encourage the other to study Scripture diligently. What pastor, in the difficulty of the duties of the office, would not blame himself for neglecting Scripture and the study of Scripture for other unimportant things, and not giving due justice to the word which God spoke?
Here are only a few short remarks can be given to answer the double question: how and how come should a theologian study the Scripture?
First the how. The apostle says: “Give attention to reading.” This, above all else, applies to reading, and reading diligently and regularly and reading everything that is written, the entire Scripture from beginning to end, and then to read again what has been read, so that when one has finished reading the Bible he right away returns to the beginning. God commanded Joshua, the prince in Israel, who was to teach the people the ways of the Lord, “This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night!” [Josh. 1:8] This is also said to us. It is not enough for a pastor to be satisfied with the daily Scripture reading with which he, as the head of the household, edifies his family in the morning and evening devotion. No, servants of the word, theologians, have a special command from God: “Give attention to reading!” And even if from morning to evening a pastor is occupied with the demands of the work of his office, he should still not forget that reading, constant reading is also a duty of office. Lack of time is no excuse. We should make the most of our time. Even longer or shorter times of traveling do not absolutely prohibit “constant” reading. Just as every Roman priest can take along his Breviarium, every evangelical pastor can just as easily take his New Testament along with him on travels. Every theologian should be experienced in the Scripture and be at home in it everywhere. Luther was extolled as being an excellent Localis, that is, he could immediately find every verse in the Bible. Whoever diligently reads saves himself, in many cases, the trouble of poring over the concordances. A well-known theologian of this century said of himself that he did not gain his knowledge of Scripture from many books and commentaries, but instead mainly from Scripture itself, from the lectio continua.
Of course, contemplating what is right before one’s eyes is part of the proper reading. A theologian should study the Scripture. It says, “meditate on it day and night!” Meditation is part of what makes a theologian. What, then, is the proper meditation? It is not spinning threads of thought from one’s own wisdom. In the best case, only hay, straw and stubble are then brought to light. Rather the divine thoughts which God Himself has placed in Scripture must be taken out from it and brought into ones own thoughts.
So that the Holy Spirit’s intent and meaning is rightly recognized, of course one must pay close attention to the context of the thoughts. One easily goes down crooked paths by quickly ripping from Scripture some seemingly stirring thought and then after freeing it from Scripture following it up with his own thoughts. Strictly speaking, however, all of Scripture belongs in the context of Scripture. Each doctrine of the divine word has its particular sedes, and only appears in the correct light when it is seen and considered in that particular place where it is found.
The most common error is that Scripture passages, not pertaining to the subject, are brought in. This means that one must also be familiar with the Bible passages that are incorrectly cited and not useful to the subject and understand why they do not deal with the subject at hand. The divine truth is only rightly recognized and its individual parts only remain pure and intact when the boundary lines are sharply observed and rightly examined for what is revealed to us in each section and what is not, and what else God reveals to us elsewhere besides the verses in front of us. Thus Scripture must be compared with Scripture, the apostles with the apostles, the apostles with the prophets and so constant reading and constant meditation of Scripture—all Holy Scripture—are the quickest and best way to the goal. Our knowing and discerning is and remains piecemeal. Thus no theologian should unduly make the holes bigger by leaving entire portions, complete books of the Bible, unnoticed.
Meditation can also take concrete form. It is good and salutary to record and keep in a booklet the good thoughts which the Holy Spirit gives with the reading and pondering. This will soon be commented in another article.
Diligent, constant meditation also brings tentatio along with it because the devil is everywhere hindering the word and so we are driven to prayer. Thus the study of Scripture makes true theologians.
It must never be forgotten, however, that divine thoughts are contained and hidden in the word that is written before our eyes—just like the sword is concealed in the sheath. Therefore it is not possible truly to study Scripture and properly to contemplate the manifold divine wisdom without also turning our attention to the individual words, sentences, and sentence construction. The person who is aware of the fact that the Holy Spirit also taught, placed and arranged the words will also consider it worth the effort to deal with vocabulary, lexicon and grammar. Whoever has not learned to read the Bible in the original text has enough resources to establish the exact meaning of the word—and enough theology can be drawn out from the German itself. Those who learned the languages should never forget Luther’s verdict on the study of language: “As precious as the Gospel now is to us, is how firmly we should hold to the languages. For it was not for nothing that God had His Scripture only written in the two languages—the Old Testament in Hebrew, the New in Greek; God, did not despise them but chose them above all other languages for His word… And may it indeed be said to us: we will never keep the Gospel without the languages… After the time of the apostles, as soon as the languages ceased, the Gospel and faith and all also diminished more and more until Christendom sunk completely under the papacy… But now since the languages have come to the fore, they bring such a light with them and do such great things that all the world is amazed and must confess that we have the Gospel as pure and untainted, almost as the Apostles had.” (St. Louis Edition, 10, 470, 472) In addition to the theological triennium, the one who has learned the languages, should, as much as the Gospel is dear to him, truly continue in this study.
With this discussion of the how, we have already touched on the other question why. As already noted, constant study of Scripture produces correct theology. A bishop should above all things be “able to teach” [1 Tim. 3:2]. He must carry within himself the correct, pure doctrine as his conscious, living possession. And in order for it to be and remain that, it must continually be in use. The treasures which are gathered during the time of study become obsolete and rusty if they are not always being cleaned and polished. Holy Scripture is not only the norm but also the source of the pure doctrine. Only the one to whom doctrine is a living thing, and who then continually draws from the source, is apt and capable and qualified to teach others.
When the apostle says: “Give attention to reading, to doctrine, to exhortation” he specifically connects reading and study Scripture with the work and office of an evangelical pastor. Continually reading and contemplating Scripture certainly bears fruit for the office teaching and preaching but it is an all too unbalanced work and effort when the pastor limits his meditation to the upcoming sermon texts. He must draw out more from the well. What pastor does not bemoan the fact that even with all his preparation for preaching, the thoughts still do not rightly flow and it is often only with great effort he assembles his material? What is without doubt the main reason and cause of such a state of anguish? We do not live and move enough in Scripture, in the fullness of the thoughts that are contained in Scripture. We should of course not think, devise and concoct anything from ourselves—it is a futile for a person to try to extract water out of his own aridness—but we should make better use of the wealth of Scripture and drink to the full the living water, which flows out of Scripture. Luther was a fruitful pastor. But there was also no pastor who lived in Scripture as much as Luther did. With what earnestness and zeal, already as a monk, he read and studied Scripture! By translating the Bible he was forced to consider each word exactly, to look at each word from every angle until he got to the bottom of it. In this way—with many sighs, prayer and trial—he absorbed the Bible, the entire Bible. And it was precisely this that made preaching, as well as his writing, to be almost effortless for him. He had and knew what he should preach, teach, and write. He had richly drawn out and drunk. Therefore his sermons were a river and a gushing forth. We can, we should, imitate him in this.
Several examples may serve to illustrate this. A main theme of Christian preaching is God’s grace in Christ. The main parts of doctrine on which faith hangs—the redemption which took place through Christ Jesus, justification, future glory—will more or less be touched on in every sermon. But how easily it happens that the pastor, when he comes to speak on these vital things, quickly reenters the same stream and tires the hearer with the same old expressions! Of course, the pastor should not try to make the simple preaching of the cross interesting by his own spirit and wit but he should take all parts of Scripture as a pattern and express the content of Scripture. Scripture is not monotone, or dry, or restrained. The wealth of divine grace and wisdom will gradually express itself in the teaching and sermons of those who consider that in many varied ways, according to the context, the apostles proclaim and tout to the Christians the undeniable, one great, mystery [1 Tim. 3:16] of Christ and His atonement; and of those who read, think and live in the words of Christ and in the train and pattern of thought of the apostolic letters. Even when they only do the one thing that is necessary— plainly and simply preaching—they will still according to necessity, purpose, and context find various ways to express the same essential content. And precisely because his speech is not superficial it will make an impression.
Another frequently occurring theme that the yearly pericopes often place into our hands is of the cross and suffering of Christians. Here, in place of constantly repeating a certain, limited copia sententiarum et phrasium, let us listen to Scripture and pay attention what God has revealed to us on this important part of the Christian life. Whoever, for example, rightly grasps the thoughts in the book of Job and makes them his own, will deeply and truly understand how to speak of the most difficult suffering, trial. How well—and how easily—the numerous examples of the cross of the godly, which are told us in Scripture, lend themselves to use and application!
A pastor should also be practical. He should not just state abstract ideas but bring divine thoughts and truths into concrete life so that flesh and blood may be won. But if the practical application is predominately made up of shorter or longer addresses and exhortations which all sound the same, there is often only a very meager practical gain. However, if the pastor takes a close look at and studies the life of faith of the holy men of God that Scripture records—for example, the patriarchs’ life of faith—and then identifies how the individual traits are taken from life and that they are still found today and then, with the light of the divine word, enlightens life today, even without always specifically citing the biblical examples, he will without much compulsion and urging connect many of his hearers to the footsteps of the dear fathers and accustom them to God’s ways.
A pastor of the divine word rebukes sin and warns against judgment and damnation. But it commonly happens that even heavy, robust blows, strong expressions of Law often cut into a person less than would be expected. It is not enough to join together and read several powerful bible words and then without further ado lay the judgment on the head of the sinner. But the preaching to repentance must also, above all else, convince. The individual wrongs must be laid bare and their damnable consequences shown. And also here the goal is most quickly reached when one studies and uses Scripture. For example, the history of the people of Israel: the account of Israel’s falling away and the judgment which met the unfaithful, mirrors the ways, the condition, and destiny of present day Christendom that is already apostate or prone to fall away. Whoever understands that the holy accounts are used as a mirror of the age and customs, whoever listens attentively to the earnest preaching of the prophets, and repeats to his contemporaries what he learned from the prophets, his doctrine and chastisement will never be without result.
The Apostle exhorts Timothy: “Give attention to reading, to doctrine, to exhortation!” The continual study of Scripture also has a richly blessed influence on the evangelical pastor’s other work: exhortation for the care of the soul. Scripture gives correct counsel and light to all cases that come before a pastor as he cares for soul. If he wants to carry out his office, which is full of responsibility, rightly, a pastor must not only admonish with holy zeal the ones who oppose and are disobedient, but also the erring and floundering. The face of the holy God reflects itself in Scripture. Whoever diligently daily interacts with Scripture interacts with God like Moses did on Mt. Sinai, and he shines with God’s earnestness, not on his face but in his heart and in his speech and admonishing. The evangelical pastor’s admonition and care for the soul should be permeated by an evangelical attitude, by a hearty, fervent brotherly love, and love of a sinner. The friendliness and kindness of God our Savior shines through all of Scripture. A pastor who lives and moves in Scripture, will not, in his call as shepherd, completely deny Christ’s love, and the gentleness, the mercy, the patience of God. A pastor who not only has to worry about his own soul and the salvation of those in his house, but who must also lead a whole flock with himself to heaven and by the word lead and govern people of very diverse gifts, ways and customs, needs, before other Christians, the power and strength from on high and therefore, before other Christians, is pointed to the Means of Grace, the Scripture.
In conclusion, there is only the assurance that the above lines are not meant as an accusation. Instead, they merely point to a deficiency which already many pastors, including the writer of these lines, certainly feel in themselves. In no way is a colossal exertion required to remedy such a deficiency. It does not require anyone to abandon their usual work pattern. It all depends on a person merely, as St. Paul writes, giving attention to, yes, daily giving attention to reading. If each day a pastor would read and study Scripture with devotion for only an hour or even only a half an hour, he can easily read the New Testament once a year and in half a decade make his way through the Old Testament. And even if he would need twice as much time for such a journey, he would still have rich profit from it. God grant for the New Year a new beginning, desire and completion!