One of the things I love about the Puritans is their commitment to the study of Scripture. When you read the works of the Puritans (and those heavily influenced by them), like Richard Baxter, John Owen, Jonathan Edwards and so many others, it’s clear that they thought deeply about the Scriptures and their application in a way that many of us—even the most committed—struggle to in the same fashion. According to Allan Harman in Matthew Henry – His Life and Influence, their approach basically took into consideration the following questions (I’ve included my own commentary with each):
What do these words actually mean?
This might seem incredibly obvious, but it’s worth noting that in periods prior to the Reformation, many Christian teachers interpreted Scripture allegorically (which is fine to do when the Scriptures themselves give you the freedom to do so). But one problem with this approach is that it can quickly lead to the obscuring of the author’s intended message. Whatever conclusions we come to about a text, we have to start with what the author originally intended his audience to hear.
What light do other Scriptures throw on this text?
No passage of Scripture should be interpreted in a vacuum. Doing so rarely leads to a right conclusion about the author’s intent in writing it and the passage’s application for us today. When we come across texts that seem to conflict with one another (say, for example, John 1:1 and Deut. 6:4), we need to remember that if the Bible is truly inspired by God, if God is its ultimate source, then, generally speaking, there is no apparent conflict that can’t be explained without jumping through too many hoops (even if it’s simply acknowledging the truth of Deut 29:29).
Where and how does it fit into the total biblical revelation?
Just as a passage of Scripture should be interpreted in light of the author’s original intent and other relevant passages of Scripture, we also have to be careful to make sure we’re clear on how it fits into the “big story” of the Bible.
What truths does it teach about God, and about man in relation to God?
This is a wonderful diagnostic question for us because, just like the ones prior, it leads us closer to the point of all Scripture. This is where so much of our interpretation falls short today, where we put ourselves as the primary object of every text, where the Bible always and consistently puts God as primary and truths we learn about ourselves in the process are always in light of our understanding of God. If our understanding of a text isn’t first and foremost leading us to a greater understanding of the God who inspired it to be written, then we’re probably off in our interpretation.
How are these truths related to the saving work of Christ, and what light does the gospel of Christ throw upon them?
For me, this is probably the most crucial question—if as Jesus said, all Scripture is about Him (cf. Luke 22:37; 24:44; John 5:39), then it is our duty to make the connection to the gospel plain for our hearers and/or readers.
What experiences do these truths delineate, or explain, or seek to create or cure?
The Puritans were unrelenting about the need for application in teaching. And this is the first point reminds us that there is a response that the text demands. Our job is to find out what it is. The following questions drill deeper into this one.
For what practical purpose do they stand in Scripture?
All the truth contained within Scripture is there to train us in godliness that we may be equipped for every good work (cf. 2 Tim 3:16-17). Therefore, there’s always going to be a practical takeaway for us.
How do they apply to myself and others in our own actual situation?
This isn’t “what does the text mean to me” but “how does this text apply to my specific situation.” Some passages aren’t immediately applicable, and thus stand as “preventative medicine” for the day in which they are required.
To what present and human condition do they speak, and what are they telling us to believe and do?
This is the most important question we can ask when it comes to right application; there is no human condition that isn’t fundamentally addressed in the Word of God because it all stems from one root (the Fall). And ultimately, our primary response and application is always to repent and believe the gospel. Train-wrecked marriages, work issues, parenting… all of it can and is centered in the gospel, and that should be our primary call to application.
While these questions are quite simple, the answers we find by studying the Bible in light of them is extremely helpful.
What questions do you use to assist your study of Scripture?