How the Word is to be Read
A Series on The Westminster Larger Catechism Q&A 154-160
Editor’s Note: This is part 4 of a 10 part series on Westminster Larger Catechism Question and Answers 154-160.
The Holy Bible holds the distinguished honor of being the world’s most printed book in history, having sold more than 3.9 Billion copies over the past 50 years alone. Joining the Bible in the list of world’s most printed and sold books are in second place, the Works of Mao Tse-tung, with 820 Million copies, third place J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series with 400 Million copies, and in fourth place J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings series with 103 Million copies. To say that the Bible far outstrips its nearest competitors in substance, sales, and antiquity is more than a mild understatement. While this statistic is indeed impressive there is another that is altogether troubling: that while Bible sales are up, Biblical literacy is at a disheartening low. The Bible is considered by many today as simply a book like all other books and as such one that may be cast aside, or left shelved and bathed in dust. At the heart of this issue is that people read the Bible on their own terms, and not the terms of the Bible itself. The Westminster Divines felt the tension of this very issue when they asked the 157th question of their Larger Catechism, “How is the Word of God to be read?” Their answer is still accurate and to be valued by people today as the Bible itself is much more than simply a book, it is the very Word of God. There are three emphases derived from Larger Catechism 157 that must prevail in us if we are to read the Bible rightly.
157. How is the Word of God to be read?
The holy Scriptures are to be read with an high and reverent esteem of them; with a firm persuasion that they are the very Word of God, and that he only can enable us to understand them; with desire to know, believe, and obey the will of God revealed in them; with diligence, and attention to the matter and scope of them; with meditation, application, self-denial, and prayer.
Bible Readers Must Have a Godward Gaze
The Divines first encourage us to read the Bible with “an high and reverent esteem”, but what does this truly mean? This principally means that we should read the Bible with an attitude different than what is appropriate for every other book. Other books are written by fallible men who struggle with bias, are limited by various weaknesses, and are prone to err which require people to read with a critical and often skeptical eye. What makes the Bible so worthy of reverence is its author. The Bible contains not the words of an ivory tower scholar, a retired football player, some witty millennial with aspirations, or even the musings of mystical gurus, but those of the Living God who is infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in His being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth. His words reflect His attributes and testify to eternal truths that are measured by the standard of His perfections. To say that we ought to read the Scriptures with “an high and reverent esteem” is to say that they require the reader to rejoice in the majesty of their author who is divine.
Not only are readers to have a high regard for the scriptures but also, they ought to have “a firm persuasion that they are the very word of God.” Many today irreligiously dismiss the Bible as simply a collection of a great number of writings from human authors spanning many centuries. While it is certainly the case that even from the Bible’s own account that the Scriptures were written by the hands of men, they were not however written independently of God. The Bible’s own teaching (2 Pet. 1:21) is that “no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” So prolific is the Bible’s own claim to be the very word of God that it is impossible to maintain any of its truths apart from its most essential claim of divine authorship. Without a “firm persuasion” that the Bible is “the very word of God,” no reader can make any coherent or profitable study of the Bible or its teachings.
Stepping into a dark room can be significantly disorienting to human minds. In the dark one can miss the beauty of entire mountain ranges, the luster of piles of gold, the likeness of loved ones, and even pitfalls that threaten life itself. As our sight is limited to that which is illumined in some measure by diffused light, our understanding of scripture is also entirely dependent upon God’s mercy in illumination to our minds. The result of the fall of humanity was not only moral corruption but also the impairing of the mind so that mankind’s desire is for falsehood instead of truth. The Bible describes this in Romans 1:21 “…they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.” It is only by the merciful work of God (Luke 24:45) that this effect of sin be removed so that our hearts and minds are made to understand and receive the word of God as true. It is not by our intellectual prowess, nor academic genius that we may gain biblical understanding, but only by the goodness and grace of God working in us; therefore, let the reader lean upon God for help that the sinner’s mind may be filled with the light of God’s Word.
Bible Readers Must Have a Passionate Motive
As any marksman knows if you aim at nothing you will generally hit nothing, the same is very true of the reading of Scripture. In the reading of the Bible, the Larger Catechism notes that a reader is to “desire to know, believe, and obey the will of God revealed in them.” There is a great myriad of reasons people might read the Bible which may range from a desire for hidden knowledge, therapeutic healing, even down to skeptical desires to refute its teachings. Much as is the case with any writing it is always best to keep in mind and to match ourselves to the writers own intent in writing. The Bible’s own teaching concerning its purpose is that man would know, believe, and obey the will of God. To be sure, this requires much of readers. It means that we ought to seek not simply to plow through pages of text but that we ought to have the goal of knowing the substance of its teaching, that we ought to desire not only to know but to engage this teaching with believing hearts, and then have this knowledge and faith change our lives that we would obey the will of God.
Bible Readers Must have a Devoted Heart
As a father of little boys, I have become increasingly accustomed to the reality that my sons need to know not only what to do, but how to do it. In closing the Larger Catechism answer 157, the Divines give us a simple explanation of how we may read the Bible as they write “with diligence, and attention to the matter and scope of them; with meditation, application, self-denial, and prayer.” These six duties of Bible readers can be well summarized by one word, “Devotion.” These aren’t casual deeds, they require of us real commitment and spiritual exertion. They take effort. These labors of “diligence, … attention to the matter and scope…; meditation, application, self-denial, and prayer” are the doings of a heart moved to a devoted pursuit of the knowledge of God in the scriptures. There are many things within the Scriptures that are hard to understand, that are hard to receive, that press upon our hearts, and that cause us to seek the Lord all the more in prayer and all of these will be to our blessing if we give ourselves to labor in the reading of this blessed means of grace.
May this Larger Catechism Question challenge us to be good readers of God’s Word, unto His glory, and our blessing.
James Chapman. “Most Read Books in the World| Statistic.” Statista. May 2012. Accessed April 18, 2018.https://www.statista.com/statistics/248141/most-read-books-in-the-world/.
Mohler, R. Albert. “The Scandal of Biblical Illiteracy: It’s Our Problem.” AlbertMohler.com. January 20, 2016. Accessed April 18, 2018. https://albertmohler.com/2016/01/20/the-scandal-of-biblical-illiteracy-its-our-problem-4/.