God’s Work in Your Bible Reading

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Founder & Teacher, desiringGod.org

In those moments when I wonder who I am — not very often, since I think it’s not a healthy preoccupation — I like to think I am a faint, but faithful echo of Jonathan Edwards’s Bible-saturated vision of God.

One practical outworking of that self-identity is the new book to be published this spring called Reading the Bible Supernaturally: Seeing and Savoring the Glory of God in Scripture. Although, no doubt, Edwards would wish that I had done it better, I think he would approve of the book. As J.I. Packer once said about another of my books, Edwards’s ghost walks through most of its pages.

Another symptom of my self-identity as a diffident, latter-day Edwards-wannabe is the fact that I gobbled up with relish Douglas Sweeney’s new book, Edwards the Exegete: Biblical Interpretation and Anglo-Protestant Culture on the Edge of the Enlightenment — perhaps the way Edwards read John Locke: “with more Satisfaction and Pleasure in studying it, than the most greedy Miser in gathering up handsful of Silver and Gold from some new discover’d Treasure” (Edwards, Works, Vol. 6, 17). Only he was fourteen, and I am seventy.

The connection between Reading the Bible Supernaturally and Sweeney’s book is this: he shows that reading the Bible the way Edwards did — supernaturally — did not become the normative, modern way of reading the Bible. Which means: Here I am again with my little effort to be an echo of Edwards’s exegetical trumpet, some 250 years later.

Our Need for God’s Power

Sweeney shows that, in the century following Edwards, “precious few scholars now enchanted church people with an Edwards-style, theological ministry of the word” (220). Edwards’s most important heir among these nineteenth-century scholars was Moses Stuart (1780–1852). He is often referred to as “the father of biblical science in America” (221). But here’s the tragedy:

[Stuart] retained Edwards’s optimistic view of modern history, but left behind the notion that a special work of God was essential to improvement in the knowledge of the Bible. Stewart’s methods soon won the field of modern biblical studies. (221)

There it is. “A special work of God” is essential to reading the Bible the way it was meant to be read, and the way that will yield its God-intended results. In other words, the Bible is to be read supernaturally. That’s what Edwards did. And that’s what I have written about in Reading the Bible Supernaturally.

Supernatural Origin of the Bible

For Edwards, the supernatural reading of the Bible is rooted ultimately in the supernatural nature of the Bible. Sweeney sums up Edwards’s view: “[The Bible] is the written word of God, from the eternal word of God, and hangs together on the work of the incarnate Word of God” (98).

“A special work of God is essential to reading the Bible the way it was meant to be read.”

Because of this supernatural origin and nature of the Bible, it is self-authenticating. “Edwards sided with thinkers like Calvin who said that Scripture is self-authenticated, full of inherent proof of its divine source and power” (30). “God is not wont to speak to men,” Edwards said, without providing us “sufficient means to know” that he is speaking. “The gospel of the blessed God don’t go abroad a begging for its evidence, so much as some think; it has its highest and most proper evidence in itself.”

“He Opened Their Minds”

But since the supernatural Bible reveals itself to be true by virtue of its own supernatural nature, we can only see that evidence with supernatural help. Or, to be more precise, when we look at the evidence in Scripture, we can only see that it is supernatural, if we have the blindness of our souls supernaturally removed.

Thus Paul said, “The god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:4). But we take heart because Luke said, “[Jesus] opened their minds to understand the Scriptures” (Luke 24:45). There is supernatural (satanic) blindness, and there is supernatural (divine) opening of the mind.

Intersection of Natural and Supernatural

The way that the divine “opening” works in the reading of the Bible is varied. The divine help comes to us in more than one way. One of the most important, and least understood, ways God helps us is explained by Edwards in the following quotation. He points out that the supernatural impartation of a new spiritual taste to the soul (in which we hate the taste of sin and relish the taste of holiness) has a powerful effect on the right use of our reason.

A spiritual taste of the soul [1 Peter 2:3] mightily helps the soul, in its reasonings on the word of God, and in judging of the true meaning of its rules; as it removes the prejudices of a depraved appetite, and naturally leads the thoughts in the right channel, casts a light on the word of God, and causes the true meaning, most naturally to come to mind through the harmony there is between the disposition and relish of a sanctified soul, and the true meaning of the rules of God’s word. Yea, this harmony tends to bring the texts themselves to mind, on proper occasions; as the particular state of the stomach and pallet, tends to bring such particular meets and drinks to mind, as are agreeable to that state. (Edwards, Religious Affections, cited in Sweeney, 74–75)

Plainly, the supernatural and natural aspects of reading the Bible intersect. The supernatural transformation of our spiritual palate intersects with the natural faculty of our reason, and enables it to do its work with greater insight and accuracy.

Sun of All Knowledge

“All knowledge from every other source pays homage to what we see in the Bible. The Bible is the test of all things.”

Edwards’s experience of reading the Bible supernaturally in this way produced a lifetime of profound seeing through the word of God into the glories of his nature and ways. The Bible became “the sun of his solar system. . . . The Bible was the key to real knowledge of the creator and his handiwork in history” (26).

For Edwards, all knowledge from every other source paid homage to what he saw in the Bible. The Bible was the test of all things. The Bible was the light that revealed cosmic connections and significance in all knowledge. “The splendid light it sheds on our world [Edwards says] ‘is ten thousand times better than [that] of the sun’” (Sweeney, 4).

Love Affair

But for Edwards, the Bible was not valuable only for its epistemological value as “unerring” and as “the most comprehensive book” on earth. Even more, the Bible was precious because it mediated a sight of God, and a relation to God, which are sweeter than any other experience. This was the spring of what Sweeney called “Edwards’s lifelong love affair with Scripture” (11). He described it like this:

[Edwards] found what he called a “greater delight” in exegetical exertion “than anything else” he did. He confessed on many occasions that those who have ever “tasted the sweetness” of God’s scriptural divinity will live out their days in “longing for more and more of it.” [Therefore] Edwards devoted most of his waking life to studying the Bible, its extra-biblical contexts, its theological meanings, and its import for everyday religion. (4–5)

I, for one, confess to being a happy heir of Edwards’s prophecy: “Those who have ever tasted the sweetness of God’s scriptural divinity will live out their days in longing for more and more of it.” That is true. At least, it has proved true for me.

The more time I spend seeing and savoring the glory of God in Scripture, the more I want to see. I pray this will be your experience as well, as you read the Bible supernaturally.