Pursuing a better Enlightenment

Or, do you study the Bible like an atheist?

Below is a recent paper I wrote responding to Charles Spurgeon’s lecture The Preacher’s Prayer.

Since the Enlightenment there has been an obsession with rational inquiry. That is, the prevailing opinion was that if humans simply studied, thought, and reasoned well enough, we could build better technology, a better society, and even a better morality. Reason alone was sufficient and it was applied to arenas of science, philosophy, politics, and religion. As Michael Legaspi has described in The Death of Scripture and the Rise of Biblical Studies, the Bible suddenly became subject to academic scrutiny and analysis. This happened most profoundly in Germany, but critical biblical studies spread to both sides of the Atlantic and in many ways birthed liberal theology. [Fittingly, such liberal theology is marked by championing reason over divine revelation, whether explicitly or implicitly. It is happily at home in the Enlightenment and with modern man.]

And in my own study of the Bible, I have often felt the pull of this Enlightenment tendency—though would not have called it that! That is, I am often tempted to study the text devoid of prayer. I look at the Greek, consult commentaries, check all the cross-references, journal about the passage, and stare at it for hours. And yet I am slow to pray! Perhaps I will briefly ask the Spirit’s help in understanding, but only in a perfunctory manner. When wrestling with doctrines and hard texts I am prone to think my reason is sufficient for understanding, and my actions reflect such an Enlightenment perspective. While I pray for conversion and spiritual growth, I hardly pray for my daily bread, for safety in driving around town, or for wisdom on ‘practical’ matters. Per the Enlightenment, I have divided my world between the ‘sacred’ and the ‘secular’. For the sacred I call out to God and for the secular I call upon my own abilities. Yet how far the Enlightenment tentacles go, if I conceive even of Bible study as a secular activity not needing God’s help!

What does this have to do with Charles Spurgeon and prayer? He suggests a different course and it is an exceptionally helpful corrective. In the beginning of his lecture he comments, “Texts will often refuse to reveal their treasures till you open them with the key of prayer” (57). What Spurgeon helps us to do is to spiritualize the text. He reminds us that the Bible is not simply an historical document, but the very word of God. Secular students of the Bible are limited by the natural tools at their disposal when studying. Yet while Christians possess commentaries, textual analyses, and Greek lexicons, we also posses Someone of infinite more help: the Spirit of God!

He who taught the apostles “all things” and brought to their remembrance all that Christ said to them (John 14:26), “carried men along” as they prophesied (2 Peter 1:21), and “breathed out” the very words of Scripture (2 Timothy 3:16), also indwells the regenerate believer. He is “the Spirit of truth” who comes and “guide[s] you into all the truth” (John 16:13). The Spirit is the one who opens up God’s word to God’s people.

How then do we gain access to this Spiritual insight? As Spurgeon notes, it is through prayer! There we plead with God that we would behold wondrous things in his law and that he would give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God. As God has sovereignly initiated his own revelation to people in general—through nature and through Scripture—so God sovereignly reveals himself to specific persons. The pattern is the same: we come to know God through his gracious self-disclosure. We only discover what he reveals.

Therefore, let us not study the word of God as atheists. Instead let us by faith pray to God, in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, that we would comprehend even the very thoughts of God. For “we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God” (1 Corinthians 2:12).

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