April 24, 2017

Bernard Ramm (1916–1992) on the Need for Helps in Understanding the Bible

It is often asserted by devout people that they can know the Bible competently without helps. They preface their interpretations with a remark like this: “Dear friends, I have read no man’s book. I have consulted no man-made commentaries. I have gone right to the Bible to see what it has to say for itself.” This sounds very spiritual, and usually is seconded with amens from the audience.

But is this the pathway of wisdom? Does any man have either the right or the learning to by-pass all the godly learning of the Church? We think not.

First, although the claim to by-pass mere human books and go right to the Bible itself sounds devout and spiritual it is a veiled egotism. It is a subtle affirmation that a man can adequately know the Bible apart from the untiring, godly, consecrated scholarship of men like Calvin, Bengel, Alford, Lange, Ellicot, or Moule. In contrast to the claim that a man had best by-pass the learned works of godly expositors, is a man like Henderson, author of The Minor Prophets. He spared no mental or intellectual pains to equip himself with the necessary linguistic ability to understand the Bible, and then he read patiently and thoroughly in all the literature that might help him in his interpretation of the Scriptures. He consecrated his entire mind and all that that involved to the understanding of Sacred Scripture. This is truly the higher consecration.

Secondly, such a claim is the old confusion of the inspiration of the Spirit with the illumination of the Spirit. The function of the Spirit is not to communicate new truth or to instruct in matters unknown, but to illuminate what is revealed in Scripture. Suppose we select a list of words from Isaiah and ask a man who claims he can by-pass the godly learning of Christian scholarship if he can out of his own soul or prayers give their meaning or significance: Tyre, Zidon, Chittim, Sihor, Moab, Mahershalahasbas, Calno, Carchemish, Hamath, Aiath, Migron, Michmash, Geba, Anathoth, Laish, Nob, and Gallim. He will find the only light he can get on these words is from a commentary or a Bible dictionary.

It is true that commentaries can come between a man and his Bible. It is true that too much reliance on commentaries may make a man bookish, and dry up the sources of his own creativity. But the abuse of commentaries is by no means adequate grounds to forsake the great, godly, and conservative commentaries which have been to our blessing and profit.
Bernard Ramm, Protestant Biblical Interpretation, 3rd rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1988), 17–18. See also Richard Muller on the proper meaning of sola scriptura.

Incidentally, I have found that the best Puritan authors in the early modern era have the most marginal references to other sources (i.e. from the church fathers, the school-men, and to early Reformed commentators) for the reader to investigate.

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