“The great duty of a faithful interpreter” by John Owen

“I shall, therefore, fix this assertion as a sacred truth: Whoever, in the diligent and immediate study of the Scripture to know the mind of God therein so as to do it, doth abide in fervent supplications, in and by Jesus Christ, for supplies of the Spirit of grace, to lead him into all truth, to reveal and make known unto him the truth as it is in Jesus, to give him an understanding of the Scriptures and the will of God therein, he shall be preserved from pernicious errors, and attain that degree in knowledge as shall be sufficient unto the guidance and preservation of the life of God in the whole of his faith and obedience.

And more security of truth there is herein than in men’s giving themselves up unto any other conduct in this world whatever. The goodness of God, His faithfulness in being the ‘rewarder of them that diligently seek Him,’ the command of this duty unto this end, the promises annexed unto it, with the whole nature of religion, do give us the highest security herein. And although these duties cannot but be accompanied with a conscientious care and fear of errors and mistakes, yet the persons that are found in them have no ground of troublesome thoughts or fearful suspicions that they shall be deceived or fail in the end they aim at.

Prayer respects particular occasions, or especial places of Scripture, whose exposition or interpretation we inquire after. This is the great duty of a faithful interpreter, that which in, with, and after, the use of all means, he betakes himself unto. An experience of divine guidance and assistance herein is that which unto some is invaluable, however by others it be despised.

But shall we think it strange for a Christian, when, it may be after the use of all other means, he finds himself at a loss about the true meaning and intention of the Holy Spirit in any place or text of Scripture, to betake himself in a more than ordinary manner unto God by prayer, that he would by His Spirit enlighten, guide, teach, and so reveal the truth unto him? Or should we think it strange that God should hear such prayers, and instruct such persons in the secrets of His covenant? God forbid there should be such atheistical thoughts in the minds of any who would be esteemed Christians!

Yea, I must say, that for a man to undertake the interpretation of any part or portion of Scripture in a solemn manner, without invocation of God to be taught and instructed by His Spirit, is a high provocation of him; nor shall I expect the discovery of truth from any one who so proudly and ignorantly engageth in a work so much above his ability to manage.

I speak this of solemn and stated interpretations; for otherwise a ‘scribe ready furnished for the kingdom of God’ may, as he hath occasion, from the spiritual light and understanding wherewith he is endued, and the stores he hath already received, declare the mind of God unto the edification of others. But this is the first means to render our studying of the Scripture useful and effectual unto the end aimed at.

This, as was said, is the sheet-anchor of a faithful expositor of the Scripture, which he betakes himself unto in all difficulties; nor can he without it be led into a comfortable satisfaction that he hath attained the mind of the Holy Ghost in any divine revelation. When all other helps fail, as he shall in most places find them to do, if he be really intent on the disquisition of truth, this will yield him his best relief.

And so long as this is attended unto, we need not fear farther useful interpretations of the Scripture, or the several parts of it, than as yet have been attained unto by the endeavours of others; for the stores of truth laid up in it are inexhaustible, and hereby will they be opened unto those that inquire into them with humility and diligence. The labours of those who have gone before us are of excellent use herein, but they are yet very far from having discovered the depths of this vein of wisdom; nor will the best of our endeavours prescribe limits and bounds to them that shall come after us.

And the reason why the generality of expositors go in the same track one after another, seldom passing beyond the beaten path of former endeavours, unless it be in some excursions of curiosity, is the want of giving up themselves unto the conduct of the Holy Spirit in the diligent performance of this duty.”

–John Owen, ‘The Causes, Ways, and Means of Understanding the Mind of God,’ in The Works of John Owen, ed. William Goold, 24 vols. (Edinburgh: Johnson & Hunter; 1850-1855; reprint by Banner of Truth, 1965), 4:204-205. The entire work is available online here.

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Filed under Christian Theology, Holy Spirit, John Owen, Prayer, Preaching, Puritanical, Quotable Quotes

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