Bible Study Before the Face of God

May 25, 2016

by Vern Poythress

We need to appreciate how communion with God forms the central axis in every stage of biblical interpretation—the beginning, the middle, and the end. We want to interpret the Bible in a way that has its basis in the Bible itself, in the Bible’s instruction about loyalty to God. Both beginners and more mature students can profit from thinking through how to interpret the Bible more faithfully.

We share much with biblical interpretation that took place in the Reformation and before. The Enlightenment and its fruits have resulted in additional benefits through common grace. But much that has taken place in the modern West has corrupted the process of interpreting the Bible. We must rethink how we work, rather than passively accept the standards and procedures that are now common in the academic world in the West. At the same time, we can profit from positive insights found in modern thinking about interpretation. We ought to endeavor to use both ancient and modern insights, but only after sifting good from bad, and placing positive insights in the larger framework of a biblically based worldview.

So let us begin.

Jesus indicates how we ought to live with wholehearted love for God:

If we love the Lord our God with all our heart and soul and mind, we will be interested in learning more about him.

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets (Matt. 22:37–40).

If we love the Lord our God with all our heart and soul and mind, we will be interested in learning more about him. And the Bible is the primary source for knowledge of God. Thus, loving God motivates serious study of the Bible. When we study the Bible, we should be loving God in the midst of our study. What implications does loving God have for the way we study the Bible? Amid our studying, we will be asking God to enliven our hearts, to enliven and clarify our minds, to sanctify our attitudes, to teach us, and to empower us to receive and obey what we study. We will also be praising him and loving him and enjoying him and marveling over who he is amid every aspect of our study. We will be repenting of sins when the Bible reveals how we have sinned.

So what does it look like to study in this way?

Let us consider the centrality of love in responding to God. In addition to what Jesus says about love, the apostle Paul indicates that all the commandments of God can be summed up in the second of the two great commandments, the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself: for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law (Rom. 13:8–10). For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Gal. 5:14).

In a sense, God is our closest “neighbor,” so this commandment implies loving God as well as our human neighbors. God’s will can also be summed up in the first and great commandment, to love God, because loving God implies loving your neighbor as well: If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother (1 John 4:20–21). The Bible also indicates that if we love God, we will keep his commandments: For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments (1 John 5:3). If you love me, you will keep my commandments (John 14:15). Among the commandments is the commandment to love your neighbor. So it makes sense that loving God is the “great and first commandment.” By implication, it encompasses all the other commandments of God and sums up our entire duty to God. Therefore it also sums up our duty when we interpret the Bible.

This piece is adapted from Vern Poythress, Reading the Word of God in the Presence of God (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2016), 15–18. Used with permission of the publisher.

Vern Poythress

Dr. Poythress (PhD, Harvard; DTh, Stellenbosch) is professor of New Testament interpretation at WTS.

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