If the Holy Spirit is our first and foremost teacher, there is a sense in which we ourselves, in our very dependence on the Spirit, must also teach ourselves. That is to say, in the process of divine education we are not wholly passive, but are expected to use our own reason responsibly. For in our reading of Scripture divine illumination is no substitute for human endeavor. Nor is humility in seeking light from God inconsistent with the most disciplined industry in study.
Scripture itself lays great stress on the conscientious Christian use of the mind, not of course in order to stand in judgment on God’s Word, but rather in order to submit to it, to grapple with it, to understand it, and to relate it to the contemporary scene. Indeed, there are frequent complaints in Scripture that we keep forgetting our basic rationality as human beings made in God’s image and behave instead “like the horse or the mule, which have no understanding” (Psalm 32:9).
For Jesus rebukes his apostles for their lack of understanding and their failure to use their common sense (for example, Mark 8:17-21). He reproached the multitudes similarly:
Why don’t you judge for yourselves what is right? (Luke 12:57).
This command to “judge for yourselves” is particularly prominent in Paul’s first letter to Corinth. Here was a church which laid claim to great wisdom, but failed to exhibit it. Again and again Paul asks incredulously, “Do you not know…?” (I Corinthians 3:16; 5:6; 6:2-3, 9, 15-16, 19) and introduces his apostolic instruction with formulae like “I want you to know, brothers” or “I do not want you to be ignorant” (for example, I Corinthians 10:1; 12:1). He is clear that, whereas the natural or unregenerate person is unable to understand God’s truth, the spiritual or regenerate person “makes judgments about all things.” That is, what the natural person cannot discern, the spiritual person can and does, because he is inhabited and ruled by the Holy Spirit and so has “the mind of Christ” (I Corinthians 2:14-16).
This conviction leads Paul, in the same Corinthian letter, to appear to his readers’ reason. He writes:
I speak to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say. (I Corinthians 10:15; cf. 11:13)
In other New Testament letters similar exhortations occur. Christians are to “test the spirits” (that is, human teachers claiming divine inspiration) and indeed to test everything they hear (I John 4:1). Again, when faced with difficult ethical decisions, they are to give their minds to the problem, so that each may be “fully convinced in his own mind” (Romans 14:5). It is a mark of Christian maturity to have our faculties trained “by constant use…to distinguish good from evil” (Hebrews 5:14).
We must, then, take seriously this biblical injunction to use our rational and critical powers. We are not to oppose prayer and thought as alternative means of increasing our understanding of Scripture, but to combine them. Daniel in the Old Testament and Paul in the New are good examples of this balance:
Do not be afraid, Daniel. Since the first day that you set your mind to gain understanding and to humble yourself before your God, your words were heard…. (Daniel 10:12) Reflect on what I am saying, for the Lord will give you insight into all this. (2 Timothy 2:7)
It is not enough to humble ourselves before God and look to him for understanding; we must also set our minds to understand Scripture and think over what is written in it. As Charles Simeon put it: For the attainment of divine knowledge, we are directed to combine a dependence on God’s Spirit with our own researches. Let us, then, not presume to separate what God has thus united.
Sometimes our growth in understanding is inhibited by a proud and prayerless self-confidence, but at other times by sheer laziness and indiscipline. Those who would increase in the knowledge of God must both abase themselves before the Spirit of truth and commit themselves to a lifetime of study.
Excerpt from Understanding the Bible, by John R. W. Stott © 1972, 1976, 1984, 1999 by John Stott. John Stott presents the rationale for Christian Bible study in this article. You may copy, print, duplicate, and distribute it for Sunday school classes, for personal use, for members of you congregation, or for any other non-commercial reason.