My parents bought me the set of John Calvin’s Commentary on the Bible for a graduation present years ago. It is a gift that I value and use regularly in Bible study and sermon preparation. As I was preparing my message on Galatians this week, I appreciated what Calvin said about Gal 4:23 (which is where Paul uses the word allegory to interpret Isaac and Ishmael, you know one of the easier parts in Galatians!)
Here are Calvin’s words:
“Let us know, then, that the true meaning of Scripture is the natural and obvious meaning; and let us embrace and abide by it resolutely. Let us not only neglect as doubtful, but boldly set aside as deadly corruptions, those pretended expositions, which lead us away from the natural meaning.”
I found this really helpful advice for general Bible study and also for those who prepare messages for preaching and teaching. The gist of it is that our goal is to find the plain and literal meaning of a text, what Calvin refers to as the “natural and obvious meaning.” In other words we are to try to discern, as best as possible, the author’s intent and avoid reading our own hidden meaning into the biblical text.
Thinking about this brought me back to my early experiences of studying the Bible and also being in small group Bible studies. How often I hear it said “This verse means to me….” That approach is highly subjective and often gets far removed from the “natural and obvious meaning” that the Holy Spirit inspired.
So this is extremely helpful in how we approach the Bible as Christians in order to be faithful readers and obedient followers of God’s Holy Word. Instead of asking what it means to me, or trying to find some hidden meaning, we pray for God the Holy Spirit to speak the Word clearly, so we can embrace it and abide by it faithfully.