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Bible Study Guidelines
Rule 1. On opening any book in the sacred Scriptures, consider first the historical circumstances of the book. These are the order, the title, the author, the date, the place, and the occasion of it.
The order in historical compositions is of much importance; as, for instance, whether the first, second, or third, of the five books of Moses, or of any other series of narrative, or of even epistolary, communications.
The title is also of importance, as it sometimes expresses the design of the book. As Exodus - the departure of Israel from Egypt; Acts of Apostles, etc.
The peculiarities of the author, the age in which he lived, his style, mode of expression, illustrate his writings. The date, place, and occasion of it, are obviously necessary to a right application of any thing in the book.
RULE 2. In examining the contents of any book, as respects precepts, promises, exhortations, etc., observe who it is that speaks, and under what dispensation he officiates. Is he a Patriarch, a Jew, or a Christian? Consider also the persons addressed, their prejudices, character, and religious relations. Are they Jews or Christians, believers or unbelievers, approved or disapproved? This rule is essential to the proper application of every command, promise, threatening, admonition, or exhortation, in Old Testament or New.
RULE 3. To understand the meaning of what is commanded, promised, taught, etc., the same philological principles, deduced from the nature of language, or the same laws of interpretation which are applied to the language of other books, are to be applied to the language of the Bible.
RULE 4. Common usage, which can only be ascertained by testimony, must always decide the meaning of any word which has but one signification; but when words have, according to testimony (t. e., the Dictionary), more meanings than one, whether literal or figurative, the scope, the context, or parallel passages must decide the meaning; for if common usage, the design of the writer, the context, and parallel passages fail, there can be no certainty in the interpretation of language.
RULE 5. In all tropical (figure of speech) language ascertain the point of resemblance, and judge of the nature of the trope, and its kind, from the point of resemblance.
RULE 6. In the interpretation of symbols, types, allegories and parables, this rule is supreme: - Ascertain the point to be illustrated; for comparison is never to be extended beyond that point - to all the attributes, qualities, or circumstances of the symbol, type, allegory, or parable.
RULE 7. For the salutary and sanctifying intelligence of the Oracles of God, the following rule is indispensable: We must come within the understanding distance.
There is a distance which is properly called the speaking distance, or the hearing distance; beyond which the voice reaches not, and the ears hear not. To hear another, we must come within that circle which the voice audibly fills.
Now we may with propriety say, that as it respects God, there is an understanding distance. All beyond that distance can not understand God; all within it can easily understand him in all matters of piety and morality. God himself is the center of that circle, and humility is its circumference.
The wisdom of God is as evident in adapting the light of the Sun of Righteousness to our spiritual or moral vision, as in adjusting the light of day to our eyes. The light reaches us without an effort of our own, but we must open our eyes, and if our eyes be sound, we enjoy the natural light of heaven. There is a sound eye in reference to spiritual light, as well as in reference to material light. Now, while the philological principles and rules of interpretation enable many men to be skilful in biblical criticism, and in the interpretation of words and sentences, who neither perceive nor admire the things represented by those words; the sound eye contemplates the things themselves, and is ravished with the moral scenes which the Bible unfolds.
The moral soundness of vision consists in having the eyes of the understanding fixed solely on God himself, his approbation and complacent affection for us. It is sometimes called a single eye because it looks for one thing supremely. Every one, then, who opens the Book of God, with one aim, with one ardent desire - intent only to know the will of God - to such a person the knowledge of God is easy; for the Bible is framed to illuminate such, and only such, with the salutary knowledge of things celestial and divine.
Humility of mind, or what is in effect the same, contempt for all earth-born pre-eminence, prepares the mind for the reception of this light; or, what is virtually the same opens the ears to hear the voice of God. Amidst the din of all the arguments from the flesh, the world, and Satan, a person is so deaf that he can not hear the still small voice of God's philanthropy. But, receding from pride, covetousness, and false ambition; from the love of the world; and in coming within that circle, the circumference of which is unfeigned humility, and the center of which is God himself - the voice of God is distinctly heard and clearly understood. All within this circle are by God: all without it are under the influence of the wicked one."God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace to the humble."
He, then, that would interpret the Oracles of God to the salvation of his soul, must approach this volume with the humility and docility of a child, and meditate upon it day and night. Like Mary, he must sit at the Master's feet, and listen to the words which fall from his lips. To such a one there is an assurance of understanding, a certainty of knowledge, to which the man of letters alone never attained, and which the mere critic never felt.
The Bible is a book of facts, not of opinions, theories, abstract generalities, nor of verbal definitions. It is a book of awful facts, grand and sublime beyond description. These facts reveal God and man, and contain within them the reasons of all piety and righteousness, or what is commonly called religion and morality. The meaning of the Bible facts is the true biblical doctrine. History is, therefore, the plan pursued in both Testaments; for testimony has primarily to do with faith, and reasoning with the understanding. History has, we say, to do with facts - and religion springs from them. Hence, the history of the past, and the anticipation of the future, or what are usually called history and prophecy, make up exactly four-fifths of all the volumes of inspiration.
Alexander Campbell, The Christian System, Gospel advocate 1974