What a treasure we possess: George Howe on the great gift of God given to us in the Scriptures

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The Westminster Assembly when describing the Holy Bible spoke of “the heavenliness of the matter, the efficacy of the doctrine, the majesty of the style, the consent of all the parts, the scope of the whole (which is to give all glory to God), the full discovery it makes of the only way of man’s salvation, [and its] many other incomparable excellencies” (WCF 1.5).

Noted Southern Presbyterian minister George Howe, taking for his text Psalm 19:7 (“The law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul”), preached a sermon in 1862 before the State Bible Convention of South Carolina in which he outlined the “Characteristics of the Bible.” He aimed to remind his hearers of both the outward excellencies and the infinite spiritual value of the great Book given by God to His people. How we ought to treasure such a gift and not take it for granted!

“Adhering closely to our text,” Howe says, “we should show that the word of God is perfect and so possessed of every desirable attribute…” It is a book like no other on earth for its age and endurance, its historical and literary significance, its poetic eloquence, the spirit of opposition which it engenders, and many other noteworthy aspects, according to Howe. But most especially, he adds, it is a book of redemption. The story of creation and the fall lays the groundwork for the grand theme of the Holy Scriptures: God’s gracious dealings with man in sending a Savior to redeem His people from their sins.

From the eternity past to the final consummation, and beyond, into the eternity to come, there is presented to view one illustrious personage, the Seed of the Woman, the Angel of the Covenant, the Messianic King, the eternal Word, the Son of God, the Desire of Nations, the Lamb in the midst of the throne.

The Holy Bible is the Word of God, and its directs its reader to give glory to God, pointing us to Jesus Christ, the eternal Word, our great Redeemer. The Book of Life is a Book of Hope, and as such, “It administers strength to the tempted, courage to the weak, hope to the desponding, comfort to the bereaved, and enables the dying to cry, ‘O Death, where is thy sting; O Grave, where is thy victory!’” Multitudes still lie in darkness, lacking these Scriptures. Therefore, “Precious is the boon God has given you, precious that which you are offering to men of every degree. You give to them God’s gift to you.”

God’s promises are a sure foundation upon which we may rest our faith. And His faithful Word teaches that no matter how dark it may seem, the victory belongs to Jesus Christ. It is on this basis that Howe concludes his sermon with the encouraging lines of Scottish Presbyterian poet Robert Pollok, who authored The Course of Time:

How fair the daughter of Jerusalem, then!
How gloriously from Zion hill she looks!
Clothed with the sun, and in her train the moon,
And on her head a coronet of stars,
And girdling round her waist, with heavenly grace,
The bow of mercy bright; and in her hand,
Immanuel’s cross, her sceptre and her hope!
Desire of every land! The nations come
And worship at her feet; all nations come,
Flocking like doves;
The East, the West, the South, and snowy North,
Rejoicing meet, and worship reverently
Before the Lord in Zion’s holy hill;
The desert blossoms and the barren sings,
Justice and Mercy, Holiness and Love,
Among the people walk; Messiah reigns,
And Earth keeps jubilee a thousand years.

God’s precious promises, His sure Word, are a treasure meant not for hiding under a bushel, but for sharing. The gift given to us, is a gift for us to give to others, including those in lands which presently lie in spiritual darkness. Such is the missionary-minded message of George Howe. Therefore, let it not be said of us that the Word was thus fettered, but rather, like Martin Luther, may we proclaim it in word and deed, and so glorify our God.

I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing. And while I slept, or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends Philip and Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it. I did nothing; the Word did everything.

19th Century Bible Study Questions from A-Z

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The right question makes all the difference in the world - and not just in Jeopardy. The best interviewers, whether on TV or on podcasts, ask the best questions - the most insightful, the most difficult, the ones that make their subject squirm, or laugh, or angry, or transparent. Knowing the right questions to ask of a person, or a text, usually means the difference between understanding and ignorance.

In 1884, the Encyclopedia of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America was published by Alfred Nevin. The following questions were included in it, as a guide for reading the New Testament in particular, but can be applied to the whole Bible. Helpfully, they are listed in alphabetical form. Keep these handy wherever you read and study God’s word.

In the study of the New Testament, and of the gospels especially, we need to inquire and compare. The inspired writings are infinitely rich in truth, and each verse is so connected with the rest that an intelligent inquirer may easily extend its investigations from one passage over the whole of Scripture. Without attempting to exhaust topics of inquiry, we mention the following :

A. What analogies between sensible and spiritual things may be here traced ?

A1. What prophecy is here accomplished? where found? when written? what rule of interpretation is illustrated?

B. What blessing is here sought or acknowledged, or promised, and why?

C. What custom is here referred to ?

C1. What trait of character is here given? good or bad? belonging to our natural or our renewed state? what advantages are connected with it?

D. What doctrine is here taught? how illustrated? what its practical influence ?

D1. What duty is here enforced, and how? from what motives ?

D2. What difficulty is here found in history or doctrine? how explained?

E. What evangelical or other experience is here recorded?

E1. What example is here placed before us? of sin or of holiness? lessons?

F. What facts are here related? what doctrine or duty do they illustrate? do you commend or blame them, and why ?

G. What is the geographical position of this country, or place? and what its history ?

H. What facts of natural history or of general history are here referred to or illustrated?

I. What institution or ordinance is here mentioned? On whom bindling? what its design? what its connection with other institutions?

I1. What instructions may be gathered from this fact, or parable, or miracle?

K. What knowledge of human nature, or want of knowledge, is here displayed?

L. What lofty expressions of devotional fervor?

L1. What Levitical institute is here mentioned? why appointed?

M. What miracle is here recorded? by whom wrought? in whose name? what were its results? what taught?

N. What is worthy of notice in this name?

P. What prohibition is here given? is it word, or thought, or deed it condemns?

P1. What is the meaning of the parable here given? what truth as to God, Christ, man, "the kingdom," is taught?

P2. What promise is here given? to whom?

R. What prophecy is here recorded? is it fulfilled? how? when?

S. What sin is here exposed?

S1. What sect is here introduced? mention its tenets.

T. What type is here traced?

T. What threatening? when inflicted?

U. What unjustifiable action of a good man? what unusual excellence in one not pious?

W. What woe is here denounced? what warning given? against whom, and why?

X. What is here taught of the work, character, person of Christ?

X1. What sublimity of thought or of language is here? what inference follows ?

T.V. Moore on 'good and necessary consequence'

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The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man's salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men. (Westminster Confession of Faith 1.6)

In an anonymously-published article in the January 1849 Methodist Quarterly Review, Thomas Verner Moore addresses the question of by what authority was the Sabbath day changed from the last day of the week to the first? In his discussion of this important question, still as relevant to our church and society today as it was in 1849, he first raises a point that must be considered when answering such. That is the question of whether doctrine may rightly be deduced from Scripture as well as set forth expressly. Let us see how Moore handles this.

We also concede that no merely human power can alter the law of the Sabbath in any particular; and that, if altered at all, it must be by the same authority on which it was originally instituted. The only question then that remains is, Has God made a transfer of the Sabbath from the seventh to the first day of the week?

The evidence on which we are warranted to receive this transfer must be similar to that on which we receive other articles of our faith. God has declared his will by various modes of manifestation. Sometimes he has announced it in the most explicit terms; at other times he has left it to be gathered by inference from several particulars. Thus, before the utterance of the fourth commandment, the Sabbath was binding on the patriarchs; but this obligation was with many of them not a matter of direct revelation, but an inference that such was the primitive revelation.

There are many things likewise in New Testament times, concerning which we are left to infer the will of God from differ[ing] facts, rather than informed of it by a formal statement. Thus, we infer the passing away of many Jewish rites and ceremonies; the right of women to the Lord's Supper; the duty of social and family prayer; and the discipline and worship of the house of God. It is thus, also, with the canonical authority of much of the Scriptures. Let the man who demands the will of God, in ipsissimus verbis, that the Sabbath shall be transferred from the seventh to the first day of the week, furnish similar proof of the canonical authority of the Epistle of James, the Epistle of Jude, or the Revelation, and we will comply with his demand. If, however, he receives these books as canonical, mainly, if not exclusively, because they were so received by the primitive Church during the continuance of inspired men, he could not fairly object if we furnished him with no other evidence than this in regard to the Lord's day. If, however, we can furnish him not only the same kind of proof in a stronger degree, but also independent evidence of this transfer, he surely cannot demur to the Divine authority of the Lord's day as the Christian Sabbath. Such evidence we think will be afforded by establishing a few propositions.

He goes to discuss how it is possible to distinguish between the observance of the Sabbath rest and the day upon which it is observed, which indicates that they are not inextricably linked. This distinction leads to an inference that such a transfer of the day is at least conceivable.

The same principle is recognized by men in similar observances. When our national Independence is celebrated on the third or fifth of July, in consequence of the fourth falling on the Sabbath, no one dreams that the celebration is vitiated, for the observance is distinct from the day.

An examination of the fourth commandment more narrowly will confirm this view. What is its main object? Plainly not to render sacred any particular day, because of its position in a numerical series, but to sanctify the Sabbath, and to state that one-seventh of our time shall constitute that Sabbath. It does not determine any order of enumeration, but commands simply that after labouring six days we shall rest on the seventh. Hence those who keep the Lord's day, obey the letter of the command; for they labour six days and rest on the seventh, in precise obedience to the law. It may be said, however, that we know that this enumeration began on a certain day. We grant it; but the fixing of this enumeration is something extraneous to the commandment itself, which does not contain within itself any particular series, but is adapted to whatever date it may please God to affix as the period of the weekly Sabbath.

Further discussion of this distinction — which is crucial to a right understanding of the distinction between that which is moral and enduring versus that which is ceremonial and temporary in regards to the Fourth Commandment — continues in Moore’s article, and is especially fascinating to read from the perspective of a Christian Sabbatarian which predates the institution of world-wide time zones, but as it goes beyond the focus of this brief post, the reader is invited to read T.V. Moore further on the transfer of the Sabbath day from last day of the week to the first here. Meanwhile, consider, dear reader, what Moore has said here about the value of good and necessary consequence in understanding Biblical doctrine.

Thomas Peck on the Acts of the Apostles is a Treasure

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If you are studying or preaching on the Acts of the Apostles, do not neglect to consult the writings of Thomas Peck. They are found in the third volume of his Works or Miscellanies. There you will find almost 200 pages of “Notes” on Acts — which he tells us do not constitutes a commentary, but rather are the product of his studies and meditations upon the texts — along with almost another 50 pages of “Briefs and Sermons” on Acts, and then another 15 pages of “Sermons Referred to in the Sermon Briefs on Acts.” Altogether, they constitute a treasure that should be greatly valued even today.

Whether discussing the place of Acts within the New Testament, the founding of the Christian Church, the Synod at Jerusalem or the remarkable tie between the Psalms and Acts (as well as between the Psalms and Christian believers today), Peck offers the reader many nuggets of wisdom. Especially golden are his sermon briefs on Acts 2:39 (“The Relation of the Church to Her Baptized Children”); his thoughts on what it means to bear the name Christian (Acts 11:26); his discussion of the claims of the ministry (Acts 6:3 and 22:10); and the practical inferences he draws for all believers from the question “What shall I do, Lord?” (Acts 22:10). It is on Acts 2:39 that he makes the profound observation that “The Psalms of David…are even now the chosen vehicles of the experience of the most advanced believers.”

When studying Acts, by all means consult commentaries such as those by Joseph A. Alexander, but do not fail to also mine the treasure that is to be found in Volume 3 of Thomas Peck’s Works.

Give attendance to reading the Scriptures: J.W. Alexander & Thomas Murphy

Wise words to pastors especially to improve their preaching, but also to all Christians, from James W. Alexander (Thoughts on Preaching) and repeated by Thomas Murphy as well (“Incessant Study of the Bible,” Pastoral Theology):

§ 43. Study of the Scripture.— Constant perusal and re-perusal of Scripture is the great preparation for preaching. You get good even when you know it not. This is one of the most observable differences between old and young theologians. "Give attendance to reading."

And a further thought on this matter:

The liveliest preachers are those who are most familiar with the Bible, without note or comment ; and we frequently find them among men who have had no education better than that of the common school. It was this which gave such animation to the vivid books and discourses of the Puritans. As there is no poetry so rich and bold as that of the Bible, so he who daily makes this his study, will even on human principles be awakened, and acquire a striking manner of conveying his thoughts. The sacred books are full of fact, example, and illustration, which with copiousness and variety will cluster around the truths which the man of God derives from the same source. One preacher gives us naked heads of theology; they are true, Scriptural, and important, but they are uninteresting, especially when reiterated for the thousandth time in the same naked manner. Another gives us the same truths, but each of them brings in its train a retinue of Scriptural example, history, a figure by way of illustration; and a variety hence arises which is perpetually becoming richer as the preacher goes more deeply into the mine of Scripture. There are some great preachers who, like Whitefield, do not appear to bestow great labour on the preparation of particular discourses; but it may be observed, that these are always persons whose life is a study of the Word. Each sermon is an outflowing from a fountain which is constantly full. The Bible is, after all, the one book of the preacher. He who is most familiar with it, will become most like it; and this in respect to every one of its wonderful qualities; and will bring forth from his treasury things new and old.

The Presbyterian Standards in the Light of God's Word: Daniel Baker

One of the tracts written by Daniel Baker for the Presbyterian Board of Publication was titled “The Standards of the Presbyterian Church, a Faithful Mirror of Bible Truth.” Here he provides a partial harmony of the Westminster Standards with the Word of God, along with commentary discussing some of its controversial doctrines about the sovereignty of God in salvation.

By the Standards of the Presbyterian Church, we mean the Confession of Faith, together with the Larger and Shorter Catechisms of our Church. These, we verily believe, are, in every particular, based upon the Scriptures. As a faithful mirror presents, with great exactness, all the features of the object which it reflects, even so, in these Standards, may we all behold, as in a glass, that system of divine truth, which is taught in the Bible. And if the image reflected be the exact counterpart of the original, why should the mirror be blamed for its fidelity ? It creates nothing. It is responsible for nothing, but the accuracy of its reflecting power. This being the case, if there be any thing in the image reflected which we do not like, — in condemning that^ do we not really condemn the original ? And would it not, indeed, be more candid and just, to find fault with the original, and spare the mirror?

And now, in order that the reader may, at one glance, see that the Standards of the Presbyterian Church, are, indeed, a FAITHFUL MIRROR OF BIBLE TRUTH, we will place one immediately over against the other, and it will manifestly appear that the language of our Standards is not a whit stronger than the language of the Bible — but is its very
echo, image, and counterpart:

Baker then compares confessional statements on the sovereignty of God with Scriptural texts. Following this, he addresses a series of common objections to these doctrines of God’s sovereignty.

The ultimate aim of his vindication is that of the Word of God. But as a faithful mirror reflects the light from its source, so the Standards of the Presbyterian Church, in the main, are found to reflect the truth of God’s Word. Read Baker’s tract to find out more.

What is the Rule of Our Faith? - Thomas H. Skinner, Jr.

“God is His own interpreter.” — William Cowper

Thomas Harvey Skinner, Jr. (1820-1892) was the son of the senior T.H. Skinner (1791-1871), who was a founder of Union Theological Seminary in New York City. Both men were prolific writers; the elder Skinner was a New School Presbyterian, while his son was Old School. For a time the younger Skinner pastored the First Presbyterian Church of Honesdale, Pennsylvania (pictured). In 1859, a controversy erupted in that church over what was to be the rule of the Christian’s faith. It was asked whether the Bible alone should be the rule of our faith, or a rule of our faith, in conjunction with subjective “reason.”

The controversy, sadly, resulted in Rev. Skinner’s departure from the congregation, but in a powerful Farewell Address to his flock, he clearly explained his minority position, describing his conviction that “the Bible is the word of God, the only rule of faith and practice” as the “citadel of the Christian religion…This is the Protestant formula.”

And on another vital point, the interpretation of the Scripture, the determinative authority as to what the Scripture does say and does mean, what say our excellent [Westminster] standards? They teach us that the Bible interprets itself; that God is His own interpreter; that if God has not made His truth plain, so plain, that in all important matters, the wayfaring man, though a fool, need not err therein, man cannot help His Maker; that "God's own word must be as intelligible as any human interpretation of it." So our standards emphatically declare. Hear them on this subject: "The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is" — what, my hearers? — reason? conscience? common sense? No, no. "The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself; and, therefore, when there  is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture, (which is not manifold, but one,) it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly. The Supreme Judge, by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture." Oh, that God would give you grace to see the deep, vital necessity there is for contending for this truth, and make you all satisfied with God's own simple word, which shines in its own light, and is its own ornament and glory and defence. For, as has been eloquently said [by Charles Hodge], "If men bring their torches around this pillar of fire, the sacred light goes out, and they are left to their own guidance, and then the blind lead the blind." 

Rev. Skinner went on to minister to other Presbyterian churches and to serve as a professor at Northwestern (now McCormick) Theological Seminary. According to his obituary, which appeared in the July 1892 issue of The Presbyterian and Reformed Review and was authored by John DeWitt, towards the end of his life Skinner was given a new position at the seminary, specially created for him, called the “Chair of Divinity.” “For two years he performed his duties, lecturing during the first half of each seminary session on the ‘Rule of Faith.’” So important was the Protestant analogy of faith to Skinner that he made it the special focus of his seminary instruction to the very end of his life. In an age of reason, it was the very rock upon which he stood.