Sinclair Ferguson. From the Mouth of God: Trusting, Reading, and Applying the Bible. Edinburgh, Scotland: Banner of Truth, 2014. 209 pp. $15.00.
It is always refreshing when you come across an accessible, edifying book on Scripture. Sinclair Ferguson’s From the Mouth of God: Trusting, Reading, and Applying the Bible is an easy-to-read, straightforward guide to understanding and profitably using God’s Word.
But Ferguson doesn’t leap right into the specifics of biblical interpretation. He knows our attempt to interpret and apply Scripture will falter to the degree we’re unable to wholeheartedly trust Scripture. In order to prepare us for the task of reading and applying, then, Ferguson begins by discussing the doctrinal prerequisites to fruitful Bible study. In this first of three sections, the professor of systematic theology at Redeemer Seminary in Dallas examines essential topics including inerrancy, canonicity, and inspiration.
After briefly traversing the subjects of general and special revelation in order to establish the necessity of Scripture, Ferguson touches upon the doctrine of inspiration. Brevity, however, does not keep him from approaching topics that require some rigor.
God works in his ordinary providence in a way that involves concurrence. He is active in bringing about his purposes, yet at the same time we are also active in a significant way. In one and the same event God is active in a “God way” while we are active in a “human way.” We cannot collapse these two dimensions into one and apportion, say, 50 percent of the action to God and 50 percent to man. . . . [The] concept of concurrence prevents us from adopting a mistaken logic and concluding that if God is active in an event then to that extent man must be inactive. (11)
While not answering every question (there will always be some room left to mystery when speaking of the mechanics of inspiration), the category of concurrence helps us make sense of God’s sovereign activity in producing Scripture. Concurrence simply teaches us that during the inspiration process God was fully at work while the human authors were also fully at work. Once this category is established in our minds, we are able to take seriously the implications of Scripture’s origin. The Bible is ultimately from God, so we know with certainty it is always true and authoritative. Yet Scripture is also from man, so we discover its meaning through careful study and by applying sound hermeneutical principles.
Why Study Scripture?
In the second section of the book (chapters 4 to 8), Ferguson encourages us to take seriously the call to study our Bibles with diligence. He instructs us to counter the desire for immediate guidance from God with a commitment to work hard at biblical interpretation. He offers this stinging word:
Are you willing to work [at Bible study]? Sometimes Christians seem to suggest that if we find Bible study is hard work then we cannot be very spiritual. Perhaps that explains why so many people have been attracted to the more immediate, straight-from-heaven, no-need-to-study revelations that they claim have come to have come to them in prophesies and tongues. (63)
While I’m sure Ferguson wouldn’t include under his indictment everyone who claims access to the spiritual gifts of prophesy and speaking in tongues, the warning is apt, and probably hits closer to home than some of us would like to admit. His admonition applies to all Christians, for “the Scriptures do not disclose their riches to lazy minds and hearts” (63). If we would know God, we must work hard to understand his Word. There are no shortcuts.
Keys to Faithful Reading
Ferguson follows this admonition with a discussion of the basic rules for biblical interpretation. For example, we should read the Bible on its own terms, seeking to draw out its own meaning rather than imposing our thoughts on the text. Additionally, we should pray constantly for the Spirit’s help, and we should read according to Scripture’s natural sense while paying attention to each passage’s context, genre, relationship to Jesus, and location in the greater narrative of the Bible’s storyline.
Placing a passage within the larger plot structure of Scripture means different things to different people, though. Ferguson’s hermeneutical preferences appear as he takes a biblical-theological approach to Genesis 1:1–2:3.
The Grand Narrative begins in Genesis 1:1–2:3. God created the cosmos and placed man in the garden. In fact this garden is the “temple” in which they were to live for God and worship him. Adam’s task is described in language echoed in the later description of the priestly family’s responsibilities in looking after the tabernacle. Adam was to expand this garden-temple until it filled the whole earth. Instead he fell and was “excommunicated” from the Eden-temple. (76)
Despite this edifying piece of commentary, some readers might wonder how Ferguson arrived at the interpretation. A short discussion of biblical theology and a few insights into how he formed these exegetical conclusions would have been helpful.
Ferguson’s concluding section (chapters 9 to 11) brings the task of biblical interpretation to its vital—though often neglected—end. Truth must be applied to our hearts and lives or we’ll be guilty of misusing the Bible, despite our best hermeneutical efforts.
These final chapters don’t provide us with a multi-step process for correctly applying biblical principles so much as they illustrate the necessity for doing so. Our minds are darkened by sin and easily deceived; still, they are a vital key to our Christian life. We must feed our minds continually with biblical teaching, ready to accept all Scripture has to offer—instruction, rebuke, admonition, encouragement, warning—while vigilantly tending to the soil of our hearts, lest we prove to be unfruitful hearers.
From the Mouth of God concludes with a brief word on method. Ferguson counsels us to make it our goal to read the whole Bible in a given year (he includes the M’Cheyne one-year reading plan in an appendix); to read whole books in one sitting; to make doctrinally foundational books (e.g., John, Romans, Galatians, Hebrews) objects of regular, lifetime study; and to purchase a “few tools for the job” like reliable commentaries and Bible dictionaries (178).
Overall, Ferguson’s book is a concise yet insightful resource that provides a reliable foundation on which to nurture faith in, love for, and obedience to God’s Word. Though primarily suited for laypersons, From the Mouth of God will benefit Bible scholars and pastors as well; indeed, every reader will receive a fresh challenge to read, study, and apply the Scripture with all diligence (2 Tim. 2:15).