The Puritans have historically been much aligned - and without warrant. They were godly men and women who sought loving obedience to their Father and Saviour and have a devout view of Scripture. The following is an excerpt from J.I. Packer's book, A Quest for Godliness which outlines their views on interpretation. I highly recommend this book.
Three general statements about the way the Puritans tackled the interpretative task can be made at once.
First, Puritan exegetes are pre-modern, in the sense that they do not bring to the Bible the pervasive sense of difference and distance between cultures and epochs that is so much part of today's mind-set; nor do they bring with them the imaginative ideas of religious evolution that cripple so many modern biblical scholars and corrupt so much of their expository work. Instead of feeling distant from biblical characters and their experiences because of the number of centuries between them, the Puritans felt kinship with them because they belonged to the same human race, faced, feared, and fellowshipped with the same unchanging God, and struggled with essentially the same spiritual problems. (Was that wisdom? Yes!)
Second, Puritan grammatical-historical exegesis of texts, though often naively expressed, is remarkably competent, as any knowledgeable reader of, for instance, Matthew Henry's great expository commentary on the whole Bible will soon see.
Third, Puritans exegeted Scripture in order to apply it, and as application was the focus of their concern so it was the area of their special strength, as will appear.
Two presuppositions governed their approach to interpretation; six rules sum up their method.
The first presupposition concerns the nature of Scripture. To the Puritans, Scripture, as a whole and in all its parts, was the utterance of God: God's word set down in writing, his mind opened and his thoughts declared for man's instruction. The content of Scripture is God's eternal truth, for the historical process which the Bible records and interprets is just the temporal outworking of God's eternal plan, formed before the world was. In this sense, 'what our Scriptures have set down and written, is all but extracts and copies taken out of the Scriptures in God's heart, in which they were written from everlasting.' That which was delivered by such a multiplicity of human authors, of such different background and characters, in such a variety of styles and literary forms, should therefore be received and studied as the unified expression of a single divine mind, a complete and coherent, though complex, revelation of the will and purpose of God. To the Puritan Bible student, it was God who had uttered the prophecies, recorded the histories, expounded the doctrine, declared the praises, written the visions, of which Scripture was made up; and he knew that Scripture must be read, not merely as words which God spoke long ago, in the actual inspiring of the biblical books, but as words which God continues to speak to every reader in every age. 'Think in every line you read that God is speaking to you,' says Thomas Watson -- for in truth he is. What Scripture says, God is saying.
Just as God's mind is unfathomable, so there are illimitable depths in Scripture: 'the stores of truth laid up in it are inexhaustible.' It is always the case that, in the famous words ascribed to John Robinson, 'the Lord hath more truth yet to break forth out of his holy word.' As interpreters, we never reach the end of God's thoughts, and must not permit ourselves to imagine otherwise. 'Never think you have knowledge enough; study the word more fully ...' God safeguards our humility by keeping us 'in continual dependence on him for teaching and revelations of himself out of the word, never in this world bringing any soul to the utmost of what is from the word to be made out and discovered.' The Puritans often echo Augustine's remark that, just as there are shallows in Scripture where a lamb may wade, so there are depths in Scripture where an elephant may swim -- depths which the most learned and godly have yet to plumb. All Christians, therefore, should approach their study of Scripture knowing that they know but little, longing to learn more and looking to God himself to open to them his own word.
This brings us to the second presupposition, which concerns the subject matter of Scripture. 'What do the Scriptures principally teach?' is the third question of the Shorter Catechism, and the answer is: '. . . what man is to believe concerning God, and what duty God requires of man.' Consider the implications of this answer. First, Scripture teaches us what to believe about God -- that is, it sets before us spiritual truths concerning spiritual realities, truths beyond the grasp of fallen reason which only the Holy Spirit can enable us to discern. Therefore we must distrust ourselves, confess our natural inability and blindness in this realm, and invoke the aid of the Spirit to interpret Scripture to us. 'It was the Spirit that wrote that word,' says Goodwin.
... therefore ... no man's or men's private understandings, without the aid of that public secretary of heaven, can understand them ... he only hid the treasures of knowledge in that field, and he only knows where they lie; what an advantage is it then by prayer to unlock God's breast, obtain the key of knowledge that unlocks God's study, and can direct to all his notes and his papers!
Less quaintly, but more categorically, Owen makes the same point:
I suppose ... this may be fixed on as a common principle of Christianity; namely, that constant and fervent prayer for the divine assistance of the Holy Spirit, is such an indispensable means for the attaining the knowledge of the mind of God in the Scripture, as that without it all others will not be available [will not avail].
'Before and after you read the Scripture,' says Baxter, 'pray earnestly that the Spirit which did indite it, may expound it to you, and lead you into the truth.'
Also, Scripture teaches us our duty. Its instruction is for practice. It must be studied, therefore, for the purpose of setting our lives in order. And God will only prosper our study if we continually exercise ourselves to live by what we learn. Then our knowledge will deepen and expand; but otherwise it will run out into sterile verbiage and mental error. Owen says:
The true notion of holy evangelical truths will not live, at least not flourish, where they are divided from a holy conversation. As we learn all to practise, so we learn much by practice.... And herein alone can we come unto the assurance, that what we know and learn is indeed the truth. So our Saviour tells us, that 'if any man do the will of God, he shall know of the doctrine whether it be of God' (John 7:17).... And hereby will they be led continually into farther degrees of knowledge. For the mind of man is capable of receiving continual supplies in the increase of light and knowledge whilst it is in this world, if so be they are improved unto their proper end in obedience unto God. But without this the mind will be quickly stuffed with notions, so that no streams can descend into it from the fountain of truth.
He who would interpret Scripture aright, therefore, must be a man of a reverent, humble, prayerful, teachable and obedient spirit; otherwise, however tightly his mind may be 'stuffed with notions', he will never reach any understanding of spiritual realities.
We turn now to the Puritans' approach to the task of interpretation itself. Their governing principles may be summarised under the following heads:
1. Interpret Scripture literally and grammatically. The Reformers had insisted, against the medieval depreciation of the 'literal' sense of Scripture in favour of the various 'spiritual' (allegorical) senses, that the literal -- i.e., the grammatical, natural, intended -- sense was the only sense that Scripture has, and that it was this sense that must be sought in exposition through careful attention to the context and grammar of each statement. The Puritans fully agreed.
If you would understand the true sense ... of a controverted Scripture, then look well into the coherence, the scope and the context thereof.
There is no other sense in it [Scripture] than what is contained in the words whereof materially it doth consist.... In the interpretation of the mind of anyone, it is necessary that the words he speaks or writes be rightly understood; and this we cannot do immediately unless we understand the language wherein he speaks, as also the idiotism [idiom] of that language, with the common use of and intention of its phraseology and expressions.... And what perplexities, mistakes and errors, the ignorance of these original languages hath cast many expositors into ... especially among those who pertinaciously adhere unto one translation ... might be manifested by instances ... without number.
Of course, there might be places in Scripture where the literal sense was itself allegorical. The Puritans all regarded the Song of Solomon as a case in point, and James Durham has some interesting remarks on the subject:
I grant it hath a literal meaning; but I say, that literal meaning is not ... that which first looketh out, as in historical Scriptures ... but that which is spiritually ... meant by these allegorical and figurative speeches, is the literal meaning of this Song ... for a literal sense (as it is defined by Rivet out of the school-men) is that which floweth from such a place of Scripture, as intended by the Spirit in the words, whether properly or figuratively used, and is to be gathered from the whole complex of expressions together ... as in the exposition of parables, allegories and figurative Scriptures is clear.
But, Durham notes, this is quite different from the illegitimate allegorising of which the medievals were guilty; for 'there is a great difference between an allegorical exposition of Scripture and an exposition of allegorical Scripture'. Durham expounds allegorically only when he has reason to think that it is an allegory that he is expounding.
2. Interpret Scripture consistently and harmonistically. If Scripture is God's word, the expression of a single divine mind, all that it says must be true, and there can be no real contradiction between part and part. To harp on apparent contradictions, therefore, says Bridge, shows real irreverence. Bridge continues:
You know how it was with Moses, when he saw two men fighting, one an Egyptian, and another an Israelite, he killed the Egyptian; but when he saw two Hebrews fighting, now, saith he, I will go and reconcile them, for they are brethren; why so, but because he was a good man, and gracious? So also it is with a gracious heart; when he sees the Scripture fighting with an Egyptian, and heathen author, or apocryphal, he comes and kills the heathen ... the Egyptian, or the apocrypha; but when he sees two Scriptures at variance (in view, though in truth not), Oh, saith he, these are brethren, and they may be reconciled, I will labour all I can to reconcile them; but when a man shall take every advantage of seeming difference in Scripture, to say, Do ye see what contradictions there are in this book, and not labour to reconcile them; what doth this argue, but that the corruption of a man's nature, is boiled up to an unknown malice against the word of the Lord; take heed therefore of that.
It is a striking thought, and an acute diagnosis.
Since Scripture is the unified expression of a single divine mind, it follows that '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 ... it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly.' Two principles derive from this. (1) What is obscure must be interpreted by the light of what is plain. 'The rule in this case,' says Owen, 'is that we affix no sense unto any obscure or difficult passage of Scripture but what is ... consonant unto other expressions and plain testimonies. For men to raise peculiar senses from such places, not confirmed elsewhere, is a dangerous curiosity.' (2) Peripheral ambiguities must be interpreted in harmony with fundamental certainties. No exposition of any text, therefore, is right which does not 'agree with the principles of Religion, the points of Catechism set down in the Creed, the Lord's Prayer, the Ten Commandments, and the doctrine of Sacraments.' These two principles together comprised the rule of interpretation commonly termed 'the analogy of faith,' a phrase borrowed -- probably not in the apostle's sense -- from Romans 12:6.
Both the foregoing rules concern the form of Scripture; the next four have to do with its matter and content.
3. Interpret Scripture doctrinally and theocentrically. Scripture is a doctrinal book: it teaches us about God and created things in their relation to him. Bridge brings this out in a passage where he develops James' image of Scripture as a looking-glass:
When ye look upon a looking-glass, ye see three things, the glass, yourself, and all the other things, persons, stools or pictures that are in the room. So in looking upon Scripture ... ye see the truths that are therein contained concerning God and Christ. There is God seen especially, and Christ seen; there also you see yourself, and your own dirty face; there also you see the creatures that are in the room with you, and their emptiness ....
Also, Scripture teaches a theocentric standpoint: whereas fallen man sees himself as the centre of the universe, the Bible shows us God as central, and depicts all creatures, man included, in their proper perspective -- as existing through God, and for God. One of the points at which the Puritans can help us most is in the recovery of this God-centred standpoint of Scripture, which they themselves grasped so firmly.
4. Interpret Scripture christologically and evangelically. Christ is the true subject-matter of Scripture: all was written to bear witness to him. He is 'the sum of the whole Bible, prophesied, typified, prefigured, exhibited, demonstrated, to be found in every leaf, almost in every line, the Scriptures being but as it were the swaddling bands of the child Jesus.' Therefore:
Keep still Jesus Christ in your eye, in the perusal of the Scriptures, as the end, scope and substance thereof: what are the whole Scriptures, but as it were the spiritual swaddling clothes of the holy child Jesus? 1. Christ is the truth and substance of all the types and shadows. 2. Christ is the substance and matter of the Covenant of Grace, and all administrations thereof; under the Old Testament Christ is veiled, under the New Covenant revealed. 3. Christ is the centre and meeting place of all the promises; for in him the promises of God are yea and Amen. 4. Christ is the thing signified, sealed and exhibited in the Sacraments of the Old and New Testament. 5. Scripture genealogies use to lead us on to the true line of Christ. 6. Scripture chronologies are to discover to us the times and seasons of Christ. 7. Scripture-laws are our schoolmasters to bring us to Christ, the moral by correcting, the ceremonial by directing. 8. Scripture-gospel is Christ's light, whereby we hear and follow him; Christ's cords of love, whereby we are drawn into sweet union and communion with him; yea it is the very power of God unto salvation unto all them that believe in Christ Jesus; and therefore think of Christ as the very substance, marrow, soul and scope of the whole Scriptures.
How richly the Puritans applied this evangelical principle of exegesis can only be appreciated by those who dig into the expository writings of such authors as Owen, Goodwin and Sibbes.
5. Interpret Scripture experimentally and practically. The Bible is, from one standpoint, a book of spiritual experience, and the Puritans explored this dimension of it with unrivalled depth and insight. Pilgrim's Progress
serves as a kind of pictorial index to the themes which they handled under this head-faith, doubt, temptation, despair, fear, hope, the fight with sin, the attacks of Satan, the peaks of spiritual joy, the dry waste of spiritual desertion. Equally the Bible is a practical book, addressing man in a concrete situation-as he stands before God, guilty, vile, helpless-and telling him in that situation what he must believe and do for his soul's health; and the Puritans recognised that this practical orientation must be retained in exposition. Doctrines must be taught from the standpoint from which, and applied for the purpose for which, Scripture itself presents them. Owen, as we observed earlier, makes this point as he embarks on his analysis of the doctrine of justification:
It is the practical direction of the consciences of men, in their application unto God by Jesus Christ, for deliverance from the curse due unto the apostate state, and peace with him ... that is alone to be designed in the handling of this doctrine.... And whereas we cannot either safely or usefully treat of this doctrine, but with respect unto the same ends for which it is declared, and whereunto it is applied, in the Scripture, we should not ... be turned aside from attending unto this case and its resolution, in all our discourses on this subject; For it is the direction, satisfaction, and peace of the consciences of men, and not the curiosity of notions or subtlety of disputations, which it is our duty to design.
Neglect of this rule by many in the Puritan age led to much irresponsible, doctrinaire handling of Holy Scripture, but the great Puritan pastors consistently observe it, and their writings are in consequence 'practical and experimental' (their own regular phrase) in the best and most edifying sense.
6. Interpret Scripture with a faithful and realistic application. The application comes out of Scripture; the indicating of the 'uses' of doctrine is therefore part of the work of expounding Scripture. Interpretation means making Scripture meaningful and relevant to those whom one addresses, and the work is not finished till the relevance of doctrine for their 'reproof, correction, instruction in righteousness' (2 Tim 3:16) has been shown. The standard 'uses' (types of application) were the use of information, whereby the point of doctrine under review was applied, and its implications drawn out, to mould men's judgments and outlook according to the mind of God; the use of exhortation, summoning them to action; the use of comfort, whereby the doctrine was shown to be the answer to doubts and uncertainties; and the use of trial, of self-examination, a call to measure and assess one's own spiritual condition in the light of the doctrine set forth (the marks of a regenerate man, perhaps, or the nature of some Christian privilege or duty). The application must be realistic: the expositor must watch that the Bible is made to address men where they are. Yesterday's application may not speak to their condition today. 'It is but a cheap zeal that declaimeth against antiquated errors, and things now out of use and practice. We are to consider what the present age needeth.' For an expositor to make a truly relevant, searching, edifying application of Scripture (as distinct from a clumsy, inappropriate, confusing one) is, no doubt, a work of great difficulty to himself, requiring much prudence, zeal and meditation, and to the natural and corrupt man will be very unpleasant [which consideration will sorely tempt God's messenger to pull his punches, for no normal man likes causing offence]; yet he is to endeavour to perform it in such a manner, that his auditors may feel the word of God to be quick and powerful, and a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart; and that, if any unbeliever or ignorant person be present, he may have the secrets of his heart made manifest, and give glory to God.
To apply Scripture realistically, one must know what is in men's heads as well as in their hearts, and the Puritans insisted that the would-be expositor needs to study people as well as the Bible.
Such were Puritan principles in the matter of biblical interpretation. To them, no discipline was so exacting, and no labour so rewarding. The soundness of their method is unquestionable; we shall do well to follow in their footsteps. That will mean asking six questions of each passage or text that we seek to expound:
1. What do these words actually mean?
2. What light do other Scriptures throw on this text? Where and how does it fit into the total biblical revelation?
3. What truths does it teach about God, and about man in relation to God?
4. How are these truths related to the saving work of Christ, and what light does the gospel of Christ throw upon them?
5. What experiences do these truths delineate, or explain, or seek to create or cure? For what practical purpose do they stand in Scripture?
6. How do they apply to myself and others in our own actual situation? To what present human condition do they speak, and what are they telling us to believe and do?
From A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life, by J.I. Packer, pp 98-105; Crossway Books, Wheaton, Ill.