Confession and Pastoral Theology: A Guide to Bible Study

Shepherding visits are helpful for shepherds and sheep.  For the flock, the visit provides informal genuine care.  Among many blessings, shepherding affords the under-shepherd an opportunity to glean information that will enable him to better care for the flock in the future.  Several years ago, I noticed a common thread running through these visits.  The sheep weren't sure how to study the Bible.  Now, I am firmly convinced that teaching people how to approach the Bible is part of good preaching.  But these folks helped me to put my finger on a problem that was wider spread than my congregation.  I started to ask fellow shepherds if their flock had expressed the same frustration and I wasn't surprised to find that they had. 

So, I started to think about this situation in light of Reformed culture.  What was the problem?  Had we, of all people, taken for granted that conversion means, "know how"?  Possibly.  In fact, that may well be the tendency of the Reformed Church.  Then I thought from another angle.  If we had taken a certain level of "know how" for granted, then why had we?  That was when I started to wonder if we are living on borrowed capital.  In other words, is this the sort of thinking characteristic of a bygone era - a time when shepherds and sheep actually believed the Westminster Confession of Faith was a pastoral and therefore a practical document?  Could it be that the Confession actually trains people how to study the Bible?  

Now, the answer to that question is, of course, it does.  However, I'm not sure that as a church we have thought in those terms.  For example, we know that the Confession teaches us that the Bible is for "the better propagating of the truth, and for the more sure establishment and comfort of the church."[1]   The Confession teaches us that God is the author of the Bible and it is most necessary for the Christian life.[2]  In fact, it is the rule for faith and life.[3]  The Confession also teaches us that the Bible's message is self-authenticating.[4]  But does it teach us more than that?  Does it teach us to study the Bible?  Again, the answer is yes.

Allow me to lay the groundwork.  First, the Confession tells us what we are to study as a rule for faith and life - it lists the books of the Bible.[5]  We might take this for granted but that is what got us into this trouble!  I find that the difference between the Protestant and Roman Catholic Bible is a frequently asked question.  So, let's not take anything for granted.  

Second, we must pray in order to understand the Bible's message.  This seems a logical deduction from the Confession's first chapter.  If the books listed are of divine inspiration then "the inward illumination of the Spirit of God" is "necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word."[6]  In other words, if the Holy Spirit is the one who has spoken in the Scriptures and the One who continues to illuminate His word, then we had better prayer before we study.[7]

Third, believing the Bible to be perspicuous (clear), the Confession encourages Christians to read and search (study) Bible translations that the church might worship God in an acceptable manner and have hope.[8]  This is not to say that everything in Scripture is plain, says the Confession, which is why the Bible has its own method of interpretation.[9]  The believer is to compare implicit texts with explicit texts with the expectation that the less clear will become more clear in the application of the method, which the Confession calls the analogy of Scripture.[10]   This we might suggest will require multiple readings and studious attention.

Fourth, when we search the Scriptures there are certain things that ought to guide our study.  The Confession says that we should look for the unity of the Bible's message and the plan of salvation.[11]  Even here, the Confession provides us with a hermeneutical or interpretive guiding principle, good and necessary consequence.[12]  This principle applied teaches us to draw conclusions from our study.  In other words, we apply this principle to the fodder we have gleaned using the analogy of Scripture.

Perhaps we have taken it for granted that conversion means "know how."  And maybe it is because we have forgotten something about the Confession our forefathers did not forget, namely, that the Confession is not a dusty old theological document to be set on the shelf after seminary.  Let me suggest that a pastor's copy of the Confession is to be dog-eared and battle worn because in so far as it is consistent with Scripture it is a pastoral help - even when teaching the newest convert how to study their Bible.    


Jeffrey A. Stivason has been serving the Lord as a minister of the gospel since 1995.  He was church planter and now pastor of Grace Reformed Presbyterian Church in Gibsonia, PA. He also holds a Ph.D. in systematic theology from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, PA.  Jeff is the Managing Editor for Place for Truth.

[1] Westminster Confession of Faith 1.1.

[2] WCF 1.1, 4.

[3] WCF 1.2

[4] WCF 1.5.

[5] WCF 1.2

[6] Compare WCF 1.3 and 1.6.

[7] WCF 1.10

[8] WCF 1.8.

[9] WCF 1.7.

[10] WCF 1.9.

[11] WCF 1.5, "Consent of all the parts, the scope of the whole."

[12] WCF 1.6.


Jeffrey Stivason