Stephen J. Tracey
From the Mouth of God: Trusting, Reading, and Applying the Bible, by Sinclair B. Ferguson. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2014, xi + 209 pages, $13.50 paper. (Also available in Kindle and EPub format.)
One old Scottish preacher on visiting members of his congregation would habitually ask, “What portion of God’s Word did you read today?” It was a wise question for two reasons. First, it was an open question, it would lead to conversation either on the struggle to read the Bible, or on the fruit enjoyed in reading. There was no place for simply saying, “Yes!” or “No!” And secondly, the anticipation of the pastoral question encouraged Bible reading. That pastor knew the place of Scripture in the Christian life.
One would not like to call the venerable Sinclair Ferguson an old Scottish preacher, but he is clearly cut from the same cloth. In the introduction to this wonderful book he states, “The conviction that lay behind writing about the Bible in the first place was that God’s word is itself the worker in the life of the individual Christian and in the fellowship and outreach of the church” (xi).
This book is a revised and enlarged edition of Handle with Care!, published by Hodder and Stoughton in 1982. Ferguson sets out to answer three questions. First, “Why is it that Christians throughout the ages have believed, with Jesus, that the Bible is God’s mouth, from which his word is heard?” (x). The little qualification, “with Jesus,” makes all the difference. In fact it is the essential strength of Ferguson’s approach; he always turns our attention to Jesus. This section is no mere academic study of inspiration, accommodation, or concurrence. It is a study of these things, but always more. It stirs the affections for our Lord. This section clearly states a sound and orthodox doctrine of Scripture— but in it Ferguson exalts the Father and the Son and the Spirit. It is rich devotional theology.
The second question is “How should we approach reading the Bible in order to gain a better understanding and appreciation of its message?” (x). This is the largest part of the book. It is a master class on how to interpret Scripture. Ferguson provides five keys, 1. Context, 2. Jesus, 3. The Unfolding Drama, 4. Biblical Logic, and 5. Literary Character. This fifth section, on literary character, is then expanded to explain all the major genres of Scripture: prose, poetry, wisdom, prophecy, gospels, epistles, and visions. It is like a refresher course on exegetical theology. And it is very refreshing. More than that, at times it provides a glimpse into Ferguson’s approach to exegesis. The book is packed with preacher-style examples. While the book is not a homiletics book, incidentally, it provides profound homiletical help. There are nuggets of insight into parables and narratives and gospels, as well as extended examples of approaching the book of Ruth. Not that we think everyone should want to preach the way Sinclair Ferguson preaches. In the best preacher tradition, however, he is teaching the Bible-reader how to preach to self. You’ll never have the accent, but you can apply the Bible just as pointedly.
Ferguson sees the dominant plot line of the whole Bible to be “what God accomplishes through his Son, and in the power of the Spirit,” and consequently, “from start to finish these sixty-six books tell a single, multifaceted story whose central character is Jesus Christ and what he does” (76). Of course, there are sub-plots within the plot. Ferguson calls these “The Grand Narrative,” “The Big Picture,” and “The Plot Line” (76). He looks at the various types of literature in Scripture and teaches us how to approach them. We are steered gently away from misguided and wrong interpretation, while all the while he picks up portions of Scripture and sweetly presses home his point. It is a kind of “Look, do it this way, not that way.” And he always leads us to Jesus.
The third question is “How can we do this (that is, read the Bible) in a way that is well-grounded in Scripture and that actually helps us get to know the message of the Bible better?” (x). Using Scripture, Ferguson shows how to put all this to use. From 2 Timothy 3:16–17 he explains how Scripture is “profitable.” From the Parable of the Sower he reminds us that the heart of the matter is the disposition of our heart. There must be plowing, rooting, and weeding.
This is a timely reprint of a wonderful book. The doctrine of the Word of God written (and in particular of the inerrancy of Scripture) seems to be always passing through heavy squalls. From the charge that Princetonian men invented inerrancy, to the recent controversy over the views of Peter Enns, we seem to be buried under four feet of heavy snow. The publication of this book is like the arrival of a friendly plow guy. With a few sensible passes he clears your yard. Ferguson’s pastoral sense makes this an eminently readable book. His theological skill makes this a profoundly helpful book.
This is a great book. It is systematic theology, New Testament theology, Old Testament theology, hermeneutics, homiletics, all wrapped up in faithful, godly, pastoral expression. This is pastoral practice at its very best.
Stephen J. Tracey serves as the pastor of Lakeview Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Rockport, Maine. Ordained Servant Online, May 2015.