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Spurgeon and Reading Context

06 Oct
Spurgeon near the end of his life.

Spurgeon near the end of his life. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Lately, I’ve been doing some reading of Charles Spurgeon. Actually, I’m currently spending most of every day working at Olive Tree Bible Software on a long-term project that requires reading a devotional by Spurgeon. Once I finish the devotional, I will then proceed to read his other books and sermons. This may take a while.

For those who don’t know, because I certainly didn’t, Spurgeon was a preacher from nineteenth-century England, whose printed works and collected sermons are expansive to say the least. He started preaching in a church at just 20 years old and grew so popular that he later spoke to congregations of thousands at a time. becoming known as the “Prince of Preachers.”

Perhaps his vast popularity had to do with his talent for creating perfectly suited metaphors and allegories to explain or emphasize his points. His writing is understandably powerful and moving if you can get past the archaic language of “thee”s and “thou”s.

English: From Spurgeon's Sermons Fifth Series;...

Spurgeon preaching at Surrey Music Hall, Kennington, 1858. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Even more impressive than his eloquent writing is his pure ability to take any verse of the Bible and connect it to the central themes of Christ, the Gospel, and our salvation.On October 6 in the devotional, for instance, Spurgeon writes on Numbers 12:1, where it says, “Miriam and Aaron began to talk against Moses because of his Cushite wife, for he had married a Cushite.” Most people would take this verse at face value and simply understand that Moses’ sister and brother-in-law had issues accepting their sister-in-law. But Spurgeon goes further. He uses this verse as a parable of how, greater than Moses irrationally marrying a woman outside of his own people and disapproved by his family, the Lord chooses to love us, even us undeserving and worthless people. Spurgeon explains:

“Knowing as we do our secret guiltiness, unfaithfulness, and black-heartedness, we are dissolved in grateful admiration of the matchless freeness and sovereignty of grace. Jesus must have found the cause of His love in His own heart, He could not have found it in us, for it is not there.”

He seems to have a special affinity in the devotional for taking passages from Song of Solomon. He always sees the betrothed, bride, or wife as we individual Christians and the Church; meanwhile, her lover or husband represents Christ. This is one interpretation of Song of Solomon’s deeper symbolism, however, other interpretations read the book as merely a collection of poetry about either one couple through their relationship’s stages or else reflections from several different couples in love. Whatever the original intent of the book or its ultimate meaning, Spurgeon shows how even the passionate refrains of the longing bride may be applied to our own relationships with God.

Spurgeon’s interpretations can be much more problematic and debatable, though, when he bases an argument on a verse obviously out of context. On October 19, he addresses 1 Corinthians 3:1, which reads, “Brothers and sisters, I could not address you as people who live by the Spirit, but as people who are still worldly–mere infants in Christ.” As you continue to read the passage, it is clear that being an infant in Christ means to still remain worldly, jealous and arguing with other Christians. Paul does not speak kindly of baby Christians, but Spurgeon hangs onto that phrase, “babes in Christ,” and encourages those weak in faith to “cheer up” because they are equal in grace to “full-grown” Christians. He says if he were poor in faith, he should still “rejoice in the Lord and glory in the God of my salvation.”

Now, I agree that young Christians are as justified as any other child of God, but this was not Paul’s point. This particular verse is the introduction to a scolding of such infants. Instead of merely rejoicing that they are saved, they should continue to grow in faith and leave behind their worldly baby binkies. But I cannot criticize Spurgeon too much, because the truth is I often do the same. I want to make a point, or perhaps find the perfect verse describing my mood to post on my Facebook wall, so I look up something that sounds good and ignore the surrounding context.

Admit it; you do the same. And if you happen to read the whole passage of your chosen verse, you feel disappointed when you realize you can’t fit that verse into your box. It doesn’t actually mean what you first thought. It doesn’t prove your argument for or against predestination. It doesn’t say anything like your feelings towards your opponents or enemies. In fact, it might mean just the opposite of what you want it to confirm.

It’s no wonder that, in a lifetime career of preaching, Charles Spurgeon would succumb to this temptation of taking verses out of context. It makes your arguments so much simpler when you can make the Scriptures back up any side you choose. Except they never do. They refuse. I imagine God must feel indignant when we try to make his Word our own. The real challenge is found in reading the Scriptures as he gave them to us, as a whole, and devoting yourself to discovering what God really wants you to know, not what you would rather he say.

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Posted by on October 6, 2012 in Authors, Other thoughts

 

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