Encouragement for Bible Reading from Puritan Women

Sometimes we can feel like shrinking back from Scripture.

Aside from the obvious fact that we will never get close to correct interpretations if we don’t even try, we must overcome these fears so that they don’t prevent us from communing with God. We can do this by learning about helpful doctrines, like the clarity of Scripture, and the history of the church, which shows us that Christians of every stripe used the Bible to worship God, draw near to him, and hear from him.

 

“So how can we know what the Bible really says?” my classmate timidly asked at the end of a long lecture about interpretation. She was not playing the devil’s advocate, but was clearly discouraged by the fact that there seem to be many different and discordant ways of interpreting the Bible. Sometimes reading intense scholarly debates that dissect every tiny part of a passage, listening to sermons that use methods we don’t know how to use, or overhearing a friend joke about misapplying passages like Jeremiah 29:11 make us shrink back from Scripture.

But, aside from the obvious fact that we will never get close to correct interpretations if we don’t even try, we must overcome these fears so that they don’t prevent us from communing with God. We can do this by learning about helpful doctrines, like the clarity of Scripture, and the history of the church, which shows us that Christians of every stripe used the Bible to worship God, draw near to him, and hear from him.

This is clearly seen in the examples of many Puritan women who had no reservations about reading the Bible. If they were here to listen to your concerns, they would instruct you to run to Scripture not hide from it, and trust the Holy Spirit and the church to help you apply it to the very specific situations you find yourself in. Let these seventeenth-century women remind you that even if there are parts of the Bible you feel upset about or don’t understand, there is life to be found in it because God speaks to you through it.

1. Lady Brilliana Harley (1598–1643)

Lady Brilliana Harley knew several languages, read Luther and Calvin, and is best remembered for her letter writing. The hundreds of letters she wrote to her husband and oldest son Edward show how she used Scripture to encourage and instruct her family. For example, she logically and gracefully connects the health of one’s soul with the truth that is given in God’s Word and by his Spirit, saying:

Good Ned . . . it is my joy that you are well, and I beseech the Lord to continue your health, and above all to give you that grace in your soul which may make you have a healthful soul, sound without errors, active in all that is good . . . I am glad you find a want of that ministry that you did enjoy: labor to keep a fresh desire after the sincere milk of the word, and then in good time you shall enjoy that blessing again. The Lord has promised to give his Spirit to his children, which shall lead them in the truth.[1]

2. Anne Bradstreet (1612–72)

Anne Bradstreet was the first person (male or female) in America to publish a book of poetry. Her writings are peppered with citations of and allusions to Scripture; she recalls her use of it in personal struggles (showing she applied it to her unique situations) and contemplations about life in general (showing she framed her understanding of the world by it). She even says in a letter to children that though she repeatedly struggled to believe it was truthful, God and reason helped her:

Many times hath Satan troubled me concerning the veracity of the Scriptures, many times by atheism how I could know whether there was a God; I never saw any miracles to confirm me, and those which I read of, how did I know but they were feigned? That there is a God my reason would soon tell me by the wondrous works that I see, the vast frame of the heaven and the earth, the order of all things . . . the daily providing for this great household upon the earth, the preserving and directing of all to its proper end. The consideration of these things would with amazement certainly resolve me that there is an Eternal Being. But how should I know He is such a God as I worship in Trinity, and such a Saviour as I rely upon? Though this hath thousands of times been suggested to me, yet God hath helped me over. I have argued thus with myself. That there is a God, I see. If ever this God hath revealed himself, it must be in His word, and this must be it or none. Have I not found that operation by it that no human invention can work upon the soul, hath not judgements befallen divers who have scorned and condemned it, hath it not been preserved through all ages [despite] all the heathen tyrants and all of the enemies who have opposed it? Is there any story but that which shows the beginnings of times, and how the world came to be as we see it? Do we not know the prophecies in it fulfilled which could not have been so long foretold by any but God Himself?[2]

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