II Timothy 2:15

by Glenn Conjurske

“Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.”

This is one of the most quoted, and least understood, verses in the New Testament. It is taken for granted by almost everybody that “study” means to study the Bible, an error which receives help from the reference to “the word of truth” in the last clause of the verse. But the real fact is, to study in this verse does not necessarily have anything to do with studying the Bible at all, though it may include it.

The error is the result of failing to understand the archaic language. “Study,” in its old sense, has nothing to do with delving into books, but means rather to be careful or diligent. The rendering “study” in the common English Bible survives from William Tyndale, who uses it elsewhere also, as in Heb. 4:11, where he has, “Let vs study to entre into that rest,” where the common version has “Let us labour,” &c. Richard Rolle uses the word thus in his Meditations on the Passion: “graunte me grace to touche þee wiþ criynge merci for my synnes, wiþ desiris to gostly contemplacioun, wiþ amendinge of my lijf & contynuaunce in goodnes, in stodie to fulfille þin heestis,” &c., which we modernize thus: “Grant me grace to touch thee with crying mercy for my sins, with desires to spiritual contemplation, with amending of my life and continuance in goodness, in carefulness or diligence to fulfill thy commandments,” &c.

We may partially excuse modern readers for misunderstanding the archaic English, though there is not much excuse for it after all, for the same word “study” is used elsewhere in the common English version, where it can certainly have nothing to do with delving into books. “Study to be quiet” (I Thes. 4:11), whatever it may mean, can hardly refer to study in the modern sense. Methinks that if the modern age would but think a little more, and engage in a little more of that “study” of which it likes to speak, such misunderstandings might soon evaporate, and it would appear that the archaic English is not so difficult to understand as is commonly affirmed.

But I must turn to the last clause of the verse, “rightly dividing the word of truth.” This text has become the watchword of modern dispensationalism, and in a manner which does no honor either to the dispensationalism, nor to the dispensationalists, nor to the text. To these dispensationalists, to “rightly divide” the word of truth means to compartmentalize it, “dividing” it up and apportioning it out, placing each portion within the walls of its own dispensation, and denying or severely limiting any application outside those walls. There are certain dispensationalists who can hardly refer to the Scriptures at all without appending the qualifying phrase, “rightly divided.” This they do lest anyone should get the mistaken notion that they mean “all Scripture.” That they never mean, for they are persuaded that “all Scripture,” though inspired of God, is “unprofitable for doctrine,” and will serve no better purpose than to confuse and mislead us. When they say, “according to the Scriptures,” they do not mean according to the Scriptures as such, but only according to a certain limited portion of them. Their usual terminology must therefore be, “according to the Scriptures, rightly divided”—-for where others find harmony, they find only hopeless contradiction. If Christ preaches “repent,” and Paul preaches “believe,” this is the full proof that the Gospels and the Epistles must be “divided” asunder, and can no more be mixed than fire and water. But the rather inconvenient fact remains that Christ also preached “believe,” and Paul also preached “repent.”

But let my readers understand, I am a dispensationalist—-a real one, and a thorough one. If it is any consolation to anybody, I may truthfully affirm that I have no objection to the dispensational scheme of C. I. Scofield, which divides the history of the people of God into seven dispensations, beginning with Innocence in the garden of Eden, and concluding with the literal, earthly Millennium. I hold, moreover, not only to the form of dispensationalism, but to the marrow of it also. I believe it to be a system essential to the understanding of the ways of God, and a system which has not been imposed upon the Bible, but derived from it.

I object most vigorously, however, to the use which many dispensationalists make of their dispensationalism. In the hands of men like Lewis Sperry Chafer the system has become little more than a tool with which to make void the Scriptures. It is no longer a system by which we understand the Scriptures, but by which we divide them up, and rule most of the divisions out of court. This practice is justified by a constant appeal to

II Tim. 2:15, “rightly dividing the word of truth.”

But I have been long persuaded that this appeal is illegitimate. My first reason for this belief is an indirect one. I have long observed that whenever any interpreter of Scripture must have constant recourse to one text in order to explain (or explain away) many texts, this is a tell-tale sign that he is under the influence of a false system. This is so, no matter what his one text may be, but I offer as an example the use to which John 6:29 is put by many. The text says, “This is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom he hath sent.” This is of course interpreted in its most rigid and technical sense, as though it meant that the only work of God, for everyone at all times, is barely to believe in Christ, and this rigid interpretation of this one text is used to disallow or beat into shape every text in the New Testament which speaks of any other sort of work. Such interpretation ought to outrage the innate sense of justice of every honest man. But I do not speak of the evident crookedness involved in the details of such interpretation. Before those details appear, the fact that one text must be made the rule for the interpretation of a hundred others is the tell-tale sign of mischief.

But I have a more direct reason for believing the common use of “rightly dividing the word of truth” to be illegitimate. The common interpretation of this text is altogether foreign to the manner of Scripture. It forces a technical meaning into the word, which common sense and spiritual instinct must reject, as inconsistent with the character of the language of Scripture. The language of the Bible is not technical, but common. Can any of the Bible-dividers actually suppose that this is what Paul meant by “rightly dividing the word of truth”? Methinks that anyone who can honestly think this must be spiritually illiterate. For a long time, therefore, before I had formed any very distinct ideas concerning what the text does mean, I felt instinctively that it could not mean what it is too commonly held to mean.

Still, I would like to know what the expression does mean. Consulting the context, I am soon persuaded that its application is to the ministry of the word, not the interpretation of it. This rightly dividing is spoken of a workman, which would seem rather to apply to ministry than to study or interpretation. The verse preceding says, “Of these things put them in remembrance, charging them before the Lord that they strive not about words to no profit.” This, at any rate, is ministry. And to “rightly divide” the word of truth in our ministry seems naturally to suggest the portioning out to every soul the particular facet of truth which his case requires. This, whatever this text may mean, is a plain necessity for every minister of the word of God, so that the interpretation is natural enough.

We of course turned to the Greek, to find, as usual, that the Greek says the same thing as the English. It must be granted, however, that the expression is a difficult one. Naturally enough, therefore, as Bloomfield says, “the nature of the metaphor has been not a little debated.” The early versions do not translate the place, but paraphrase it. The Latin has recte tractantem, “rightly handling,” as the Rheims version renders it, or “ri3tli tretinge,” with Wycliffe. This is indeterminate, and might refer to either interpretation or preaching. The Peshitto, however, has “who correctly announceth” according to Murdock’s translation, or, with the starch taken out of it, as Bloomfield renders it, “preaching rightly.” This is explicit, and leaves no possible doubt as to how the text was understood.

Having come to this point, I naturally became curious to know how this verse was understood before the craze for dividing the Bible existed. I turned to the old men of God, with the following result:

Bishop Hall explicitly contrasts interpreting the Scriptures with “rightly dividing” them. He says, “First it is one thing for a man to interpret Scripture, another thing to take upon him the Function of Preaching the Gospel, which was perhaps in your intention; this is far more large than the other, every man that preacheth interpreteth the Scripture, but every one that interprets Scripture doth not preach. To interpret Scripture is only to give the sense of a Text; but to preach is to divide the Word aright; to apply it to the conscience of the hearer; and in an authoritative way to reprove sin, and denounce judgement against sinners; to lay forth the sweet promises of the Gospel to the faithfull and penitent,” &c.

Two centuries later the text was still applied in the same manner, when one Methodist preacher spoke thus of another: “Joseph Everett was emphatically a man of God, and a minister that needed not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth, and giving to saint and sinner their portion in due season.”

This view has been taken also by various eminent commentators, of whom I cite a couple:

Philip Doddridge—-”rightly dividing the word of truth, distributing with prudence as well as fidelity, to each his proper share.” In a footnote he adds, “Some think here is an allusion to what the Jewish priest or Levite did in dissecting the victim, and separating the parts in a proper manner; as some were to be laid on God’s altar, and others to be given to those who were to share in the sacrifice. Others think it refers to guiding a plough aright, in order to divide the clods in the most proper and effectual manner, and to make straight furrows. But, perhaps, the metaphor may be taken from the distribution made by a steward, in delivering out to each person under his care such things as his office and their necessities required.” It will be observed that though Doddridge mentions three interpretations which were commonly held, none of them resembles that which is so common among the Bible-dividers today—-unless it be that of dissecting a victim.

Adam Clarke actually interprets the figure twice, making it refer to both interpretation and ministry. Still, all his emphasis is on the view taken above, and it is certain he has nothing of the modern notions of dividing the scriptures so as to disallow several portions of them. He says, “Therefore, by rightly dividing the word of truth, we are to understand his continuing in the true doctrine, and teaching that to every person: and, according to our Lord’s simile, giving each his portion of meat in due season; milk to babes; strong meat to the full grown; comfort to the disconsolate; reproof to the irregular and careless: in a word, finding out the necessities of his hearers; and preaching so as to meet those necessities.”

C. H. Spurgeon, however, who may quite commonly be quoted on both sides of the question, may be quoted on all six sides of this one. He says, “The expression is a very remarkable one, because it bears so many phases of meaning. I do not think that any one of the figures by which I shall illustrate it will be at all strained, for they have been drawn from the text by most eminent expositors, and may fairly be taken as honest comments, even when they might be challenged as correct interpretations of the text.” Among the half-dozen positions thus taken by Spurgeon, none of which are offered as “correct interpretations,” is one which very much resembles the position taken by C. I. Scofield in his famous Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth. Spurgeon says, “There has to be DISCRIMINATION AND DISSECTION. It is a great part of a minister’s duty to be able to dissect the gospel—-to lay one piece there, and another there, and preach with clearness, distinction, and discrimination.

“Every gospel minister must divide between the covenant of works and the covenant of grace. It is a very nice point that, and many fail to discern it well; but it must always be kept clear, or great mischief will be done. Confusion worse confounded follows upon confusing grace and law. There is the covenant of works—-‘This do, and thou shalt live,’ but its voice is not that of the covenant of grace which says, ‘Hear and your soul shall live.”You shall, for I will:’ that is the covenant of grace. It is a covenant of pure promise unalloyed by terms and conditions. I have heard people put it thus—-‘Believers will be saved if from this time forth they are faithful to grace given.’ That savours of the covenant of works. ‘God will love you’—-says another,—-‘if you—-.’ Ah, the moment you get an ‘if’ in it, it is the covenant of works, and the gospel has evaporated. Oil and water will sooner mix than merit and grace. When you find the covenant of works anywhere, what are you to do with it? Why, do what Abraham did, and what Sarah demanded, ‘cast out the bond-woman and her son, for the son of the bondwoman shall not be heir with my son, even with Isaac.’ If you are a child of the free-grace promise, do not suffer the Hagar and Ishmael of legal bondage and carnal hope to live in your house. Out with them; you have nought to do with them. Let law and gospel keep their proper places.”

This contains much that is true, but hopelessly mixed with what is false. To begin with, “You shall, for I will” is neither Law, nor Gospel, nor Scripture, but just John Calvin. The Saviour says, “I would, and ye would not.” As for the Gospel being evaporated by the presence of an “if,” this directly contradicts Paul, who declares “the gospel which I preached unto you, … by which also ye are saved, if ye hold fast what I preached unto you, unless ye have believed in vain.” (I Cor. 15:1-2, Greek). It also directly contradicts what Spurgeon himself has said in a thousand other places. On the very same page he says, “…you may believe in an orthodox creed, but you will be damned IF you live in sin.”

But we suppose that all of this inconsistency is the legitimate offspring of Spurgeon’s determination to say everything which could be said on the text, rather than restricting himself to a “correct interpretation” or true exposition of it. And we suppose further that this statement of Spurgeon’s may be the true parent of the use which Scofield and all his followers have made of the text.

Glenn Conjurske