“Inflaming Your Souls by the Word of God” - page 5

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Eugene Peterson communicates this same message with equal passion. His provocative work Eat This Book has the inviting subtitle, A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading. Peterson’s central conviction is that Scripture must be read in a participatory manner. He maintains: “The word of God is a dialogical word, a word that invites participation. Prayer is our participation in the creation, salvation, and community that God reveals to us in Holy Scripture.”10 Earlier in the book he expands this theme in a way that Whitefield would strongly affirm. Peterson writes:

This may be the single most important thing to know as we come to read and study and believe these Holy Scriptures: this rich, alive, personally revealing God as experienced in Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, personally addressing us in whatever circumstances we find ourselves, at whatever age we are in, in whatever state we are—me, you, us. Christian reading is participatory reading, receiving the words in such a way that they become interior to our lives, the rhythms and images becoming practices of prayer, acts of obedience, ways of love.11

Clearly Whitefield and Peterson share the same agenda in this regard. If we are serious about being Christ’s disciples, we must read the Bible in such a way that we are renewed and transformed by it. This comes by reading it as if we were engaging in conversation with the characters of the various stories under the guidance and power of the Holy Spirit.

It is appropriate for George Whitefield to have the final word as he integrates these various strands: Do this, and you will, with a holy violence [i.e. intensity], draw down God’s holy Spirit into your hearts; you will experience his gracious influence, and feel him enlightening, quickening, and inflaming your souls by the word of God; you will then not only read, but mark, learn, and inwardly digest what you read: and the word of God will be meat [i.e. nourishment] indeed (384).

Significantly, Whitefield emphasizes the operation of the Holy Spirit to enlighten, quicken, and inflame one’s soul with the Word of God. The desired end is not only to read for information but to “inwardly digest,” a phrase Whitefield borrowed from The Book of Common Prayer that vividly depicts the formative nature of the Word of God. Whitefield’s practice echoes the admonition of Colossians 3:16, that the Word of God dwell within one’s heart, and it smartly summarizes Jesus’ call for all who would follow him to continue in his word, that we might truly be his disciples.


1. All quotations from the Bible are taken from the New Revised Standard Version. The KJV, NASB, NCV, and Holman Christian Standard Bible all render the word “continue.” The ESV and NKJV translate “continue” as “abide,” and the NIV and TNIV  use “hold to.” While linguistically these words are part of the semantic range of meaning, the Greek tense appears to favor the word “continue”; this expresses the active and ongoing responsibility of dwelling in the Word.
2. For a helpful introduction to the life and ministry of George Whitefield, see Timothy Larsen, ed. Biographical Dictionary of Evangelicals (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 716–19. See also Frank Lambert, Pedlar of Divinity: George Whitefield and the Transatlantic Revivals, 1737–1770 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995); Michael A.G. Haykin, The Revived Puritan: The Spirituality of George Whitefield (Dundas, ON, Canada: Joshua Press, 2000), esp. 21–77.
3. Haykin, The Revived Puritan, 73–74.
4. George Whitefield, “The Duty of Searching the Scriptures,” Sermons on Important Topics, new ed. (London: William Baynes and Son, 1825), 378–85. All references to this sermon will be placed within the text according to page numbers of this edition.

5. Lambert, Pedlar of Divinity, 17, 18–20.
6. Benedicta Ward, trans. The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, rev ed. (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1984), 233 (no. 11).
7. Philip Jacob Spener, “The Necessary and Useful Reading of the Holy Scriptures,” in Pietists: Selected Writings, ed. Peter C. Erb (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1983), 73.
8. George Whitefield, Six Sermons, 3rd ed. (London, 1750), 92, cited in Iain H. Murray, Jonathan Edwards: A New Biography (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1987), 248.
9. For a very helpful introduction to this as well as an annotated bibliography of the major sources, see J. Todd Billings, “How to Read the Bible,” Christianity Today 55, no. 10 (October 2011): 24–30.
10. Eugene H. Peterson, Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), 109.
11. Peterson, Eat This Book, 28.

Tom Schwanda is associate professor of Christian Formation and Ministry at Wheaton College. Ordained in the Reformed Church in America, he pastored three congregations for eighteen years. He holds degrees from Moravian College (B.A.), New Brunswick Theological Seminary (M.Div.), Fuller Theological Seminary (D.Min.) and Durham University (Ph.D.).  His teaching interests include the history of Christian spirituality, discipleship and mentoring, and the formative use of Scripture. Tom and his wife, Grace, have two children and three grandchildren.

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