Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Tolle Lege

Samuel Davies, Letter to his brother-in-law:

I have a peaceful study, as a refuge from the hurries and noise of the world around me; the venerable dead are waiting in my library to entertain me, and relieve me from the nonsense of surviving mortals.

Here is counsel on the value of good reading, a sadly-neglected art in our modern sound-bite age, and encouragement to tolle lege, take up and read!

Thomas Watson, Farewell Sermons of Some of the Most Eminent of the Nonconformist Ministers, pp. 196-197:

First, I beseech you, keep your constant hours every day with God. The godly man is a man set apart, Ps. iii. not only because God hath set him apart by election, but because he hath set himself apart by devotion. Give God the Aurorae filiam. Begin the day with God, visit God in the morning before you make any other visit; wind up your hearts towards heaven in the morning, and they will go better all the day after! Oh turn your closets into temples; read the scriptures. The two Testaments are the two lips by which God speaks to us; these will make you wise unto salvation: the scripture is both a glass to shew you your spots, and a laver to wash them away; besiege heaven every day with your prayer, thus perfume your houses, and keep a constant intercourse with heaven.

Secondly, Get books into your houses, when you have not the spring near to you, then get water into your cisterns: so when you have not that wholesome preaching that you desire, good books are cisterns that hold the water of life in them to refresh you. When David's natural heat was taken away, they covered him with warm clothes, 1 Kings i. So when you find a chillness upon your souls, and that your former heat begins to abate, ply yourselves with warm clothes, get those good books that may acquaint you with such truths as may warm and affect your hearts.

Charles Spurgeon, Sermon No. 542: Paul -- His Cloak and His Books:

Even an apostle must read. Some of our very ultra Calvinistic brethren think that a minister who reads books and studies his sermon must be a very deplorable specimen of a preacher. A man who comes up into the pulpit, professes to take his text on the spot, and talks any quantity of nonsense, is the idol of many. If he will speak without premeditation, or pretend to do so, and never produce what they call a dish of dead men's brains—oh! that is the preacher. How rebuked are they by the apostle! He is inspired, and yet he wants books! He has been preaching at least for thirty years, and yet he wants books! He had seen the Lord, and yet he wants books! He had had a wider experience than most men, and yet he wants books! He had been caught up into the third heaven, and had heard things which it was unlawful for a men to utter, yet he wants books! He had written the major part of the New Testament, and yet he wants books! The apostle says to Timothy and so he says to every preacher, "Give thyself unto reading." The man who never reads will never be read; he who never quotes will never be quoted. He who will not use the thoughts of other men's brains, proves that he has no brains of his own. Brethren, what is true of ministers is true of all our people. You need to read. Renounce as much as you will all light literature, but study as much as possible sound theological works, especially the Puritanic writers, and expositions of the Bible. We are quite persuaded that the very best way for you to be spending your leisure, is to be either reading or praying. You may get much instruction from books which afterwards you may use as a true weapon in your Lord and Master's service. Paul cries, "Bring the books"—join in the cry.

Matthew Poole, The Last Sayings of Matthew Poole:

Ministers are living Books, and Books are dead Ministers; and yet though dead, they speak. When you cannot heare the one, you may read the other.

Richard Baxter, A Christian Directory, pp. 56-57:

Direct. xvi. ' Make careful choice of the books which you read. Let the Holy Scriptures ever have the pre-eminence, and next them, the solid, lively, heavenly treatises, which best expound and apply the Scriptures; and next those, the credible histories, especially of the church, and tractates upon inferior sciences and arts: but take heed of the poison of the writings of false teachers, which would corrupt your understandings: and of vain romances, play-books, and false stories, which may bewitch your fantasies, and corrupt your hearts.'

As there is a more excellent appearance of the Spirit of God in the Holy Scriptures, than in any other book whatever, so it hath more power and fitness to convey the Spirit, and make us spiritual, by imprinting itself upon our hearts. As there is more of God in it, so it will acquaint us more with God, and bring us nearer him, and make the reader more reverent, serious, and divine. Let Scripture be first and most in your hearts and hands, and other books be used as subservient to it. The endeavours of the devil and Papists to keep it from you, doth shew that it is most necessary and desirable to you. And when they tell you, that all heretics plead the Scripture, they do but tell you, that it is the common rule or law of Christians, which, therefore, all are fain to pretend: as all lawyers and wranglers plead the laws of the land, be their cause never so bad, and yet the laws must not be therefore concealed or cast aside: and they do but tell you, that, in their concealment or dishonouring the Scriptures, they are worse than any of those heretics. When they tell you, that the Scriptures are misunderstood, and abused, and perverted to maintain men's errors, they might also desire that the sun might be obscured, because the purblind do mistake, and murderers and robbers do wickedly by its light: and that the earth might be subverted, because it bears all evil doers : and highways stopt up, because men travel in them to do evil: and food prohibited, because it nourisheth men's diseases. And when they have told you truly of a law or rule (whether made by pope or council), which bad men cannot misunderstand or break, or abuse and misapply, then hearken to them, and prefer that law, as that which preventeth the need of any judgment.

The writings of Divines are nothing else but a preaching the Gospel to the eye, as the voice preacheth it to the ear. Vocal preaching hath the pre-eminence in moving the affections, and being diversified according to the state of the congregations which attend it: this way the milk cometh warmest from the breast. But books have the advantage in many other respects: you may read an able preacher, when you have but a mean one to hear. Every congregation cannot hear the most judicious or powerful preachers; but every single person may read the books of the most powerful and judicious. Preachers may be silenced or banished, when books may be at hand: books may be kept at a smaller charge than preachers: we may choose books which treat of that very subject which we desire to hear of; but we cannot choose what subject the preacher shall (rent of. Books we may have at hand every day and hour; when we can have sermons but seldom, and at set times. If sermons be forgotten, they are gone. But a book we may read over and over until we remember it; and, if we forget it, may again peruse it at our pleasure, or at our leisure. So that good books are a very great mercy to the world. The Holy Ghost chose the way of writing, to preserve his doctrine and laws to the church, as knowing how easy and sure a way it is of keeping it safe to all generations, in comparison of mere verbal tradition, which might have made as many controversies about the very terms, as theie be memories or persons to be the preservers and reporters,

Books are (if well chosen) domestic, present, constant, judicious, pertinent, yea, and powerful sermons: and always of very great use to your salvation: but especially when vocal preaching faileth, and preachers are ignorant, ungodly, or dull, or when they are persecuted, and forbid to preach.

You have need of a judicious teacher at hand, to direct you what books to use or to refuse. For among good books there wre some very good that are sound and lively: and some are good, but mean, aad weak, and somewhat dull: and some are very good in part, bat have mixtures of error, or else of incautious, injudicious expressions, fitter to puzzle than edify the weak. I am loath to name any of these latter sorts (of which abundance have come forth of late): but to the young beginner in religion, I may be bold to recommend (next to a sound catechism) Mr. Rutherford's Letters; —Mr. Robert Bolton's Works ;—Mr. Perkins's;—Mr. Whateley's ;—Mr. Ball, of Faith;—Dr. Preston's;—Dr. Sibbs's ;—Mr. Hildersham's :—Mr. Pink's Sermons ;— Mr. Jos. Rogers's;—Mr. Rich. Allen's;—Mr. GurnalPs; —Mr. Swinnock's;—Mr. Jos. Simonds's. And to establish you against Popery, Dr. Challoner's Codex Credo Eccles. Cathol.;—Dr. Field, of the Church ;—Dr. White's Way to the Church, with the Defence;—Bishop Usher's Answer to the Jesuit; and Chillingworth, with Drelincourt's Summary. And for right principles about Redemption, &c. Mr. Truman's Great Propitiation; and of Natural and Moral Impotency;—and Mr. William Fenner, of Wilful Impenitency;—Mr. Hotchkis, of Forgiveness of Sin. To pass by many other excellent ones, that I may not name too many.

To a very judicious, able reader, who is fit to censure all he reads, there is no great danger in reading the books of any seducers : it doth but shew him how little and thin a cloak is used to cover a bad cause. But, alas! young soldiers, not used to such wars, are startled at a very sophism, or at a terrible threatening of damnation to dissenters (which every censorious sect can use), or at every confident, triumphant boast, or at every thing that hath a fair pretence of truth or godliness. Injudicious persons can answer almost no deceiver which they hear: and when they cannot answer them they think they must yield, as if the fault were not in them but in the cause, and as if Christ had no wiser followers, or better defenders of his truth than they. Meddle not, therefore, with poison, till you better know how to use it, and may do it with less danger, as long as you have no need.

As for play-books, and romances, and idle tales, I have already shewed in my "Book of Self-Denial," how pernicious they are, especially to youth, and to frothy, empty, idle wits, that know not what a man is, nor what he hath to do in the world. They are powerful baits of the devil, to keep more necessary things out of their minds, and better books out of their hands, and to poison the mind so much the more dangerously, as they are read with more delight and pleasure: and to fill the minds of sensual people with such idle fumes, and intoxicating fancies, as may divert them from the serious thoughts of their salvation: and (which is no small loss) to rob them of abundance of that precious time, which was given them for more important business; and which they will wish and wish again at last that they had spent more wisely. I know the fantastics will say, that these things are innocent, and may teach men much good (like him that must go to a whore-house to learn to hate uncleanness; and him that would go out with robbers to learn to hate thievery): but I shall now only ask them as in the presence of God, 1. Whether they should spend that time no better ? 2. Whether better books and practices would not edify them more. 3. Whether the greatest lovers of romances and plays be the greatest lovers of the book of God, and of a holy life? 4. Whether they feel in themselves that the love of these vanities, doth increase their love to the Word of God, and kill their sin, and prepare them for the life to come? or clean contrary? And I would desire men not to prate against their own experience and reason, nor to dispute themselves into damnable impe- nitency, nor to befool their souls by a few silly words, which any but a sensualist may perceive to be mere deceit and falsehood. If this will not serve, they shall be shortly convinced and answered in another manner.

C.S. Lewis, Introduction to Athanasius' On The Incarnation:

There is a strange idea abroad that in every subject the ancient books should be read only by the professionals, and that the amateur should content himself with the modern books. Thus I have found as a tutor in English Literature that if the average student wants to find out something about Platonism, the very last thing he thinks of doing is to take a translation of Plato off the library shelf and read the Symposium. He would rather read some dreary modern book ten times as long, all about "isms" and influences and only once in twelve pages telling him what Plato actually said. The error is rather an amiable one, for it springs from humility. The student is half afraid to meet one of the great philosophers face to face. He feels himself inadequate and thinks he will not understand him. But if he only knew, the great man, just because of his greatness, is much more intelligible than his modern commentator. The simplest student will be able to understand, if not all, yet a very great deal of what Plato said; but hardly anyone can understand some modern books on Platonism. It has always therefore been one of my main endeavours as a teacher to persuade the young that firsthand knowledge is not only more worth acquiring than secondhand knowledge, but is usually much easier and more delightful to acquire.

This mistaken preference for the modern books and this shyness of the old ones is nowhere more rampant than in theology. Wherever you find a little study circle of Christian laity you can be almost certain that they are studying not St. Luke or St. Paul or St. Augustine or Thomas Aquinas or Hooker or Butler, but M. Berdyaev or M. Maritain or M. Niebuhr or Miss Sayers or even myself.

Now this seems to me topsy-turvy. Naturally, since I myself am a writer, I do not wish the ordinary reader to read no modern books. But if he must read only the new or only the old, I would advise him to read the old. And I would give him this advice precisely because he is an amateur and therefore much less protected than the expert against the dangers of an exclusive contemporary diet. A new book is still on its trial and the amateur is not in a position to judge it. It has to be tested against the great body of Christian thought down the ages, and all its hidden implications (often unsuspected by the author himself) have to be brought to light. Often it cannot be fully understood without the knowledge of a good many other modern books. If you join at eleven o'clock a conversation which began at eight you will often not see the real bearing of what is said. Remarks which seem to you very ordinary will produce laughter or irritation and you will not see why - the reason, of course, being that the earlier stages of the conversation have given them a special point. In the same way sentences in a modern book which look quite ordinary may be directed at some other book; in this way you may be led to accept what you would have indignantly rejected if you knew its real significance. The only safety is to have a standard of plain, central Christianity ("mere Christianity" as Baxter called it) which puts the controversies of the moment in their proper perspective. Such a standard can be acquired only from the old books. It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones.

Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook - even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it. Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny. They thought that they were as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united - united with each other and against earlier and later ages - by a great mass of common assumptions. We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century - the blindness about which posterity will ask, "But how could they have thought that?" - lies where we have never suspected it, and concerns something about which there is untroubled agreement between Hitler and President Roosevelt or between Mr. H. G. Wells and Karl Barth. None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books. Where they are true they will give us truths which we half knew already. Where they are false they will aggravate the error with which we are already dangerously ill. The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction. To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them.

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