Monday, October 12, 2009

Ministers are Living Books, and Books are Dead Ministers

On October 12, 1679, on opposite sides of the North Sea, two great Puritans entered into glory: William Gurnall (b. 1616/1617) and Matthew Poole (b. 1624). Gurnall was a conforming minister of the Church of England; Poole was ejected from his pulpit for nonconformity in 1662. Each of them wrote multiple works, but it is the magnum opus of each upon which their fame rests primarily. One of Matthew Poole's last sayings, in fact, was: "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." Charles Spurgeon had something special to say about each.

William Gurnall was the author of one of the great classics of Christian literature, that compendium of the Christian's spiritual warfare, The Christian in Complete Armour. It is not known how he died precisely, though he was a man of weak health generally, but he was buried in Lavenham, where he ministered for around 35 years.

Spurgeon says:

Gurnall’s work is peerless and priceless; every line is full of wisdom; every sentence is suggestive. The whole book has been preached over scores of times, and is, in our judgment, the best thought-breeder in all our library. This ‘Complete Armour’ is beyond all others a preacher’s book: I should think that more discourses have been suggested by it than by any other uninspired volume. I have often resorted to it when my own fire has been burning low, and I have seldom failed to find a glowing coal upon Gurnall’s hearth. John Newton said that if he might read only one book beside the Bible, he would choose ‘The Christian in Complete Armour’, and Richard Cecil was of much the same opinion. J. C. Ryle has said of it, ‘You will often find in a line and a half some great truth, put so concisely, and yet so fully, that you really marvel how so much thought could be got into so few words’. Happy Lavenham, to have been served by such a pastor!

For more on Gurnall's life, I recommend J.C. Ryle's biographical sketch, which is an introduction to an edition of The Christian in Complete Armour, and is available to read online here.

Matthew Poole was the author the Synopsis Criticorum, a masterful compendium of the history of Biblical interpretation on the whole Bible, which served as the basis of his own later English commentary on the Bible. Having been turned out of his pulpit, Poole aimed to be productive, spending 10 years laboring to prepare the Synopsis, and also writing treatises against Popery. These writings, and an experience that he had in a dark alley one night, led to some suspicion on his part that he was marked for death by Roman Catholic assassins. He left England in 1678 and retired to Amsterdam where he died. Some thought that he was in fact poisoned, although this has never been proved. He was buried in the English Reformed Church of Amsterdam.

Spurgeon writes:

If you are well enough versed in Latin*, you will find in POOLE'S SYNOPSIS, a marvellous collection of all the wisdom and folly of the critics. It is a large cyclopaedia worthy of the days when theologians could be cyclopean, and had not shrunk from folios to octavos. Query—a query for which I will not demand an answer—has one of you ever beaten the dust from the venerable copy of Poole which loads our library shelves? Yet as Poole spent no less than ten years in compiling it, it should be worthy of your frequent notice—ten years, let me add, spent in Amsterdam in exile for the truth's sake from his native land.

His work was based upon an earlier compilation entitled Critici Sacri, containing the concentrated light of a constellation of learned men who have never been excelled in any age or country.

MATTHEW POOLE also wrote ANNOTATIONS upon the Word of God, in English, which are mentioned by Matthew Henry as having passed through many impressions in his day, and he not only highly praises them, but declares that he has in his own work all along been brief upon that which Mr. Poole has more largely discussed, and has industriously declined what is to be found there. The three volumes, tolerably cheap, and easily to be got at, are necessaries for your libraries. On the whole, if I must have only one commentary, and had read Matthew Henry as I have, I do not know but what I should choose Poole. He is a very prudent and judicious commentator; and one of the few who could honestly say, "We have not willingly balked any obvious difficulty, and have designed a just satisfaction to all our readers; and if any knot remains yet untied, we have told our readers what hath been most probably said for their satisfaction in the untying of it." Poole is not so pithy and witty by far as Matthew Henry, but he is perhaps more accurate, less a commentator, and more an expositor. You meet with no ostentation of learning in Matthew Poole, and that for the simple reason that he was so profoundly learned as to be able to give results without a display of his intellectual crockery. A pedant who is for ever quoting Ambrose and Jerome, Piscator and Œcolampadius, in order to show what a copious reader he has been, is usually a dealer in small wares, and quotes only what others have quoted before him, but he who can give you the result and outcome of very extensive reading without sounding a trumpet before him is the really learned man. Mind you do not confound the Annotations with the Synopsis; the English work is not a translation of the Latin one, but an entirely distinct performance. Strange to say, like the other great Matthew he did not live to complete his work beyond Isaiah 58; other hands united to finish the design.

For more on Matthew Poole's life, one may read a biographical sketch on the website of the Matthew Poole Project, or obtain a copy of Thomas Harley's recent biography as noted here.

* The first-ever translation of Poole's Synopsis from Latin into English has been undertaken by Pastor Steven Dilday. See the Matthew Poole Project for more details.


  1. I stole the Poole quote on books/ministers for my facebook quotes. Thanks!

  2. Yes, Andrew, I borrowed the Poole quote on my blog too. :- ) Thanks!

  3. You're most welcome, ladies! Poole said it well.