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Books – Why Be A Reader?

Category Articles
Date September 24, 2004

Peter Barnes (Revesby Presbyterian Church, Australia)

As Timothy prepared to leave Ephesus in order to meet Paul in prison at Rome, the great apostle asked him to bring the cloak that he had left in Troas and also the books, especially (or perhaps "that is") the parchments (2 Tim.4:13). Almost fifteen hundred years later, William Tyndale was in prison in Holland. He asked for a cloak, a woollen shirt, a warm cap, and his Hebrew Bible, grammar, and vocabulary book. Both the apostle and the Bible translator had physical needs, i.e. to be protected from the cold, and intellectual and spiritual needs i.e. to grow in understanding. Both saw the need for Christians to read. Indeed, the apostle Paul knew the pagan Greek poets, and cites Epimenides and Aratus in Acts 17:28, Epimenides again in Titus 1:12, and Menander in I Corinthians 15:33. As Origen and Augustine were to put it, Christians could plunder the Egyptians (Ex. 1 2:36), meaning that they were to make use of pagan works in the cause of Christ. Later still, in the eighteenth century, John Wesley was to say that reading Christians are growing Christians.

Conversion of Baxter

There are dangers everywhere in the Christian life and we need to be aware that God has issued us a warning that knowledge puffs up, but love builds up (l Cor.8:1). Nevertheless, the Christian ought to be keen to read and grow. Books have maintained a chain of godly influence down through the ages, as John Macleod has shown in Some Favourite Books, published by the Banner of Truth Trust in 1988. In 1630 the Puritan Richard Sibbes wrote his classic work, The Bruised Reed. In the same year, a pedlar came to the door of the Baxter family, and made a sale. The result was that, at the tender age of fifteen, young Richard Baxter read Sibbes’ work, and it had a profound effect on him. Baxter himself never went to university, but he read widely. Indeed, such a practice can become something of a snare. Baxter once wrote: "I must confess it is much more pleasing to myself to be retired from the world and to have very little to do with men and to converse with God and conscience and good books".

Conversion of Doddridge and Wilberforce

In 1657 Baxter published his Call to the Unconverted, which has been used by God to awaken many. One of those many was Philip Doddridge, who is perhaps best known to us as a hymn writer. In 1745 he wrote The Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul. This was a work which in turn greatly helped a young Member of Parliament, William Wilberforce. Like many men of his age, Wilberforce had made the trip to the continent for his education. He accompanied Isaac Milner, the evangelical tutor from Queen’s College, Cambridge, and on the return journey read Philip Doddridge’s aforementioned Rise and Progress, and the Bible. What he called the "shapeless idleness" of his past struck him, and in 1785 he reluctantly went to visit John Newton, who gave him wise counsel. By 1787 Wilberforce was writing as a decided evangelical Christian: "God Almighty has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the Slave Trade and the Reformation of Manners (it should be pointed out that "manners" then meant "morals").

Wilberforce wrote: "The fatal habit of considering Christian morals as distinct from Christian doctrines insensibly gained strength. Thus the peculiar doctrines of Christianity went more and more out of sight, and as might naturally have been expected, the moral system itself also began to wither and decay, being robbed of that which should have supplied it with life and nutriment". In 1797, in the days before snappy titles came into vogue, Wilberforce penned his A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians in the Higher and Middle Classes in This County Contrasted with Real Christianity. It was an instant success, although Samuel Taylor Coleridge asked whether Wilberforce cared for the slaves or only for his own soul.

Wilberforce asserted: "It seems in our days to be the commonly received opinion, that provided a man admit in general terms the truth of Christianity, though he neither know of nor consider much concerning the particulars of the system; and if he be not habitually guilty of any of the grosser vices against his fellow-creatures, we have no great reason to be dissatisfied with him, or to question the validity of his claim to the name and privileges of a Christian". He came to see the difference between one who was born again of the Spirit of God and one who was vaguely influenced by Christian tenets.

Conversion of Chalmers

About the year 1811 Thomas Chalmers, a Moderate clergyman of the Church of Scotland, was converted to the evangelical faith. God had used a number of events in his life to drive Chalmers to justification by faith in Christ alone. Chalmers had come to know Rev Andrew Thomson, the Evangelical minister of St George’s, Edinburgh from 1814 to 1831; he went through a broken engagement; and had suffered the deaths, by consumption (tuberculosis), of a brother in 1806 and two sisters, in 1808 and 1810. In fact, he himself had been bed-ridden with consumption, and, while recuperating, had read Blaise Pascal’s Pensees, and then William Wilberforce’s A Practical View. He testified: "I am now most thoroughly of the opinion .. that on the system of Do this and live no peace … can ever be attained. It is, Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved".

Too much TV

Thus it was that this evangelical chain stretched from Sibbes to Chalmers, from the seventeenth century to the nineteenth century. Today, the links might have fallen out due to too many evenings in front of the television. If modern Christian book catalogues are an indication of the state of the Church, we are in deep trouble. Knickknacks, gimmicks, music, videos and CDs receive most of the publicity. And that a book like The Prayer of Jabez could top the best-seller list is cause for a lament not far removed from that of Elijah in I Kings 19.

It must be granted that bookishness is not godliness: "Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh" (Eccl. 12:12). Reading needs to go hand-in-hand with living. It is easy enough to become yet another learned idiot. There are dangers in being light-headed; dangers in emphasising only the intellect and not the emotions and the will; and dangers in being led astray by books that teach error.

Yet for all that, Christians are those whose minds have been renewed (Rom.12:1-2). Hence there are injunctions such as we find in the book of Proverbs: "Wise men lay up knowledge" (Prov.l0:14). Part of being a Christian is to love God with all our being, including our minds (Mt.22:37), and to destroy arguments and take every thought captive unto obedience to Christ (2 Cor.10:4-5). Our love is to abound with knowledge and all discernment (Phil.1:9-11). In debate, Jesus would often say: "Have ye not read…?" (Mt.12:5) Too often these days, the answer is: "No, I have not". That is not to our credit nor to our benefit. John Flavel surely was right when he declared that "Unless we have a knowing people, we are not likely to have a gracious people".

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