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Monday, May 5, 2014

Richard Baxter On Reading

Puritan Richard Baxter (1615-1691) was a Puritan with immense pastoral concern for fellow believers.  His works were genuinely practical, providing very succinct instructions for the various problems of life and in the Christian walk.  Under the heading Directions For Reading Other Books in Christian Directory, Baxter gave these general thoughts on reading truly Christian material...

"Because God hath made the excellent, holy writings of his servants the singular blessing of this land and age; and many a one may have a good book, even any day or hour of the week that cannot at all have a good preacher; I advise all God's servants to be thankful for so great a mercy, and to make use of it, and be much in reading:  for reading, with most, doth more conduce to knowledge than hearing doth, because you may choose what subjects and the excellentest treatises you please; and may be often at it, and may peruse again and again what you forget, and may take time as you go to fix it on your mind:  and with very many it doth more than hearing also to move the heart, though hearing of itself in this hath the advantage; because lively books may be easilier had than lively preachers."

Although giving this general commendation for Christian readings outside of Scripture, in a separate section of Christian Directory called Directions to Weak Christians for Their Establishment and Growth, Baxter also advises,

"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.  And 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 show that it is most necessary and desirable to you.  And when they tell you, that all heretics plead the Scriptures, 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 law of the land, be their cause never so bad, and yet the laws must not therefore be 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...."

"....The writings of the divines are nothing else but a preaching of the gospel to the eye, as the voice preacheth it to the ear.  Vocal preaching hath the preeminence in moving the affections, and being diversified 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 treat of.  Books we may have at hand every day and hour; when we can have sermons but seldom, and at set times...."

"...As for play-books, and romances, and idle tales, I have already 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 idle fumes, and intoxicating fantasies, as may divert them from the serious thoughts of their salvation:  and (which is no small loss) to rob them of the 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 could 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 impenitency, 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."

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