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Necessary cautions to be us’d in the reading of the holy Scriptures.
IT is a common observation, that the most generous and sprightly Medicines are the most unsafe, if not apply’d with due care and regimen: and the remark holds as well in spiritual as corporal remedies. The Apostle asserts it upon his own experience, that the doctrine of the Gospel, which was to some the savour of life unto life, was to others the savour of death, 2 Cor. 2. 16. And the same effect that the oral Word had then, the written Word may have now; not that either the one or the other has any thing in it that is of it self mortiferous, but becomes so by the ill disposition of the persons who so pervert it. It is therefore well worth our inquiry, what qualifications on our part are necessary to make the Word be to us what it is in it self, the power of God unto salvation, Rom. 1. 16. Of these some are previous before our reading, some are concomitant with it, and some are subsequent and follow after it.
2. OF those that go before, sincerity is a most essential requisite: by sincerity, I mean 194an upright intention, by which we direct our reading to that proper end for which the holy Scriptures were design’d: viz. the knowing God’s will in order to the practising it. This honest simplicity of heart is that which Christ represents by the good ground, where alone it was that the seed could fructify, Matt. 13. 8. And he that brings not this with him, brings only the shadow of a Disciple. The word of God, is indeed, sharper than a two-edged sword, Heb. 4. 12. but what impression can a sword make on a body of air, which still slips from, and eludes its thrusts? And as little can all the practical discourses of Holy Writ make on him, who brings only his speculative faculties with him, and leaves his will and affections behind him; which are the only proper subjects for it to work on.
3. TO this we may probably impute that strange, inefficaciousness we see of the Word. Alas! men rarely apply it to the right place: our most inveterate diseases lie in our morals, and we suffer the Medicine to reach no farther than our intellects. As if he that had an ulcer in his bowels should apply all his balsoms and sanatives only to his head. ’Tis true, the holy Scriptures are the treasuries of divine Wisdom; the Oracles to which we should resort for saving knowledge: but they are also the rule and guide of holy Life: and he that covets to know God’s will for any purpose but to 195practise it, is only studious to entitle himself to the greater number of stripes, Luke 12. 47.
4. NAY farther, he that affects only the bare knowledge is oft disappointed even of that. The Scripture, like the Pillar of Fire and Cloud, enlightens the Israelites, those who sincerely resign themselves to its guidance; but it darkens and confounds the Egyptians, Exod. 14. 20. And ’tis frequently seen, that those who read only to become knowing, are toll’d on by their curiosity into the more abstruse and mysterious parts of Scripture, where they entangle themselves in inextricable mazes and confusions; and instead of acquiring a more superlative knowledge, lose those easy and common notions which lye obvious to every plain well meaning Reader. I fear this Age affords too many, and too frequent instances of this, in men who have lost God in the midst of his Word, and study’d Scripture till they have renounc’d its Author.
5. AND sure this infatuation is very just, and no more than God himself has warn’d us of, who takes the wise in their own craftiness, Job 5. 13. but appropriates his fecrets only to them that fear him, and has promis’d to teach the meek his way, Psal. 25. 9, 14. And this was the method Christ observ’d in his Preaching, unveiling those truths to his Disciples, which to the Scribes and Pharisees, his inquisitive, yet refractory hearers, he wrapt up in parables; 196not that he dislik’d their desire of knowledge, but their want of sincerity: which is so fatal a defect as blasts our pursuit, tho’ of things in themselves never so excellent. This we find exemplify’d in Simon Magus, Acts 8. who, tho’ be coveted a thing in it self very desireable, the power of conferring the Holy Ghost, yet desiring it not only upon undue conditions, but for sinister ends, not only miss’d of that, but was (after all his convincement by the Apostles Miracle, and the engagement of his Baptism) immers’d in the gall of bitterness; and at last advanc’d to that height of Blasphemy, as to set up himself for a God, so becoming a lasting memento, how unsafe it is to prevaricate in holy things.
6. BUT as there is a sincerity of the Will in order to practice, so there is also a sincerity of the Understanding in order to belief; and this is also no less requisite to the profitable reading of Scripture. I mean by this, that we come with a preparation of mind, to embrace indifferently whatever God there reveals as the object of our Faith; that we bring our own opinions, not as the clue by which to unfold Scripture, but to be try’d and regulated by it. The want of this has been of very pernicious consequence in matters both of Faith and Speculation. Men are commonly prepossess’d strongly with their own notions, and their errand to Scripture is not to lend them 197light to judge of them, but aids to back and defend them.
7. OF this there is no Book of controversy that do’s not give notorious proof. The Socinian can easily over-look the beginning of Saint John, that says, The Word was God, Joh. 1. 1. and all those other places which plainly assert the Deity dour Saviour, if he can divert to that other more agreeable Text, that the Father is greater than I. Among the Romanists, Peters being said to be first among the Apostles, Matt. 10. 2. and that on that Rock Christ would build his Church, Matt. 16. 18. carrys away all attention from those other places, where Saint Paul says he was not behind the very chiefest of the Apostles, 2. Cor. 11. 5. that upon him lay the care of all the Churches, 2 Cor. 11. 28. and that the Church was not built upon the foundation of some one, but all the twelve Apostles, Revelat. 21. 14. So it fares in the business of the Eucharist: This is my body, Matt. 26. 26. carrys it away clear for Transubstantiation, when our Saviours calling that which he drunk the fruit of the vine, Matt. 26. 29, and then Saint Paul’s naming the Elements in the Lords Supper several times over, Bread and Wine; The Bread that we break, is it not the Communion of the Body of Christ? The Cup that we bless, is it not the Communion? &c. 1. Cor. 10. 16. And again, He that eats this Bread, and drinks this Cup unworthily, &c. 1981. Cor. 11. 29. can make no appearance of an Argument.
8. THUS men once engag’d ransack for Texts that carry some correspondency to the opinions they have imbib’d, and those how do they rack and scrue to bring to .a perfect conformity, and improve every little probability into a demonstration? On the other side, the contrary Texts the look on as enemies, and consider them no farther than to provide fences and guards against them: So they bring Texts not into the scales to weigh, but into the field to skirmish, as Partizans and Auxiliaries of such or such Opinions.
9. By this force of prepossession it is, that that Sacred Rule, which is the measure and standard of all rectitude, is it self bow’d and distorted to countenance and abet the most contrary Tenets: and like a variable picture, represents differing shapes, according to the light in which you view it. And sure we cannot do it a worse office than to represent it thus dissonant to it self. Yet thus it must still be till men come unbyast to the reading of it. And certainly there is all the reason in the world they should do so: the ultimate end of our faith is but the salvation of our souls, 1. Pet. 1. 9. and we may be sure the Scripture can best direct us what Faith it is which will lead us to that end.
10. WHY should we not then have the same indifference which a traveller hath, whether his way lie on this hand or that: so as it be the direct road to his journeys end? For although it be infinitely material that I embrace right principles, yet ’tis not so that this should be right rather than the other: and our wishes that it should be so proceed only from our prepossessions and fondness of our own conceptions, than which nothing is more apt to intercept the clear view of truth. It therefore nearly concerns us to deposit them, and to give up our selves without reserve to the guidance of Gods Word, and give it equal credit when it thwarts, as when it complies with our own notions.
11. WITHOUT this, though we may call Scripture the rule of Faith, and judge of controversies; yet ’tis manifest we make it not so, but reserve still the last appeal to our own prejudicate fancies: and then no wonder, though we fall under the same occecation which our Saviour upbraids to the Jews, that seeing, we see not, neither do we understand, Matt. 13.14. For he that will not be sav’d Gods way, will hardly be so by his own. He that resolves not impartially to embrace all the Scriptures dictates comes to them as unsincerely, as the remnant of the Jews did to Jeremiah to inquire of the Lord for them, which be no sooner had done, but they protest against his 200message, Jer. 41. 20. and may expect as fatal an event.
12. BUT there are a set of men who deal yet more unsincerely with the Word; that read it insidiously, on purpose to collect matter of objection and cavil; that with a malicious diligence compare Texts in hope to find contradictions: and read attentively, but to no other end than to remark incoherences and defects in the stile: which when they think they have started, they have their design; and never will use a quarter of the same diligence in considering how they may be solv’d, or consulting with those who may assist them in it. For I think I may appeal to the generality of those who have rais’d the loudest clamours against the Scripture, whether they have endeavour’d to render themselves competent judges of it by inquiring into the Originals, or informing themselves of those local Customs, peculiar Idioms, and many other circumstances, by which obscure Texts are to be clear’d. And though I do not affirm it necessary to salvation that every man should do this; yet I may affirm it necessary to him that will pretend to judge of the Bible: and he that without this condemns it, do’s it as manifest injury, as a judge that should pass sentence only upon the Indictment, without hearing the defence.
13. AND certainly there cannot be any 201thing more unmanly and disingenuous, than for men to inveigh and condemn before they inquire and examine. Yet this is the thing upon which so many value themselves, assuming to be men of reason, for that for which the Scripture pronounces them brute Beasts, viz, the speaking evil of those things they understand not, 2 Pet. 2. 12. Would men use due diligence, no doubt many of those seeming contradictions would be reconcil’d, and the obscurities clear’d: and if any should after all remain, they might find twenty things fitter to charge it on, than want of verity or discourse in the inspir’d writers.
14. ALAS what human writing is there of near that Antiquity, wherein there are not many passages unintelligible? And indeed, unless modern times knew all those national customs, obsolete Laws, particular Rites and Ceremonies, Phrases and proverbial Sayings, to which such ancient Books refer, ’tis impossible but some passages must still remain obscure. Yet in these we ordinarily have so much candour, as to impute their unintelligibleness to our own ignorance of those things which should clear them, the improprieties of stile to the variation that times make in dialects, or to the errors of Scribes, and do not presently exclaim against the Authors as false or impertinent, or discard the whole Book for some such passages.
15. AND sure what allowances we make to other Books may with more reason be made to the Bible; which having been writ so many Ages since, past thro’ infinite variety of hands, and (which is above all) having been the object of the Devils, and wicked mens malice, lies under greater disadvantages than any human composure: And doubtless men would be as equitable to that as they are to others, were it not that they more wish to have that false or irrational than any other Book. The plain parts of it, the precepts and threatnings speak clearer than they desire, gall and fret them; and therefore they will revenge themselves upon the obscurer: and seem angry that there are some things they understand not, when indeed their real displeasure is at those they do.
16. A second qualification preparatory to reading the Scripture is reverence. When we take the Bible in our hands, we should do it with other sentiments and apprehensions than when we take a common Book; considering that it is the word of God, the instrument of our salvation, or upon our abuse of it, a promoter of our ruin.
17. AND sure this, if duly apprehended, cannot but strike us with a reverential awe, make us to say with Jacob, Gen. 28. 16. surely God is in this place; controul all trifling fancies, and make us read, not for custome or divertisement, 203but with those solemn and holy intentions; which become the dignity of its Author. Accordingly we find holy men have in all Ages been affected with it; and some to the inward reverence of the mind have joyn’d the outward of the body also, and never read it but upon their knees: an example that may both instruct and reproach our profaneness; who commonly read by chance, and at a venture: If a Bible happen in our way, we take it up as we would do a Romance, or a Play-book; only herein we differ, that we dismiss it much sooner, and retain less of its impressions.
18. IT was a Law of Numa, that no wan should meddle with divine things, or worship the Gods in passing or by accident, but make it a set and solemn business. And every one knows with how great ceremony and solemnity the Heathen Oracles were consulted. How great a shame is it then for Christians to defalk that reverence from the true God, which Heathens allow’d their false ones?
19. NOW this proceeds sometimes from the want of that habitual reverence we should always have to it as Gods word, and sometimes from want of actually exciting it, when we go to read: for if the habit lye only dormant in us, and be not awak’d by actual consideration, it avails us as little in our reading, as the habitual strength of a man do’s towards labour, 204when he will not exert it for that end.
20. WE ought therefore, as to make it our deliberate choice to read Gods word; so when we do it, to stir up our selves to those solemn apprehensions of its dignity and authority, as may render us malleable, and apt to receive its impressions; for where there is no reverence, ’tis not to be exspected there should be any genuine or lasting obedience.
21. SAINT Austin in his Tract to Honoratus, of the advantage of believing, makes the first requisite to the knowledge of the Scriptures to be the love of them. Believe me, says he, every thing in the Scripture is Sublime and Divine, its truth and doctrine are most accommodate to the refreshment, and building up of our minds: and in all respects so order’d, that every one may draw thence what is sufficient for him; provided he approach it with Devotion, is Piety, and Religion. The proof of this may require much reasoning and discourse. But this I am first to perswade, that you do not hate the Authors, and then that you love them. Had we an ill opinion of Virgil, nay, if upon the account of the reputation he has gain’d with our Predecessors, we did not greatly love, before we understood him, we should never patiently go through all the difficult questions Grammarians raise about him. Many employ themselves in Commenting upon him; we esteem him most, whose Exposition most commends the Book, and shews that 205the Author, not only was free from errour, but did excellently well where he is not understood. And if such an account happen not to be given, we impute it rather to the Interpreter than the Poet.
22. THUS the good Father; whose words I have transcrib’d at large, as being remarkable to the present purpose; he also shews that the mind of no Author is to be learnt from one averse to his doctrine: as that ’tis vain to enquire of Aristotles Books from one of a different Sect: Or of Archimedes from Epicurus: the discourse will be as displeasing as the speaker; and that shall be esteem’d absurd, which comes from one that is envy’d or despis’d.
23. A third preparative to our reading should be prayer. The Scripture as it was dictated at first by the Holy Spirit, so must still owe its effects and influence to its co-operation. The things of God, the Apostle tells us, are spiritually discern’d, 1. Cor. 2. 14. And tho’ the natural man may well enough apprehend the letter, and grammatical sense of the Word; yet its power and energy, that insinuative perswasive force whereby it works on hearts, is peculiar to the Spirit; and therefore without his aids, the Scripture whilst it lyes open before our eyes, may still be as a Book that seal’d Esai. 29. 11. be as ineffective as if the characters were illegible.206
24. BESIDES, our Saviour tells us, the devil is still busy to steal away the seed as soon as it is sown, Matt. 13. 19. And unless we have some better guard than our own vigilance, he is sure enough to prosper in his attempt. Let it therefore be our care to invoke the Divine Aid; and when ever we take the Bible into our hands, to dart up at least a hearty ejaculation, that we may find its effects in our hearts. Let us say with holy David, open thou mine eyes, O Lord, that I may see the wondrous things of thy Law. Blessed art thou O Lord, O teach me thy statutes, Psal. 119. Nay, indeed ’twill be fit matter of a daily solemn devotion, as our Church has made it an annual in the Collect on the second Sunday in Advent: a prayer so apt and fully expressive of what we should desire in this particular, that if we transcribe not only the example, but the very words, I know not how we can form that part of our devotion more advantageously.
25. IN the second place we are to consider what is requir’d of us at the time of reading the Scripture; which consist principally in two things. The first of these is attention, which is so indispensably requisite, that without it all Books are alike, and all equally insignificant: for he that adverts not to the sense of what he reads, the wisest discourses signify no more to him, than the most exquisite Musick do’s to a man perfectly deaf. The letters and 207syllables of the Bible are no more sacred than those of another Book; ’tis the sense and meaning only that is divinely inspir’d: and he that considers only the former may as well entertain himself with a spelling-book.
26. WE must therefore keep our minds fix’d and attent to what we read: ’tis a folly and Iightness not to do so in human Authors, but ’tis a sin and danger not to do so in this divine Book. We know there can scarce be a greater instance of contempt and disvalue, than to hear a man speak, and not at all mind what he says: yet this vilest affront do all those put upon God, who hear or read his Word, and give it no attention. Yet I fear the practice is not more impious than it is frequent: for there are many that read the Bible, who, if at the end of each Chapter they shall be call’d to account, I doubt could produce but very slender collections: and truly ’tis a sad consideration, that that sacred Book is read most attentively by those, who read it as some preach the Gospel, Phil. 1. 15. out of envy and strife. How curiously do men inspect, nay ransack and embowel a Text to find a pretence for cavil and objection; whilst men who profess to look there for life and salvation read with such a rechless heedlesness, as if it could tell them nothing they were concern’d in: and to such ’tis no wonder if their reading bring no advantage. God is 208not in this sense found of those that seek him not, Esai. 65. 1. ’tis Satans part to serve himself of the bare words and characters of holy Writ, for charms and amulets: the vertue God has put there consists in the sense and meaning, and can never be drawn out by drousy inadverting Readers.
27. THIS unattentiveness fore-stalls all possibility of good. How shall that convince the understanding, or persuade the affections, which do’s not so much as enter the imagination. So that in this case the seed seems more cast away than in any of those instances the parable gives, Matt. 13. In those it still fell upon the soil, but in this it never reaches that; but is scatter’d and dissipated, as with a mighty wind, by those thoughts which have prepossess’d the mind. Let no man therefore take this sacred Book into his hand, till he has turn’d out all distracting fancies and has his faculties free and vacant for those better objects which will there present themselves. And when he has so dispos’d himself for attention, then let him contrive to improve that attention to the best advantage.
28. TO which purpose it may be very conducive to put it into some order and method. As for instance, when he reads the doctrinal part of Scripture, let him first and principally advert to those plain Texts which contain 209the necessary points of Faith: that he may not owe his Creed only to his education, the institution of his Parents or Tutors; but may know the true foundation on which it is bottom’d, viz. the word of God, and may thence be able to justify his Faith: and as Saint Peter exhorts, be ready to give an answer to every man that asks him a reason of the hope that is in him, 1 Pet. 3. 15. For want of this it is, that Religion fits so loose upon men, that every wind of doctrine blows them into distinct and various forms; till at last their Christianity it self vaporus away and disappears.
29. BUT let men be careful thus to secure the foundation, and then ’twill be commendable in them (who are capable of it) to aspire to higher degrees of speculation: yet even in these it will be their safest course chiefly to pursue such as have the most immediate influence on practice, and be more industrious to make observations of that sort, than curious and critical remarks or bold conjectures upon those mysteries on which God has spread a veil.
30. BUT besides a mans own particular collections, it will be prudence in him to advantage himself of those of others, and to consult the learnedest and best Expositors; and that not only upon a present emergency, when he is to dispute a point; (as most do) 210but in the constant course of his reading, wherein he will most sedately, and dispassionately judge of the notions they offer.
31. AS to the choice of the portions of Scripture to be read in course, though I shall not condemn that of reading the whole Bible in order, yet ’tis apparent that some parts of it (as that of the Levitical Law) are not so aptly accommodated to our present state, as others are; and consequently not so edificatory to us: and therefore I cannot see why any man should oblige himself to an equal frequency in reading them. And to this our Church seems to give her suffrage, by excluding such out of her publick Lessons. And if we govern our private reading by her measure it will well express our deference to her judgement; who has selected some parts of Scripture, nor that she would keep her children in ignorance of any, but because they tend most immediately to practice.
32. NEITHER will the daily reading the Scripture in the Rubricks order hinder any man from acquainting himself with the rest. For he may take in the other parts as supernumeraries to his constant task, and read them as his leisure and inclination shall prompt. So that all the hurt that can accrue to him by this method, is the being invited to read sometimes extraordinary proportions.
33. IF it be objected, that to those who 211daily hear the Church Service ’twill be a kind of tautology, first to read those Lessons in private, which soon after they shall hear read publickly; I answer, that whatever men may please to call it, ’twill really be an advantage: For he that shall read a Chapter by himself with due consideration, and consulting of good Paraphrasts, will have div’d so far into the sense of it, that he will much better comprehend it when he hears it read: as on the other side, the hearing it read so immediately after, will serve to confirm and rivet the sense in his mind. The one is as the conning, the other the repeating the Lesson; which every School-boy can tell us is best done at the nearest distance to each other. But I shall not contend for this, or any particular method: let the Scriptures be read in proportion to every mans leisure and capacity, and read with attention; and we need not be scrupulous about circumstances when the main duty is secur’d.
34. BUT as in the Doctrinal, so in the Preceptive part, there is a caution to be us’d in our attention. For we are to distinguish between those temporary precepts that were adapted to particular times and occasions, and such as are of perpetual obligation. He that do’s not this may bring himself under the Jewish Law, or believe a necessity of selling all and giving it to the poor, because ’twas 212Christs command to the rich man; Matt. 19. or incur other considerable mischiefs.
35. THUS frequently commands are put in comprehensive indefinite words, but concern only the generality to whom the Law is written and not those who are intrusted with the vindication of their contempt. Accordingly ’tis said, thou shalt not kill, Mark 10. 19. which concerns the private person but extends not to the Magistrate in the execution of his office, who is a revenger appointed by God, and bears not the sword in vain, Rom. 13. 4. So the injunction not to swear at all, Matt. 5. 34. refers to the common transactions of life, but not those solemn occasions where an oath is to give glory to God, and is the end of all strife, Hebr. 6. 16. Yet these mistakes at this day prevail with Anabaptists and Quakers, and bottom their denyal of the Magistrates power to protect his Subjects by War, and to determine differences in Peace by the Oath of witnesses in judicial proceedings.
36. THERE is another distinction we are to attend to; and that is between absolute and primary commands, and secundary ones: the former we are to set a special remark upon, as those upon whose observance or violation our Eternal Life or Death inseparably depends. And therefore our first and most solicitous care must be concerning them. I mention this 213not to divert any from aspiring to the highest degrees of perfection, but to reprove that preposterous course many take, who lay the greatest weight upon those things on which God lays the least; and have more zeal for oblique intimations, than for express downright commands; nay, think by the one to commute for the contempt of the other. For example, Fasting is recommended to us in Scripture, but in a far lower key than moral duties: rather as an expedient and help to vertue, than as properly a vertue it self. And yet we may see men scrupulous in that, who startle not at injustice and oppression (that clamorous sin that crys to Heaven) who pretend to mortify their appetites by denying it its proper food, or being luxurious in one sort of it; and yet glut their avarice, eat up the poor, and devour widows houses, Matt. 23.
37. TO such as these ’twould be good advice to fix their attention on the absolute commands, to study moral Honesty and the essentials of Christianity; to make a good progress there, and do what God indispensably requires: and then it may be seasonable to think of voluntary oblations: but till then they are so far from Homage, that they are the most reproachful Flattery: an attempt to bribe God against himself; and a Sacrilege, like that of Dionysius, who took away Apollo’s golden robe and gave him a stuff one.214
38. THE second thing requisite in our reading, is application: this is the proper end of our attention; and without this we may be very busy to very little purpose. The most laborious attention without it puts us but in the condition of those poor slaves that labour in the Mines, who with infinite toil dig that Ore of which they shall never partake. If therefore we will appropriate that rich treasure, we must apply, and so make it our own.
39. LET us then at every period of Holy Writ reflect and look on our selves as the persons spoke to. When we find Philip giving Baptism to the Eunuch upon this condition, that he believe with all his heart, Acts 8. let us consider that unless we do so, our Baptism (like a thing surreptitiously obtain’d) conveys no title to us, will avail us nothing.
40. WHEN we read our Saviours denunciation to the Jew, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish; Luke 13. 5. we are to look on it as if address’d immediately to our selves; and conclude as great a necessity of our repentance. In those black catalogues of crimes which the Apostle mentions, 1. Cor. 6. 10. and Gal. 5. 19, 20, 22. as excluding from the Kingdom of’ Heaven, we are to behold our own guilts arraign’d and to resolve that the same crimes will as certainly shut Heaven gates against us, as those to whom those Epistles were 215immediately directed. In all the precepts of good life, and Christian Vertue, we are to think our selves as nearly and particularly concern’d, as if we had been Christs Auditors on the mount. So proportionably in all the threats and promises we are either to tremble or hope, according as we find our selves adhere to those sins or vertues to which they are affix’d.
41. THIS close application would render what we read operative and effective, which without it will be useless and insignificant. We may see an instance of it in David; who was not at all convinc’d of his own guilt by Nathans parable (though the most apposite that was imaginable) till he roundly apply’d it, saying, thou art the man, 2 Sam. 12. And unless we treat our selves at the same rate, the Scripture may fill our heads with high notions, nay with many speculative truths which yet amounts to no more than the Devils Theology, Ja. 2. 19. and will as little advantage us.
42. IT now remains that we speak of what we are to do after our reading; which may be summ’d up in two words: Recollect and practise. Our memories are very frail as to things of this nature. And therefore we ought to impress them as deep as we can, by reflecting on what we have read. It is an observation out of the Levitical Law, that 216 those beasts only were clean, and fit for sacrifice, that chew’d the cud, Lev. 11. 4. And tho’ the ceremony were Jewish, the moral is Christian, and admonishes us how we should revolve and ruminate on spiritual instructions. Without this what we hear or read slips insensibly from us, and like letters writ in chalk, is wiped out by the next succeeding thought but recollection engraves and indents the characters in the mind. And he that would duly use it would find other manner of impressions more affective and more lasting than bare reading will leave.
43. WE find it thus in all Sciences: he that only reads over the rules, and lays aside the thoughts of them together with his Book will make but a slow advance; whilst he that plods and studies upon them, repeats and reinforces them upon his mind, soon arrives to an eminency. By this it was that David attain’d to that perfection in Gods Law as to out-strip his teachers, and understand more than the Ancients, Psal. 119. 99, 100. because it was his meditation as himself tells us, ver. 97. 99.
44. LET us therefore pursue the same method; and when we have read a portion of Scripture, let us recollect what observable things we have there met with: what exhortions to vertue, or determents from vice; what promises to obedience, or menaces for the contrary; what examples of Gods vengeance 217against such or such sins, or what instances of his blessing upon duties. If we do this daily, we cannot but amass together a great stock of Scripture documents, which will be ready for us to produce upon every occasion. Satan can assault us no where, but we shall be provided of a guard, a Scriptum est; which we see was the sole armour the captain of our Salvation us’d in his encounter with him, Matt. 4. ver. 4. 7. and 10. and will be as successful to us, if we will duly manage it.
45. THE last thing requir’d as consequent to our reading, is practice. This is the ultimate end, to which all the fore-going qualifications are directed. And if we fail here, the most assiduous diligence in all the former will be but lost labour. Let us mean never so well, attend never so close, recollect never so exactly, if after all we do not practise, all the rest will serve but to enhance our guilt. Christianity is an active Science, and the Bible was given us not merely for a theme of speculation, but for a rule of life.
46. AND alas, what will it avail us that our opinions are right, if our manners be crooked? When the Scripture has shew’d us what God requires of us, nay, has evinc’d to us the reasonableness of the injunctions, the great agreeableness which they have to the excellency of our nature; and has back’d this with 218the assurance that in keeping of them there shall be a great reward, Psal. 19, 11. if in the midst of full importunate invitations to life we will choose death; we are indeed worthy, as the wise man speaks, to take part with it, Wisd. 1. 16. our crimes are hereby increas’d to a monstrous bulk, and also depriv’d of that veil and shelter which darkness and ignorance would have given them. And a vicious Christian may have cause at the last day to wish that he had studied the Alcoran rather than the Bible. His sensualities might then have pleaded, that they were but the anticipating his Paradise, taking up that before hand, which his Religion propos’d to him as his summum bonum, his final and highest aim. But with what confusion must a Christian then appear, whose institution obliges him to mortify the flesh, and yet has made it the business of’ his life, not only to satisfy, but even to enrage, and enflame its appetites? that has set up a counter-discipline to that of the Gospel he professes; and when that requires austerities and self-denials, to reduce corrupt nature to a tameness and subjection, has not only pull’d off the bridle, but us’d the spur; contriv’d Arts to debauch even corruption it self; and has forc’d his relucting nature upon studied and artificial leudness? Such men may be thought to have read the Scripture with no other design but to be sure to 219run counter to it; that by informing themselves of Gods will they may know the more exactly how to affront and contradict it.
47. NAY, so it is, too many unto malice add contempt; are not content only sullenly to resist its Precepts, but despise and revile them also, arraign the Wisdom of God, and pronounce the Divine Laws to be weak arid impertinent; lay their Scenes of ridiculous mirth in the Bible; rally in the Sacred Dialect, and play the Buffoons with the most serious thing in the world. An impious licentiousness which is now grown to that height, that it is one of the wonders of Gods long-suffering that there are not as many eminent instances of the vengeance, as there are of the guilt. I have formerly complain’d of it, and must still crave leave to do so. It is indeed so spreading an infection, that we can never be sufficiently arm’d against it. Some degrees of it have tainted many who have not utterly renouned their reverence for the Bible: there being those who in their solemn moods own it as Gods Word, and profess they must finally stand or fall by its verdict; who, yet in their jocular humours make light and irreverent applications of its phrases and sentences, furnish out their little jests in its attire, and use it as if they thought it good for nothing else.
48. AND certainly this abuse in men that own the Bible, is infinitely more monstrous 220than in those who defy it: the latter look on it as a common thing, and use it as such: but for those who confess it Sacred thus to prostitute it, is a flat contradiction as much against the rules of Discourse as Religion: ’tis to offer the same abuse to Christ in his Word, which the rude Souldiers did to his Person; to bow the knee before it, and yet expose it as an object of scorn and laughter. But sure there cannot be two things more inconsistent, than the avowing it to be dictated by God in order to the most important concern of man, and yet debate it to the vilest purposes; make it the drudge and hackney to our sportful humours, and bring it out as the Philistines did Samson, only to make us merry, Jud. 16. 25.
49. INDEED one would wonder how that should become a proper instrument for that purpose, that those doctrines of righteousness, temperance, and judgement to come (every where scatter’d thro’ that Book) which set Heathen Felix a trembling, should set Christians a laughing: and yet should men cite the same things and phrases out of another Author, there would be no jest in it. It seems therefore that the spirit and essence in this sort of wit lyes in the profaness. How absurd is it then for men that do not utterly abjure Religion to affect this impious sort of raillery, which has nothing but daring wickedness 221to recommend it? for certainly of all the ways of discourse that ever pretended to wit, this has the least claim to it.
50. WHAT strength of reason, or height of fancy is there in repeating of phrases and fragments of Books, when what they would say, they might much more properly express in their own words? In any other instance but this of the Bible, it would pass rather for a defect than an excess of wit. But that which 1 suppose renders it so taking, is, that it is the cheapest expedient for men to arrive to that reputation. Men, that cannot go to the cost of any thing that is truly ingenious, can by this means immediately commence wits; if they can but charge their memories with half a dozen Texts, they need no other furniture for the Trade: these mangled and transposed will be ready at all turns, and render them applauded by those who have no other treasure of wit, but its opposition to Piety. But would God, men would look a little before them, and consider what the final reckoning will be for such divertisements; and if the whole world be an unequal change for a Soul, what a miserable merchant is he that barters his for a bald insipid jest? Such as a sober man would avoid were there no sin in it.
51. I know men are apt to Batter themselves, that these lighter frolicks will pass for 222nothing, so long as they do not seriously and maliciously oppose Gods Word: but I fear they will find God in earnest, tho’ they be in jest. He that has magnified his Word above all things, Psal. 138. 2. cannot brook that we should make it vile and cheap, play and daily with it. And if it were a capital crime to convert any of the perfume of the Sanctuary to common use, Exod. 30. 32. can we think God can be pleas’d to see his more Sacred Word the Theme of our giddy mirth, and have his own words ecchoed to him in profane drollery?
52. BUT besides ’tis to be consider’d, that this wanton liberty is a step to the more solemn and deliberate contempt of Gods word: custom do’s strangely prescribe to us, and he that a while has us’d any thing irreverently will at last bring his practice into argument, and conclude that there is no reverence due to it. God knows we are naturally too apt to have slight and easy apprehensions of Sacred things, and had need to use all Arts and Instruments to impress an awe upon our minds.
53. IT will sure then be very unsafe for us to trifle with them, and by so undue a familiarity draw on that contempt which we should make it our care to avoid. The Wise Man says, he that contemns small things, shall fall by little and little, Eccl. 19. 1. And tho’ no degree of irreverence towards God or his 223Word, can be call’d a small thing absolutely consider’d, yet comparatively with the more exorbitant degrees it may: and yet that smaller is the seed and parent of the greatest. It is so in all sins: the kingdom of Satan, like that of God, may be compar’d to a grain of mustard seed, Mat. 31. 31. which tho’ little in it self is mighty in its increase.
54. NO man ever yet began at the top of villany, but the advance is still gradual from one degree to another; each commission smoothing and glibbing the way to the next. He that accustoms in his ordinary discourse to use the sacred Name of God with as little sentiment and reverence as he do’s that of his neighbour or servant; that makes it his common by-word, and cries Lord and God upon every the lightest occasion of exclamation or wonder, this man has a very short step to the using it in oaths, and upon all frivolous occasions; and he that swears vainly is at no great distance from swearing falsely. It is the same in this instance of the Scriptures: He that indulges his wit to rally with them will soon come to think them such tame things that he may down-right scorn them: And when he is arriv’d to that, then he must pick quarrels to justify it, till at last he arrive even to the height of enmity.
55. LET every man therefore take heed of setting so much as one step in this fatal 224circle; guard himself against the first insinuation of this guilt: and when a jest offers it self as a temptation, let him balance that with a sober thought, and consider whether the jest can quit the cost of the profanation. Let him possess his mind with an habitual awe, take up the Bible with solemner thoughts, and other kind of apprehensions than any human Author: and if he habituate himself to this reverence, every clause and phrase of it that occurs to his mind will be apter to excite him to devout ejaculations than vain laughter.
56. IT is reported of our excellent Prince, King Edward the sixth; that when in his Council Chamber, a Paper that was call’d for happen’d to lie out of reach, and the Person concern’d to produce it took a Bible that lay by, and standing upon it reach’d down the Paper: the King observing what was done ran himself to the place, and taking the Bible in his hands kissed it, and laid it up again. Of this it were a very desirable moral that Princes, and all persons in authority, would take care not to permit any to raise themselves by either a hypocritical or profane trampling upon holy things. But besides that, a more general application offers its self; that all men of what condition soever should both themselves abstain from every action that has the appearance of a contempt 225of the holy Scripture; and also when they observe it in others; discountenance the insolence: and by their words and actions give Testimony of the veneration which they have for that holy Book, they see others so wretchedly despise.
57. BUT above all, let him who reads the Scripture, seriously set himself to the practice of it, and daily examine how he proceeds in it: he that diligently do’s this will not be much at leisure to sport with it: he will scarce meet with a Text which will not give him cause of reflection, and provide him work within his own breast: every duty injoin’d will prompt him to examine how he has perform’d: every sin forbidden will call him to recollect how guilty he has been; every pathetick strain of devotion will kindle his zeal, or at least upbraid his coldness; every heroick example will excite his emulation. In a word, every part of Scripture will, if duly apply’d, contribute to some good and excellent end. And when a thing is proper for such noble purposes, can it be the part of a wise man to apply it only to mean and trivial? Would any but an Idiot wast that Sovereign Liquor in the washing of his feet, which was given him to expell poison from his heart? And are not we guilty of the like folly when we apply Gods word to serve only a ludicrous humour; and make ourselves merry with that which was design’d for the most 226serious and most important purpose, the salvation of our Souls. And indeed who ever takes any lower aim than that, and the vertues preparatory to it in his study of Scripture, extremely debases it.
58. LET us therefore keep a steady eye upon that mark, and press towards it as the Apostle did, Phil. 3. 14. walk by that rule the holy Scripture proposes; faithfully and diligently observe its precepts, that we may finally partake it promises. To this end continually pray we, in the words of our holy mother the Church, unto Almighty God, who has caus’d all holy Scripture to be written for our learning; that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of his holy Word, we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting Life, which he has given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ.
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