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Preparations for the Christian Ministry – Habits of General Study by Charles Bridges

By April 9, 2011April 12th, 2016Preaching

‘GIVE attendance to reading’ is the Scriptural rule for Ministerial study. It is obviously of a general character; nor is there any reason for restricting its application to the Sacred Volume. ‘Paul the aged,’ in sending for his ‘books and parchments,’ (which, it may be presumed, he wanted for perusal) exemplified the comprehensive extent of his own rule. Indeed who can doubt, that the Church is built up by the Ministry of the pen as well as of the mouth; and that in both ways ‘the manifestation of the Spirit is given to every man to profit withal?’ We cannot suppose that God would suffer the labours of his servants, in communicating the results of exercised, deep, and devotional study, to be in vain. The experience of men of God, like that of diligent travellers, is a public benefit; and the fruit of it in successive ages is preserved as a most valuable store of important knowledge to the Church.

The Apostle’s own practice again explains his rule to embrace the wide field of General Study. His introduction of heathen aphorisms in the illustration or application of sacred truth proves, that he apprehended no necessary debasement of its purity from an intermixture of human learning. Stephen mentions it to the honour, not to the discredit, of the Jewish Lawgiver, that he was ‘learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians.’ The illiterate owe a mighty debt to human learning, for a translation of the Scriptures, which otherwise would have lain by them as a dead letter in an unknown tongue. The intelligent reader is indebted to the same source for the explanation of its difficulties; and for many powerful defences of its authority, which enable him ‘with meekness and fear,’ but yet with confidence, to ‘be ready always to give an answer to every one that asketh him, a reason of the hope that is in him.’

At the Reformation, learning and religion revived together. The Reformers combined deep study with active Ministry. Erasmus’s learning (notwithstanding its too great alliance with ‘philosophy and vain deceit’) was a material assistance to Luther in his great work. We are taught by St. Paul’s Epistles, that we may avail ourselves of every human aid to dispense the blessings of the Gospel. All these human aids are valuable gifts of God, and only cease to be blessings by the abuse of them. It is true, that the Gospel may be preached with great energy by Ministers possessing very inconsiderable attainments in literature. It sometimes happens, that the most successful Ministrations are conducted by men of very moderate acquirements. And indeed the character of the Gospel seems to require, that in most cases (where the true doctrine is preached) it should give more honour to zeal and diligence than to genius and learning. But it is also true, that God is pleased to make himself known by the use of means. And when the means are used in subordination to his grace, he will honour the means. Let us then honour human learning. Every branch of knowledge, which a good man possesses, he may apply to some useful purpose. If he possessed the knowledge of an archangel, he might employ it all to the advantage of men, and the glory of God. Does not every expansion of the mind increase its range of power and general comprehension, and consequently render it more capable, under Divine teaching, of exploring those things, ‘which angels desire to look into’?

As well might we suppose, that the all-sufficiency of grace supersedes the importance of general knowledge, as that a child under the influence of grace is equally fitted for the Christian Ministry, with an intelligent adult under the same degree of this heavenly influence. But if knowledge is not to be despised, then neither is study as the means of obtaining it, to be neglected, specially as a preparation for publicly instructing others. And though having the heart full of the powerful influences of the Spirit of God may at some times enable persons to speak profitably, yea, very excellently without study; yet this will not warrant us needlessly to cast ourselves down from the pinnacle of the temple, depending upon it, that the angel of the Lord will bear us up, and keep us from dashing our foot against a stone, when there is another way to go down, though it be not so quick.

May the Writer suggest in this view the importance of a conscientious regard to the course of the University study? Even where academical distinctions are passed by, the habits of discipline and self-denial, furnish an effectual safe-guard against the detrimental influence of mental, and possibly also religious, dissipation. In the theological department, we cannot but regret the want of a more direct reference to the Christian Ministry. But-apart from this deficiency-much store is laid in of important principles of knowledge-the studious habit is formed-and a tone of mind is acquired or strengthened for the subsequent attainment of methodized, well digested, and comprehensive views.

Professor Campbell remarks-‘that, whatever in respect of knowledge supplies the materials necessary for edifying, comforting, and protecting from all spiritual danger the people that may be committed to his charge, or is of use for defending the cause of his Master, must evidently be a proper study for the man who intends to enter into the holy Ministry.’ Again-‘Whatever may enable him to make a proper application of those acquisitions in knowledge, so as to turn them to the best account for the benefit of his people, is not less requisite. To little purpose will it be to him to be possessed of the best materials, if he had not acquired the skill to use them. The former we may call the theory of the profession; the latter the practice. The first regards purely the science of theology; the second the application of that science to the purpose of the Christian Pastor.’

‘The science of theology’ consists in whatever may tend to illustrate, confirm, enforce, or recommend Divine Revelation. However superficial our knowledge may be on some other subjects, here at least it should be intelligent and comprehensive-including a competent acquaintance with the Evidences of the Christian religion-the Holy Scriptures-and the History of the Church, and especially of our own Church. In regard to the Evidences-Dr. Leland’s volumes furnish a panoply for the defender of the faith in the Deistical controversy; as does Butler’s Analogy in the close combat with the Infidel. In the more direct track-Paley’s masterly analysis of external Evidence-Doddridge’s popular survey of the whole field-the Bishop of Chester’s original and satisfactory treatise (professedly confined to a single argument, but incidentally embracing the main points)-and the Lectures of the Bishops of Calcutta and Ohio (equally addressed to the understanding and to the conscience) -these may well command our chief attention. The cold abstract metaphysics of Clarke-the evangelical and enlivening display of Bates and Charnock-and the popular and analogical proofs of Paley and Gisborne-should be digested, as illustrative of the Divine character and perfections. Nor should Paley’s Hore Pauline be forgotten, as opening a new track of collateral evidence of Christianity, which has since been extended to a wider field with satisfactory reasoning.

Reserving the subject of acquaintance with the Scriptures for the next section, we proceed to remark the importance of Church History, as a component part of Ministerial study. ‘This will teach the student’-(as Dr. Dwight justly observes)-‘the sins and virtues, the errors and sound doctrines, the prosperous and adverse circumstances, which have existed in the church in its various ages; together with the causes, by which they have been produced. Generally he will derive from this source the same advantages, in the ecclesiastical sense, which the statesman derives in a political sense, from civil history. He will learn what the church has been; why it has thus been; and how in many respects it may be rendered better and happier.’ Mosheim will furnish the requisite information respecting the visible church, and Milner respecting the real church. A comparison of these two works in the prominent events of successive eras will open a field of most enlarged and interesting, but too often painful, contemplation. A work, combining the two in a comprehensive grasp, and with impartial but decided Christian views, remains yet to be supplied to the church.

The importance of an intelligent acquaintance with the grounds of his own church, seems to direct the candidate for the Established Ministry to a thoughtful study of Hooker’s incomparable work. The power with which he has set forth the Apostolical foundation of our church, and its careful conformity to the Scriptural model, is at once above all praise, and proof against all attack. Nothing has since been added materially to strengthen the ground, on which he has fixed her-nothing indeed is needed. But the characteristic of the work-that which gives to it its peculiar dignity and interest, and in which it differs from many similar works of acknowledged ability is-its holiness. It not only exhibits the exquisite symmetry of the outward superstructure, but it views the interior of the temple with the eye of a man of God. The work is cast into the mould of the subject matter. It marks the genuine spiritual character of the church in its requirements and its privileges, and displays the ‘beauty of holiness’ stamped upon the services of her sanctuary. We hesitate whether to admire more-the strength or the sanctity of his Fifth Book; but it would be difficult to produce objections to the system or detail of our Ecclesiastical polity (the result either of prejudice or misconception) that do not here meet with a satisfactory consideration.

Jewell’s Apologies are highly deserving attention, as being of a kindred spirit and eloquence with Hooker. Comber will give an able and devotional exhibition of our public formularies. The doctrines of the Church are best known by a careful comparison of her Homilies and Articles with the word of God. Burnet’s History of the Reformation furnishes most interesting details of their gradual formation upon the Scriptural basis. His Exposition of the Articles (if it does not always display the full and clear views of Evangelical truth, and if it occasionally errs in an excess of candour) contains a vast body of information, well .worthy of the attention of the Ministerial student. Pearson on the Creed also must be especially named, as containing, in connection with the treatment of his great subjects, a large fund of the most valuable theology.

But after all, it is in the wide field of divinity, that the student, like David, must ‘prepare with all his might for the house of his God.’ He had need be a man of store-‘a scribe instructed unto the kingdom of heaven.’ His ‘lips must keep knowledge,’ that they may ‘seek the law at his mouth.’ His course of reading therefore must embrace a comprehensive view of Scripture in its doctrinal light, practical obligation, and experimental influence. Robinson’s Christian System and Dwight’s System of Theology will furnish most valuable materials for digestion. As to details of study-the Epistles nearest to the Apostolical era, as well as the works of the Christian Fathers-some of Augustine’s Treatises especially-deserve attention; though of course in so wide a field, and in such various degrees of Scriptural purity in their works, and of our own leisure of opportunity, much discrimination will be needed. In a brighter age of the Church, the writings of our Reformers open a rich treasure-house. From the mass of their writings the difficulty of selection is proportionably great. Cranmer and Jewell however stand foremost for deep learning, large views of truth, and Christian wisdom and eloquence. Bradford’s writings for their unction of spirit, and edifying and experimental matter, deserve the highest regard. Among the Foreign Reformers, Calvin, Luther, and Melanethon, indisputably are ‘the first three.’ Yet to select from upwards of thirty folios is no easy task. Calvin’s Commentaries however (even in the judgment of Bishop Horsley, and others unfriendly to his peculiar dogmas) are among the most valuable illustrations of the Sacred Volume. His Institutes (apart from the system which they were intended to unfold) are full of admirable statements of the fundamental doctrines of the Gospel. His expositions of the Moral law, (always excepting his loose and unguarded views of the Christian Sabbath) and of the Sacraments, are eminently judicious and practical. Luther’s Commentary on the Galatians exhibits the most full and enlivening display of the grand doctrine of justification probably ever given to the Church. His Diatribe against Erasmus (allowing for some hasty statements) is a powerful defence of the humbling doctrines of the Gospel against the pride of reason and self-sufficiency. Melanethon’s Common Places (taking care to obtain the most matured expression of his sentiments) was one of the most important and influential works of the Reformation era, and abounds with solid and Evangelical statements. Indeed this school affords perhaps the most Scriptural model for the moulding of our system of Divinity. Its standard of theology is high and consistent; its statements of Christian doctrine are less encumbered with distinctions, less fettered by systematic accuracy, and more immediate and direct in their reference to the great object of our faith, than those of the subsequent school.

The Divines of the Puritan school, however, (with due allowance for the prevalent tone of scholastic subtleties) supply to the Ministerial student a large fund of useful and edifying instruction. If they be less clear and simple in their doctrinal statements than the Reformers, they enter more deeply into the sympathies of Christian experience. Profoundly versed in spiritual tactics-the habits and exercises of the human heart-they are equally qualified to awaken conviction and to administer consolation; laying open the man to himself with peculiar closeness of application; stripping him of his false dependencies, and exhibiting before him the light and influence of the Evangelical remedy for his distress. Owen stands pre-eminent among the writers of this school. ‘His scholars’ (as Mr. Cecil observes) ‘will be more profound and enlarged, and better furnished than those of most other writers.’ Among his voluminous works, we may mark his Exposition of the Epistle to the Hebrews (with all its prolixity), as probably the most elaborate and instructive comment upon a detached portion of Scripture. His work on the Spirit (though discordant in some particulars from the principles of our Church) embraces a most comprehensive view of this vitally important subject. His exposition of Psalm cxxx exhibits the most full and unfettered display of Divine forgiveness, admirably suited to the perplexities of exercised Christians. His Tracts upon ‘Understanding the Mind of God in Scripture,’ and ‘The Reason of Faith,’ manifest his usual accuracy of spiritual discernment. His Treatises upon Indwelling Sin, Mortification of Sin, the Power of Temptation, and the Danger of Apostacy-show uncommon depths of exploring the secrecies of the heart. His view of Spiritual-Mindedness draws out a graphic delineation of the tastes and features of the new character. And indeed upon the whole-for luminous exposition, and powerful defence of Scriptural doctrine-for determined enforcement of practical obligation-for skillful anatomy of the self-deceitfulness of the heart-and for a detailed and wise treatment of the diversified exercises of the Christian’s heart, he stands probably unrivalled. The mixture of human infirmity with such transcendant excellence will be found in an unhappy political bias-in an inveterate dislike to episcopal government, and (as regards the character of his Theology,) a too close and constant endeavour to model the principles of the Gospel according to the proportions of human systems. But who would refuse to dig into the golden mine from disgust at the base alloy, that will ever be found to mingle itself with the ore?

Baxter must be mentioned in this School-though his views of the Gospel appear to the Writer not to partake of the fulness of Owen; nor (as Mr. Cecil remarks) ‘is he to be named with him as to furnishing the Student’s mind.’ Yet is his ‘Christian Directory’ a most valuable work upon Casuistical Divinity. His ‘Reasons for the Christian Religion’ constitute a powerful defence of the bulwarks of our faith. His ‘Saints’ Rest’ is a fine specimen of heavenly contemplation interspersed with most pungent addresses to the lukewarm and careless, though with too scanty infusion of the melting and attractive influence of evangelical motives. It were needless minutely to particularize more. R. Bolton, Howe, Charnock, are peculiarly distinguished by strength of genius and fund of matter (though-the first at least-with the occasional mixture of obscurity and bombast). Perhaps Flavel may be said to furnish the best model for the pulpit; his preaching being specially marked by an earnest and affectionate tenderness, by much unction of spirit, clearness of doctrine, and direct enforcement of practical obligations.

No department, however, of Ministerial study is of greater importance than Pastoral Theology. Chrysostom on the Priest-hood, for its deep-toned solemnity of eloquence-Herbert’s Parson, for its primitive simplicity-Burnet, for its impressive detail of the Pastoral obligations-Bowles, for its excursive range throughout every department of the work-Baxter’s Reformed Pastor, for its awakening apprehensions of Ministerial responsibility, realizing it as in the immediate presence of God and in the light of eternity-these are works for the Minister’s first shelf. Close by their side may stand Ministerial Biography-the embodying of the deep-felt obligations in active and devoted operation. Such lives as those of Archbishop Leighton, Alleine, P. Henry, M. Henry, Halyburton, Cotton Mather, Eliot, Brainerd, Doddridge, Bishop Wilson, S. Walker, Martyn, Buchanan, Scott, Richmond, Oberlin and Neff, T. Lloyd, Thomason, and H. Venn-are of the highest value and consideration. More lessons of practical detail and encouragement may be learnt from this branch of study, than from whole treatises of abstract theology.

The Apostle enforces the habit of study upon his beloved son, as a means of preserving his youthful ministry from contempt. And, indeed, (as Dr. Buchanan has observed,) ‘in this age, when learning is general, an ignorant clergyman will be treated with contempt.’ The wide extension of knowledge proportionally increases our responsibility of storing our minds with subjects of general interest; as well to diversify our materials of solid instruction, as to protect our character and office from that contempt, to which a palpable inferiority to the intelligent part of our congregation would expose us. The Apostle’s rule of study was not given to ‘a novice,’ but to a convert of many years’ standing; who had been blest from his childhood with an excellent scriptural education; who was endowed with good natural talents, spiritual gifts, and pre-eminent religious advantages under the Apostle’s personal tuition; and whose early elevation in the Church showed a satisfactory improvement of his privileges. Yet is he warned to instruct himself, before he attempted to instruct others,-to ‘give attendance’ first ‘to reading’-then ‘to exhortation, to doctrine.’ Such advice, given to an elder under such circumstances, and in an age of inspiration, carries the weight of authority, and serves as a rebuke for negligence under our comparative disadvantages.

Nor let it be thought, that studious habits must necessarily infringe upon our more active employments. What shall we say to the nine ponderous folios of Augustine, and the thirteen of Chrysostom-volumes not written, like Jerome’s, in monastic retirement, but in the midst of almost daily preaching engagements, and conflicting, anxious, and most responsible duties-volumes-not of light reading, the rapid flow of shallow declamation-but the results of deep and well-digested thinking? The folios also of Calvin-the most diligent preacher, and of Baxter, the most laborious pastor of his day-full of thought and matter, bear the same testimony to the entire consistency of industrious study with devoted Ministerial diligence. The secret of this efficiency seems to have much consisted in a deep sense of the value of that most precious of all talents-time; and of an economical distribution of its minutest particles for specific purposes. Mr. Alleine would often say, ‘Give me a Christian, that counts his time more precious than gold.’ Mr. Cotton would express his regret after the departure of a visitor-‘I had rather have given this man a handful of money, than have been kept thus long out of my study.’ Melancthon, when he had an appointment, expected not only the hour, but the minute to be fixed, that time might not run out in the idleness of suspense. Seneca has long since taught us, that time is the only thing, of which it is a virtue to be covetous. But here we should be, like the raiser with his money-saving it with care, and spending it with caution. It is well to have a book for every spare hour, to improve what Boyle calls the ‘parentheses or interludes of time: which, coming between more important engagements, are wont to be lost by most men for want of a value for them: and even by good men, for want of skill to preserve them. And since goldsmiths and refiners’-he remarks-‘are wont all the year long to save the very sweepings of their shops, because they may contain in them some filings or dust of those richer metals, gold and silver; I see not, why a Christian may not be as careful, not to lose the fragments and lesser intervals of a thing incomparably more precious than any metal-time; especially when the improvement of them by our meletetics may not only redeem so many portions of our life, but turn them to pious uses, and particularly to the great advantage of devotion.’

Bishop Burnet indeed has justly observed, ‘that a great measure of piety, with a very small proportion of learning, will carry one a great way.’ Considerable latitude also is required in speaking of the high importance of study. With some, the cord must be drawn tight-with others much may be left to the direction of their natural bias. Yet Archbishop Secker’s remark, must, we think, be generally admitted-‘A point of great importance to Clergymen is, that they be studious.’ Far, very far, would we be from asserting the preeminence of theological study to spiritual-mindedness. Yet we cannot expect to see a tone of healthful spirituality, without an industrious habit. The religion of an idler is, to say the least, of a very questionable character; nor can we doubt, that a diligent improvement of inferior talents by study, exercise, and prayer, will be more profitable to their possessor, and serviceable to the Church, than the gift of superior abilities suffered to slumber for want of active use.

Different qualifications, however, are required for the improvement of study. Some need great patience. Ardent minds wish, and seem almost to expect, to gain all at once. There is here, as in religion, ‘a zeal not according to knowledge.’-There is too great haste in decision, and too little time for weighing, for storing, or for wisely working out the treasure. Hence arises that most injurious habit of skimming over books, rather than perusing them. The mind has only hovered upon the surface, and gained but a confused remembrance of passing matter, and an acquaintance with first principles far too imperfect for practical utility. The ore of knowledge is purchased in the lump, but never separated, or applied to important objects.

Some again need discretion in the direction of their study. ‘They study,’ (as Bishop Burnet remarks in the conclusion of his history) ‘books more than themselves.’ They lose themselves in the multiplicity of books; and find to their cost, that in reading as well as ‘making books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh.’ Bishop Wilkins observes,-‘There is as much art and benefit in the right choice of such books, with which we should be most familiar, as there is in the election of other friends or acquaintances, with whom we may most profitably converse.’ No man can read everything; nor would our real store be increased by the capacity to do so. The digestive powers would be overloaded for want of time to act, and uncontrolled confusion would reign within. It is far more easy to furnish our library than our understanding.

A man may have read most extensively upon theological subjects, and yet be a tyro in theology. Professor Campbell remarks, in his forcible manner,-‘It has been the error of many ages, and still is of the present age, that to have read much is to be very learned. There is not, I may say, a greater heresy against common sense. Reading is doubtless necessary; and it must be owned, that eminence in knowledge is not to be attained without it. But two things are ever specially to be regarded on this topic, which are these: First, that more depends on the quality of what we read, than on the quantity. Secondly, more depends on the use, which, by reflection, conversation, and composition, we have made of what we read, than upon both the former.’ Mr. Fisk’s remark upon Missionary qualifications applies-‘More knowledge of languages should be acquired: I say, more knowledge of languages-rather than a knowledge of more languages.’ The accuracy of study is of far greater importance than its extent. ‘A little study, well digested in a good, serious mind, will go a great way, and will lay in materials for a whole life.’ This intellectual process incorporates the subjects of thought with our own minds; and thus, instead of weakening their energies by an unnatural pressure, enlarges their capabilities of receiving and retaining their treasures. Massillon well distinguishes the main requisites of this digestive habit, to be-‘love of study; a desire of becoming useful to our parish; a conviction of the necessity of deriving from prayer that knowledge which study does not afford; of being impressed with a desire of salvation, and of applying all the means of advancing in evangelical wisdom, to inspire our flock with a love of their duty, in order that they may the more easily be induced to practise it: in a word, a sincere desire to fulfill our Ministry.’

It is of great moment, that the habit of study should, as far as possible, be maintained through life. For the most part-the ground work only has been laid. Let our early attainments excite, not satisfy, our thirst for information-divert, not bound, our investigations. If useful habits are gained, they are probably far from being matured. St. Paul’s instructions so often alluded to, were given (as we have hinted) to an elder of some years’ standing in the Church. Mr. Scott to the last combined the student with the Minister. ‘If we live only on old stores,’ (as a beloved brother has observed) ‘we shall never enlarge our knowledge’. It is allowed, that it is not easy diligently to pursue a course of persevering study. Our families and our daily duties must not be neglected. It requires fixed plans, vigorously followed up. Our natural indolence, and the love of society, must be broken through. Cecil says-‘Every man, whatever be his natural disposition, who would urge his powers to the highest end, must be a man of solitary studies.’

Yet, after all, the solidly-learned, the studious, and well furnished man is but the unshapen mass, from which the Christian Minister is formed. The plastic energy-the quickening influence of the Almighty Spirit-is still needed to put light, life, and motion into the inert substance, to mould it into the Divine image, and to make it a ‘vessel of honour meet for the Master’s use.’ Nor must we deny, that studious habits are attended with ensnaring temptations. The tree of knowledge may thrive, while the tree of life is languishing. Every enlargement of intellectual knowledge has a natural tendency to self-exaltation. The habit of study must be guarded, lest it should become an unsanctified indulgence; craving to be fed at the expense of conscience or propriety; employed in speculative enquiries, rather than in holy and practical knowledge; preoccupying the time that belongs to immediate duties; or interfering with other avocations of equal or greater moment. A sound judgment and a spiritual mind must be exercised, in directing these studies to the main end of the Ministry. Let none of them intrench upon those hours, that should be devoted to our study of the Bible, or our preparation for the pulpit. And wheresoever we find our inclination too much attached to any particular human science, let us set a guard upon ourselves, lest it rob us of Divine studies, and our best improvement. A Minister should remember, that himself with all his studies is consecrated to the service of the sanctuary. Let every thing be done therefore with a view to one great end; and let us pursue every part of science with a design to gain better qualifications thereby for our sacred work.

This section cannot be better concluded than with Quesnel’s exposition of the text, which has formed its basis.-‘Not to read or study at all is to tempt God: to do nothing but study, is to forget the Ministry: to study, only to glory in one’s knowledge, is a shameful vanity: to study, in search of the means to flatter sinners, a deplorable prevarication: but to store one’s mind with the knowledge proper to the saints by study and by prayer, and to diffuse that knowledge in solid instructions and practical exhortations,-this is to be a prudent, zealous, and laborious Minister.’