I realize it is a bit of a broken record at this point to talk about my reading of 17th-Century British Calvinists, but when you are as boring as I it is pretty much all you can talk about. When you find something you like, you do have a tendency to stick to it. 😉
In the midst of these times of study something I am careful to do, when learning from these giants of the faith, is not to limit myself by just looking to Scottish Presbyterians or English non-comformists for exegetical, devotional, or epistemological assistance but also to make sure to read good Anglicans, even Baptists from this era.
A narrow focus in reading makes Jack a dull boy.
Most recently I have been engaged in looking at a work by a lay theologian called Edward Polhill. He was a son of the manse, evangelical in his theology, and a supporter of both the necessary reformation of the Church of England as well as defending the Anglican establishment against the Presbyterians. Polhill was good friends and contemporaries with John Owen and Lazarus Seaman, both of whom recommended his works to friends and colleagues. Owen and Polhill even had a common foil in William Sherlock, whose writings on the Trinity and other subjects were dealt swift blows by both men.
Now getting to the point of this short blog post (which was kind of given away by the title) I want to think about how one goes about reading for profit works (and men) with which disagreement may come about, sometimes books that may even have within them great discrepancies with the received understanding of our tradition. As I noted before it does us little good to only read folks with whom we already agree. You learn little and one of the ironies of this practice is that it is quite evident that the Westminster Divines certainly would not have been the caliber theologians they were if all they did was sit around and read John Calvin, John Knox, Theodore Beza et al. They used the best of competing traditions to sharpen their own theology as well as benefit their own souls.
As an example this certainly has been the case in my reading of the aforementioned Edward Polhill. His intense Christological focus has really helped me gain a greater appreciation for the way in which the attributes of God work in the hypostatic union. His warm piety when discussing the application of Christ’s righteousness has been downright seraphic at times. For example:
“Justice appears, in that Jesus Christ our sponsor was smitten and wounded to death, and that an accursed one for our sins. Mercy shines forth in that sinners repenting and believing are spared, nay, and advanced unto glory. Justice does not spare the Surety, but exacted all. Mercy does not exact ought from the believer but forgive all. The sufferings of Christ respect both attributes, they satisfied the Law and founded the Gospel. Justice had a full compensation and Mercy sprang up in promises of grace and life.” — Edward Polhill, “A View of Some Divine Truths”, pg. 15
Now as you can see there is great profit to what Polhill has to teach us. However, did you know Polhill was in the same camp as John Davenant and Moses Amyraut when it comes to the doctrine of the Atonement? Or that Polhill agreed in many areas with the Neonomian Richard Baxter? And I have already made mention of his fondness for the established Anglican order. So how can we read men like Polhill and others of the Puritan era, and maybe more importantly our era, with profit and blessing in order to grow in understanding of God’s revealed truth? Well I want to lay down a few points that I hope you will find helpful:
1) Remember that no matter who you read that you are reading fallible men. Even George Gillespie isn’t right all the time (well, he may be the exception. 😉 )
2) Never divorce your reading of theologians from the source of their theology. In other words do not be surprised that when you are reading Richard Hooker that you are going to find a defense of holy days and the prayer book.
3) Just because something is in older type and the theologian is wearing an Elizabethan ruff or a wig does not somehow give them divine authority. Chronological snobbery can work in many ways. Age does not make error no longer error.
4) Always keep your Bible nearby. Check Scripture quotations and allusions. Be a good Berean.
5) Chew slowly and deliberately if you have reason to believe there are more bones than meat.
6) If you are reading someone you know that the Westminster Divines wrote against, read both the response and any rejoinders. Not only will you see the whole argument, but you will pick up pointers on how to argue and make a point.
7) Go and buy Joel Beeke’s “Meet the Puritans”. Not only will you have a never ending source of material and a devotional book within itself, but you will know a good bit about the theologian before you start to read him. (That is how I found out about Edward Polhill).
8) As an addendum to #4 it may also be helpful to keep a copy of the Standards within reach if you have a question about the author’s particular application of a doctrine or teaching.
9) Do not be afraid to ask people outside your tradition for recommendations on who to read to best comprehend their beliefs and precise teachings. No one likes a Straw Man.
10) Last, but most certainly not least, do not forget to pray to the Holy Spirit for Wisdom and Understanding. He is an oft forgotten resource that so many of us forsake in our times of study and reading.