[Here we continue our reprint of Chapter 2 from Richard Baxter's classic tome A Christian Directory.8 This chapter consists of twenty directions to (as Mr. Baxter says) "young Christians or beginners in religion, for their establishment and safe proceeding." Though these studies were written specifically for "young" Christians, I think that you will find (as I have), there is much in here worthy of meditation also for those who have been walking with God for many years.]--Ed.
Direction XVI - On What You Let into Your Mind
Make careful choice of the books which you read. [Editor's note: This study may easily be applied nowadays, not only to books which are read, but also television shows that are watched, and movies that are seen.] Let the holy Scriptures ever have 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. As 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 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 be therefore 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. When they tell you that the Scriptures are misunderstood, and abused, and perverted to maintain men's errors, they might also desire that the sun might be obscured because the purblind do mistake, and murderers and robbers do wickedly by its light; and that the earth might be subverted because it bears all evildoers; and highways stopped up because men travel in them to do evil; and food prohibited because it nourisheth men's diseases. And when they have told you truly of a law or rule which bad men cannot misunderstand, or break, or abuse and misapply, then hearken to them, and prefer that law as that which preventeth the need of any judgment.
The writings of 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 pre-eminence in moving the affections, and being diversified according 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 everyday and hour; when we can have sermons but seldom, and at set times. If sermons be forgotten, they are gone, but a book we may read over and over till we remember it; and if we forget it, may again peruse it at our pleasure, or at our leisure. So, good books are a very great mercy to the world. The Holy Ghost chose the way of writing to preserve His doctrine and laws to the church, as knowing how easy and sure a way it is of keeping it safe to all generations, in comparison of mere verbal tradition, which might have made as many controversies about the very terms, as there be memories or persons to be the preservers and reporters.
Books are (if well chosen) domestic, present, constant, judicious, pertinent, yea, and powerful sermons, and always of very great use to your salvation, but especially when vocal preaching faileth, and preachers are ignorant, ungodly, or dull, or when they are persecuted, and forbidden to preach.
You have need of a judicious teacher at hand to direct you what books to use or to refuse. For among good books there are some very good that are sound and lively; and some are good, but mean, and weak, and somewhat dull; and some are very good in part, but have mixtures of error, or else of incautious, injudicious expressions, fitter to puzzle than edify the weak. I am loth to name any of these latter sorts (of which abundance have come forth of late), but to the young beginner in religion, I may be bold to recommend (next to a sound catechism): Mr. Rutherford's Letters, Mr. Robert Bolton's Works, Mr. Perkins's, Mr. Whateley's, Mr. Ball, of Faith, Dr. Preston's, Dr. Sibbes, Mr. Hildersham's, Mr. Pink's Sermons, Mr. Joseph Rogers's, Mr. Rich. Rogers, Mr. Richard Allen's. Mr. Gurnall's, Mr. Swinnock's, Mr. Joseph Simonds's, [etc]. I pass by many other excellent ones, that I may not name too many.
To a very judicious, able reader, who is fit to censure all he reads, there is no great danger in the reading the books of any seducers: it doth but show him how little and thin a cloak is used to cover a bad cause. But, alas! young soldiers, not used to such wars, are startled at a very sophism, or at a terrible threatening of damnation to dissenters (which every censorious sect can use), or at every confident, triumphant boast, or at every thing that hath a fair pretence of truth or godliness. Injudicious persons can answer almost no deceiver which they hear, and when they cannot answer them, they think they must yield, as if the fault were not in them, but in the case; and as if Christ had no wiser followers, or better defenders of His truth than they. Meddle not therefore with poison, till you better know how to use it, and may do it with less danger, as long as you have no need.
As for play-books, and romances, and idle tales, I have already showed in my "Book of Self-Denial" how 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 such idle fumes, and intoxicating fancies, as may divert them from the serious thoughts of their salvation; and (which is no small loss) to rob them of 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.