Don’t Despise Old Books
James Durham (1622-1658) was minister in Glasgow for only eleven years but left a considerable number of writings. One of the co-authors of 'The Sum of Saving Knowledge', he is best known for writing what is still regarded as the classic Reformed work on church unity, division and schism, 'A Treatise Concerning Scandal' as well as a highly sought after commentary on the Book of Revelation.
19 Oct, 2018

We have been fed the idea over and over again that the new is best. We have been tutored to be impatient with anything old.  Anything new is supposed to be most valuable and accurate. The idea is based on circular logic, already assuming that what is new is better. If we don’t know what is old and only embrace what is new how can we assess whether it is an improvement? But what if it doesn’t in fact improve on what we have had but only replaces it? Much of the content we consume – even blog posts – is temporary in the sense of being connected to the moment and soon forgotten.  Older books bring us a sense of perspective away from current fashions and blind spots. They have also passed the test of time but new books are still being tried and assessed. These are some of the reasons of course, why we make use of them in these weekly blog posts and show how they bring a perspective on our contemporary situation. If we are prepared to learn from contemporary Christians why not from those in the past? Let’s hear the case for making use of older books.

Here are a few reasons we should take older books seriously. Many older books are now published in a way that makes them easier to read in terms of their format and explaining some of the difficult words. It’s easier than ever to make use of them.

 

(a) Older Books Take Us Out Of Our Current Context.

Sometimes we need to take a break and not be caught up in the myopia of our own context. We need to listen to people who are asking questions we have never thought of. We need to engage with their refreshingly different ways of answering the questions we ask. They help us assess new ideas critically.

 

(b) Older Books Help Us Grow in Our Understanding.

Perhaps they do have more theology – that is a good thing. They are often more full of Scripture quotations and so bring us to the fountain of truth more frequently. They also tend to quote and apply Scripture in a different way than we might have considered.

 

(c) Older Books Humble Us.

When we see the depth of understanding and learning evident from older writers we are humbled. We have many opportunities, resources and technologies that they did not have but yet we still feel that we are walking amongst giants when we read them.

 

(d) Older Books Edify Us.

They often feed the soul more because the authors had a higher spiritual temperature than exists in our day. We are warmed by their love of Christ and His Word.

 

James Durham gives wise counsel in this area. He gives simple rules that if truly weighed would help us zero in on the most beneficial reading possible. The less time we have for reading, the more selective we need to be. The following is an updated extract from an essay that he wrote on the subject of reading and hearing. We must take heed what we hear and how we hear (Mark 4:24 and Luke 8:18); it is the same with reading. Older books that have stood the test of time have been approved by more as most beneficial.

Just as we should beware of listening to false teaching, so we should beware of reading it. He warns against a “lightness” and indifference in our reading and hearing. Our ears may be “itching” after some new teaching and we may have a secret discontent with sound teaching (2 Timothy 4:1-4).

Reading is a special means of edification if used well but a great step towards destruction if otherwise, as experience shows.  Thus, people are commanded to watch and choose that which is most excellent. They cannot be left to be indifferent in this. We must spend our time wisely (as a special talent give by God). In reading many things our time can be greatly misspent and abused to our harm.

Christian wisdom is called for in order to make a right choice. Especially considering that many can only spend a little time in reading. A wrong choice means that they incapacitate themselves from reading things that may be more profitable for their condition and situation. Also, seeing that not everyone has the ability to discern poison from good food, people must regulate their Christian liberty in this aright. Otherwise it will become carelessness and turn into a snare. Some due to their gifts and calling need to acquaint themselves with writings of all kinds in order to refute them. Yet not everyone should take this liberty for themselves any more than they would attempt to publicly debate with adversaries of any kind. The strength and weight of their errors are stuffed into their writings and we are unable to counter their writings just as much as their speeches.

 

1. Read Books Recommended by Godly Christians

Spend your time reading the books from which godly Christians have previously derived benefit or recommend.  Such have (so to say) been tried and tasted and, like good food in which there is no danger, may therefore be used. There is no difficulty here, for it is easy to find out which books are commonly esteemed to be such.

 

2. Consider the Character of the Author

Consider the author to help decide whether such and such a book may be made use of. Other writings, preaching or otherwise will make it clear whether he is known to be sound and serious so as to give confidence to venture on the book. This is why the names of authors are inserted in their writings frequently (John’s name occurs frequently in the Book of Revelation). No man’s name ought to carry such weight that we digest anything without first testing it just because it comes from him. Yet it may give liberty to make use of their writings rather than those of another in whom there are no grounds of confidence.

 

3. Don’t Read Books and Authors Rejected by Godly Christians

Some books and authors are noted by the godly to be dangerous and unprofitable and have been found to be so by experience. Keep your distance from such lest you have to prove by your own experience what you will not learn from others.

 

4. Avoid Unknown Books and Authors

Where both books and authors are unknown it’s safer to abstain from reading them until those best able to discern discover what they are. In the meantime, spend your time reading those that are unquestionably profitable. This means that we waste no time. It may also be done in faith, knowing that we are not risking temptation (which would not be the case in reading unknown books).

People usually do this in choosing doctors for the body. They choose those who others have found to be skilful and useful, rather than take a risk on any who are yet unknown and no one has tried.  Wisdom would say that no less should be required in making use of doctors or remedies for our spiritual edification; it is no less important than the other. If these things were observed in writing, reading, and hearing respectively, the Church of Christ might be preserved from many errors and offences. Many might be saved from much damaging and unprofitable writing and reading.

 

Conclusion

Some of the most highly commended books by those of Durham’s contemporaries are of course William Guthrie’s The Christian’s Great Interest and Samuel Rutherford’s Letters (The Loveliness of Christ contains quotations from the Letters). The Westminster Confession and Catechisms together with associated documents make vital reading. One of the documents is The Sum of Saving Knowledge, a valuable little book that strengthens assurance in explaining and applying the gospel. Durham wrote this together with David Dickson. Dickson also produced Truth’s Victory over Error to defend the Westminster Confession against many errors.

James Durham himself preached and published 72 sermons on Isaiah 53. These have been very highly commended. They are a rich presentation of Christ crucified as the “marrow of the gospel”. His commentary on the Song of Solomon explores the depths of communion with Christ in Christian experience. Spurgeon said that Durham was always good but in this commentary, he was at his best. He also discussed many practical aspects of church principles and order. His Treatise on Scandal also gives wise counsel in how to avoid stumbling others as well as in matters of church discipline and government.

 
 

FURTHER READING

Read more articles from James Durham

REFORMING YOURSELF

How Do I Know if I’m Putting Christ’s Interests First?

Half-committed Christians fail to seek Christ’s interests first and foremost. The Church suffers as a consequence. Here’s how to get our priorities straight.

The Questions We Ask When Others Leave the Faith

When we hear of others leaving the faith we may have many questions. But the most urgent questions concern ourselves and Jesus Christ. George Hutcheson explains what these are from Scripture.

What Does it Mean to Have a Fulfilling Life?

Everyone is pursuing fulfilment but what does that mean? James Fergusson identifies the necessary aspects of a fulfilling life as defined by God.

How Do I Know if My Repentance is Genuine?

James Durham explains the different ways we can be impacted by the sense of sin forgiven and hope of future mercy.

The Irreconcilable Instincts of the Human Heart

Politics makes for a poor functional saviour. James Fergusson gets to the heart of the war on sin.

Recovering True Empathy in a Fractured World

Empathy seems to be in serious decline today. James Fergusson shows how the apostle Paul highlights the need for true empathy.

How Far Should Reformation Go?

Reformation is not merely an event in the past; it is a present imperative.

How Does Faith Help Love?

This question matters a lot; especially if your love has grown colder. Faith works by love but how does love work by faith? To love God is to know and trust Him. How does deepening our faith influence the strength of love?

The Christian’s Spiritual Dress Code

There is something that should be worn by every Christian. It identifies them. We’re not talking about fashions and uniforms–the garment is humility. Are you wearing it?

Why Face-to-Face Communication is a Biblical Priority

Technology has had a negative effect on both the quality and quantity of face-to-face communication. But it’s more than a social problem, because the Bible gives considerable emphasis to face-to-face communication.

REFORMING YOUR FAMILY

Is There a False Religion in Your Home?

Covetousness rebranded itself. Consumerism has become a world view where choice and freedom are the absolutes. Some wisdom from James Fergusson exposes the idolatry.

Helping Your Child Not to Become an Atheist

“Do as I say, not as I do!” Not a good enough maxim for Christians parents, says James Fergusson.

A Family Day…of Worship

James Durham shows how the Lord’s Day provides a golden opportunity for parents to orient their family towards eternal realities.

What’s Missing from Your Home?

The most important interaction is increasingly missing from many Christian homes–interacting about spiritual things.

Are Evangelicals Redefining Marriage?

Biblical marriage is not fully intact amongst evangelicals just because they oppose same-sex marriage. A more subtle and less publicised redefinition of marriage is prevailing in society: where do we stand?

No to the Named Person Scheme But Yes to What?

Matthew Vogan explains the three positive values our society has lost to arrive at this extent of State interference.

How to Define Not Redefine Marriage

Marriage has been redefined–will it be redefined further. How do we know that group marriage is wrong?

REFORMING YOUR CHURCH

How Do I Know if I’m Putting Christ’s Interests First?

Half-committed Christians fail to seek Christ’s interests first and foremost. The Church suffers as a consequence. Here’s how to get our priorities straight.

The Questions We Ask When Others Leave the Faith

When we hear of others leaving the faith we may have many questions. But the most urgent questions concern ourselves and Jesus Christ. George Hutcheson explains what these are from Scripture.

Does Church Discipline Matter?

If it matters to Christ, shouldn’t that make us think?

The Headship of Christ in His Church in China

What we see in Chinese now is what we saw in Scotland then.

Ordinary Means of Extraordinary Grace

Christian growth? Church growth? The Westminster Standards offer a different perspective on what really works.

Christ’s Intercession Answers Your Fears About the Church

We have genuine, justified fears for the Church. What can we do? Our answer is in looking beyond confidence in our own activities to the activity that is taking place in heaven.

Confessionalism and a Flourishing Church

A full confession of faith invites Christians to explore and value the panorama of God’s truth and become mature in their understanding. A Confession helps the Church fulfil its commission to make spiritually mature disciples.

Uncovering the Secrets of Christ’s Kingdom

Christ’s kingdom is a spiritual Kingdom not of this world, so those who are of this world find it incomprehensible. Alexander Henderson explained the necessary duty to study the nature and search into the mysteries and secrets of this kingdom.

What Should We Do if God is Hiding His Face?

When God hides His face there is a lack of His presence and blessing in the life of the Church. Why would God do this? And if this is the case, is there anything we can do? Consider what Jame Renwick has to say.

What Do We Forget in Forgetting the Church’s History?

We forget vital things about God, His Church and His promises when we forget Church history. We need to make use of it to inform, encourage and steel ourselves for serving God in our own generation.