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Supplements » A Fruitful Exhortation to the Reading and Knowledge of Holy Scripture (March 2007)
A Fruitful Exhortation to the Reading and Knowledge of Holy Scripture by David Holloway
Cranmerís Sixteenth Century Homily (one of the doctrinal standards
of the Church of England) edited and in modern English
For a Christian there is nothing more necessary or profitable than the knowledge of Holy Scripture. In it is contained Godís true word, setting forth his glory and also manís duty.
The one thing necessary
All truth or doctrine necessary for our justification and everlasting salvation is, or may be, drawn out of this fountain and well of truth. Therefore, all who desire to enter into the right and perfect way to God, must apply their minds to know Holy Scripture. Without so doing they can neither sufficiently know God and his will nor their own responsibilities and duties.
As drink is pleasant to those who thirst and food to those who are hungry, so is the reading, hearing, searching and studying of Holy Scripture to those who desire to know God or themselves and to do his will. Those hating and rejecting the heavenly knowledge and food of Godís word are so drowned in worldly vanities that they neither sense God nor any godliness. That is the cause why they desire such vanities rather than the true knowledge of God.
When people who are sick or ill eat or drink something that is pleasant, its taste can be unpleasant not because of the food, but because of the illness that affects their tongues and mouths. So the sweetness of Godís word is not bitter in itself, but only to those who have their minds corrupted with the long custom of sin and love of this world.
Therefore we must forsake the corrupt judgments of worldly people who care only for this physical world. Let us reverently hear and read Holy Scripture which is the food of the soul. Let us diligently search for the fresh water of life for our justification and salvation in the books of the New and Old Testaments and not rush to the muddy ponds of human traditions, devised by menís imagination. In Holy Scripture is fully contained what we ought to do and what to avoid; what to believe, what to love and what to look for at Godís hands in good measure.
Knowing ourselves and knowing God
In these books we will find the Father from whom, the Son by whom, and the Holy Spirit in whom, all things have their being and hold together. These three Persons are but one God and one substance.
In these books we may learn to know ourselves and how bad and needing mercy we are. We may learn also to know God and how good he is in himself, and how he makes us and all creatures partakers of his goodness. We may learn also in these books to know Godís will and pleasure, as much as is right for us to know at this present time. As the great clergyman and godly preacher, St. John Chrysostom, says:
"whatsoever is required to the salvation of man, is fully contained in the Scripture of God. He that is ignorant may there learn and have knowledge. He that is hard-hearted and an obstinate sinner shall there find everlasting torments, prepared with Godís justice to make him afraid and to mollify (or soften) him. He that is oppressed with misery in this world shall there find relief in the promises of everlasting life - to his great consolation and comfort. He that is wounded by the Devil unto death, shall find there medicine whereby he may be restored again unto health."
Elsewhere St Chrysostom says:
"if it is required to teach any truth or reprove false doctrine, to rebuke any vice, to commend any virtue, to give good counsel, to comfort or to exhort, or to do any other thing requisite for our salvation - all these things we may learn plentifully in the Scriptures."
ďThere is abundantly enough both for men to eat and children to suck. There is whatsoever is fitting for all ages and for all degrees and sorts of men.Ē
The benefits of the Bible
These books, therefore, ought to be often in our hands, in our eyes, in our ears, in our mouths, but most of all in our hearts. For the Scripture of God is the heavenly meat for our souls. Hearing and keeping it makes us blessed, sanctifies us and makes us holy. It converts our souls; it is a lamp to our feet; it is a sure, steadfast, and everlasting instrument of salvation; it gives wisdom to the humble and lowly hearts; it comforts, makes glad, cheers, and guards our consciences. It is a more excellent jewel or treasure than any gold or precious stone. It is more sweet than honey or a honey-comb. It is called "the best part", which Mary chose. For it has in it everlasting comfort.
The words of Holy Scripture are called words of everlasting life. They are Godís instrument, ordained for that same purpose. They have power for change, through Godís promises. They are effective through Godís assistance. When they are received in a faithful heart, they have always a heavenly spiritual working in them. They are lively, living and mighty in operation and sharper than any two-edged sword, "and enter through, even unto the dividing asunder of the soul and the spirit, of the joints and the marrow."
Christ calls him a wise builder who builds upon his word, upon his sure and substantial foundation. By this word of God we shall be judged: for the word which I speak, says Christ, will condemn at the last day. He who keeps the word of Christ is promised the love and favour of God and that he will be the dwelling-place or temple of the blessed Trinity. Whoever diligently reads this word, and prints in his heart what he reads, will find lessened the great affection for the transitory things of this world while the great desire for heavenly things, that God promises in his word, will be increased.
The secret of godliness
There is nothing so much that strengthens our faith and trust in God, and that keeps up innocence and pureness of heart and also of outward godly life and lifestyle, as continual reading and recording of Godís word. What is deeply printed and written on the heart by continual reading of Holy Scripture and diligently searching, at length almost becomes part of our nature. Moreover, the good effect of Godís word illumines the ignorant, and gives more light to those who faithfully and diligently read it. It comforts their hearts and encourages them to perform what God commands. It teaches patience in all adversity and in prosperity humbleness. It teaches what honour is due unto God and what mercy and love to our neighbour. It gives good advice in all doubtful things. It shows to whom we should look for aid and help in all dangers. It shows that God is the only giver of victory in all battles with, and temptations from, our enemies, both physical and spiritual.
In reading Godís word, it is not the person that always profits most who is most ready to read it or can recite it from memory. Rather it is the person who most enters into it; who is most inspired by the Holy Spirit; who is most altered in his heart and life and changed into what he is reading; who is daily less and less proud, less angry, less covetous, and less desiring worldly and vain pleasures; and who daily forsakes his old bad life. He increases in goodness more and more.
To be brief - there is nothing that more maintains godliness of mind and drives away ungodliness than the continual reading or hearing of Godís word, if it be joined with a godly mind and a good desire to know and follow Godís will. For without an honest and pure intention and a godly mind, nothing is allowed for good before God. And, on the other side, nothing more darkens Christ and the glory of God nor brings in more blindness and all kinds of evil than the ignorance of Godís word.
In the first part of this Sermon that encourages the knowledge of Holy Scripture, it was declared why the knowledge of Scripture is necessary and profitable to all; and how, by the true knowledge and understanding of Scripture, the most necessary points of our duty towards God and our neighbours are also known. There is now more to say concerning these matters as follows.
If we profess Christ, why are we not ashamed to be ignorant of his teaching - for everyone is ashamed to be ignorant in the area of his profession? A man is ashamed to be called a Philosopher who does not read books of philosophy, or be called a Lawyer, an Astronomer, or a Doctor, who is ignorant of the books of law, astronomy and medicine. How can any man, then, say that he professes Christ and his religion, if he will not apply himself to read and hear, and so to know, the books of Christís Gospel and doctrine (as far as he can or it is possible)? Although other sciences are good and to be learned, yet no one can deny that this teaching is supreme and immeasurably surpasses all else.
What excuse shall we, therefore, make at the last day before Christ, if we delight to read or hear menís fantasies and fictions, more than Christ's most holy Gospel; and if we find no time to do what chiefly, above all things, we should do; and if we will rather read other things than that for which we should rather leave off reading all other things? Let us, therefore, as many as profess God and have faith and trust in him, and as much as we have time and leisure - let us apply ourselves to know Godís word by diligent hearing and reading.
But those that have no real concern for Godís word underline their fault by often alleging two empty and pretended excuses. Some try to excuse themselves by claiming their own frailties and fearfulness. They say that they dare not read Holy Scripture, lest through their ignorance they fall into any error. Others pretend that the difficulty in understanding it, and the hardness of the text, is so great that only clergy and academics can read it.
With regard to the first excuse: ignorance of Godís word is the cause of all error, as Christ himself affirmed to the Sadducees. He said that they erred, because they did not know the Scriptures. How will these, then, avoid error who will still be ignorant of them? And how will they escape ignorance who will not read or hear the very thing that will give them knowledge?
The person who now has most knowledge was at first ignorant. Yet they never refused to read for fear of falling into error. Rather they diligently read lest they should remain in ignorance and, through ignorance, in error. If you will not know the truth of God (a thing most necessary for you) lest you fall into error, by the same reasoning you must stay in bed and never go out, lest if you do, you fall into a ditch; you must not eat any good food, lest you eat too much; you must not sow your corn, or work at your job, or invest your money, for fear you lose your seed, your job or your investment. So, by that reasoning, it would be best for you to live idly and never undertake any good thing, lest perhaps some evil may occur.
The need for humility
If you are afraid to fall into error by reading Holy Scripture, I will show you how you may read it without the danger of error. Read it humbly, with a meek and lowly heart, so that you may glorify God and not yourself with the knowledge of it. Read it each day praying to God that he will direct your reading to good effect. And do not try to expound it further than you can plainly understand it. As St. Augustine says, the knowledge of Holy Scripture is a great, large, and a high place; but the door is very low so that the high and arrogant man cannot run in. Whoever wants to enter in must stoop low and humble himself.
Presumption and arrogance are the mother of all error. Humility needs to fear no error. Humility will only search to know the truth. It will search and will bring together one place with another; and where it cannot find out the meaning, it will pray; it will ask of others who know; and it will not presumptuously and rashly define anything it does not know. Therefore, the humble may search any truth boldly in the Scripture without the danger of error. If they are ignorant, they ought to read more and search Holy Scripture to bring them out of ignorance. Yes, a person may profit with only hearing but they may profit more with both hearing and reading.
So much regarding the fear of reading because of a person's ignorance - now concerning the hardness of Scripture: one who is so weak that they cannot eat strong meat may, however, drink sweet and tender milk and then wait until they grow stronger and come to more knowledge. God receives the learned and unlearned and casts no one away, but treats all the same. The Scripture is full of low valleys and plain ways that are easy for everyone to use and walk in, as it also has high hills and mountains which few can climb. St John Chrysostom says:
"Whoever gives their mind to Holy Scripture with diligent study and a burning desire, will not be left without help. For either God Almighty will send him some godly teacher to teach him, as he did to instruct the Eunuch, a nobleman of Ethiopia and treasurer of Queen Candace. The Eunuch had a great desire to read the Scripture, although he did not understand it. Because of his desire for Godís word, God sent his Apostle Philip to declare to him the true sense of the Scripture that he read. Or else, if we lack a learned man to instruct and teach us, yet God himself, from above, will give light to our minds and teach us those things which are necessary for us and of which we are ignorant."
In another place Chrysostom says that
"manís human and worldly wisdom or science is not necessary to the understanding of Scripture but rather the revelation of the Holy Spirit is needed, who inspires the true meaning to those who search for it with humility and diligence."
He that asks shall have and he that seeks shall find and he that knocks shall have the door opened. "If we read once, twice, or three times and do not understand, let us not cease, but still continue reading, praying, and asking of others; and so by still knocking, at last the door will be opened," as St. Augustine says.
Although many things in the Scripture be spoken in obscure mysteries, yet there is nothing spoken as a dark mystery in one place, but the self-same thing is spoken more easily and plainly in other places. So both the learned and unlearned can receive it.
It is everyone's duty to learn and to print in their memories, and to put positively into practice those things in the Scripture that are easy to understand and necessary for salvation. As for the dark mysteries we are to be contented to be ignorant about them until such time as it shall please God to open them to us. In the mean time, if someone lacks either the ability or the opportunity, God will not charge it to their folly.
But the person with ability should not cease their efforts because some others are unable to understand. Nevertheless, for the hardness of such difficult places, the reading of the whole should not be neglected.
And briefly to conclude: as St. Augustine says, "By the Scripture all men are amended; weak men are strengthened, and strong men are comforted." Surely no one will be hostile to the reading of Godís word except those who either are so ignorant that they do not know how wholesome it is; or else they are so sick that they hate the perfect medicine that will heal them; or they are so ungodly that they wish people to continue still in blindness and ignorance of God.
So we have briefly touched on some part of the realities of Godís holy word, one of Godís greatest benefits given (and declared) to mankind here on earth.
Let us thank God heartily for this his great and special gift, beneficial favour and fatherly providence. Let us be glad to receive this precious gift of our heavenly Father. Let us hear, read, and know these holy rules, injunctions, and statutes of our Christian religion to which we have made profession to God at our baptism.
Let us, with fear and reverence, lay up, in the recesses of our hearts, these necessary and fruitful lessons. Let us night and day muse and meditate and contemplate them. Let us ruminate, and, as it were, chew the cud, that we may have the sweet juice, spiritual effect, marrow, honey, kernel, taste, comfort, and consolation of them. Let us be at peace and check our consciences with the most infallible certainty, truth, and perpetual assurance of them. Let us pray to God, the only author of these heavenly studies, that we may speak, think, believe, live, and depart from this world, according to the wholesome doctrine and truths of them.
By that means, in this world we shall have Godís defence, favour, and grace, with the unspeakable solace of peace and quietness of conscience; and, after pity needed in this life, we shall enjoy the endless bliss and glory of heaven, which he who died for us all grants us all, Jesus Christ, to whom, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, be all honour and glory, both now and everlastingly. Amen.