Four rules for Christian readers...

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Yesterday, a lifelong friend mentioned he'd finally taken my advice and read Luther's commentary on Galatians. My advice? I didn't remember giving him any advice to read Luther on Galatians. Who "gives advice" to anyone to read Luther on Galatians? It's like recommending to someone that he breathe air or drink water. For centuries now, everyone has said you should read Luther on Galatians, but somehow my dear brother remembers me saying it. Anyhow, I'm glad he read it.

This gets me thinking about reading, so here are four rules for Christian readers.

Rule 1: Don’t waste your time reading what living men tell you the dead men said; read the primary sources.

What are primary sources?

Back in 1977 I was taking an upper-level history course at University of Wisconsin, Madison taught by the medievalist William J. Courtenay. Titled "Medieval Intellectual and Social History," the course's texts included several volumes of Copplestone's "History of Philosophy," so it was tough sledding. It was a large lecture class, but prior to the first lecture Prof. Courtenay announced he would hold a proseminar for all grad and honor students, as well as anyone else who cared to participate. I was the "cared to participate" student who showed up...

Each of us was to do an extra paper on a topic of our choice and each session of the seminar would consist of one of us giving his paper.

I chose Peter Waldo, the twelfth century lay preacher who rejected transubstantiation, commissioned the translation into vernacular of Europe's first non-Latin New Testament, and was excommunicated by Pope Lucius III in 1184. Founder of the early Protestant movement called the Waldensians, I was greatly strengthened in my faith by studying Waldo and the Waldensians whose godly witness against Rome’s monetary sacramental system had preceded the Reformation by centuries.

The day came for me to present my paper so, knowing I was out of my element, with fear and trembling I began to read. In addition to Prof. Courtenay and the fifteen or so grad and honor students, a visiting German medievalist of some eminence happened to be present that day. When I finished my paper, Prof. Courtenay expressed some interest in a point I’d made about the Waldensians' claim of apostolic succession, so he inquired whether I was basing my statement on a primary or secondary source?

I wracked my brain trying to guess what "primary" and "secondary" sources might be, but came up empty. After stonewalling for fifteen seconds or so, I was forced to do it: “I’m sorry, Prof. Courtenay, but I don’t know what primary and secondary sources are. Would you please explain what it is you’re asking?”

The question was embarrassing enough, but when Prof. Courtenay explained what primary and secondary sources were, I did wish I would turn into a blob and ooze away quietly.

So now, some of you are wondering what primary and secondary sources are, and you’re quite pleased no one can see you blushing.

Secondary sources are people telling you what Calvin said whereas primary sources are what Calvin himself said.

When Liam Goligher reports on Carl Trueman’s blog that John Calvin was a groundbreaking egalitarian feminist like himself who believed in women rulers, he is a secondary source. But when I respond by publishing John Calvin himself saying women rulers are "utterly at variance with the legitimate order of nature” and that they "ought to be counted among the judgments with which God visits us,” the letter of Calvin saying this which I publish is a primary source.

The lesson learned is to be very skeptical of secondary sources. Often, they can't be trusted.

Don’t bother reading secondary sources. Don’t bother reading Liam Goligher telling you on Carl Trueman's blog that Calvin was a proto-feminist and their feminism is just like his. It's so very easy to read Calvin for yourself and innoculate yourself against their lie.

Rule 2: When you read primary sources, watch out for dishonest translators who gag the author.

Even if you make a habit of reading the primary sources, you have to watch out for editors and translators who ruin primary sources by deleting the parts of the text they dislike. Often this means they delete the text’s most helpful parts.

For example, the most authoritative primary source ever written is the Bible. God Himself tells us His Scriptures are “theopneustos” (meaning “God-breathed," 2Timothy 3:16), so every last word matters eternally. Sadly, for the past quarter-century, Evangelical scholars like Doug Moo, Gordon Fee, and Don Carson have been busy-bees deleting God’s words they don't like from Scripture, including words such as “he,” “him,” “man,” “father,” "brother,” and "Jew." Why?

As Carson said to me personally, “when I speak at secular universities, I don’t want to get laughed off the platform.” Carson is afraid of all the feminists who hate the male inclusive God uses throughout His Word, so Carson and his colleagues remove those words of God. Thus, even when you’re reading Scripture, you have to be careful to use an honest translation, rather than modern translations such as the New International Version and the New Living Translation that gag God. (Here's a helpful article on choosing a Bible.)

Rule 3: When you read primary sources, watch out for abridgments.

Be careful about using abridgments. Editors who cut out parts of the text can be just as deceptive as translators who refuse to translate the text accurately.

Some authors are so wordy it’s almost impossible to take the time to wade through the entirety of what they originally wrote. Take Richard Baxter, for instance: I have an antiquarian copy of Baxter’s classic devotional work, The Saint’s Everlasting Rest. My copy was printed a decade or so after the book was originally published (in 1650), so it’s unabridged. Although the book is now called The Saints Everlasting Rest, its original title was The Saint’s Everlasting Rest: A Treatise of The Blessed State of the Saints in their enjoyment of God in Glory. Wherein is shewed its Excellency and Certainty; the Misery of those that lose it; the way to Attain it, and assurance of it; and how to live in the continual delightful Foretasts of it, by the help of Meditation. My unabridged copy has tiny type and is three or four inches thick, so you won't be surprised to find out that Baxter’s wordiness is infamous and almost anything you read by Baxter will be abridged. Yet not all abridgements are equal.

Other than the Bible, I don’t think there’s a more important book for pastors and elders to read than Baxter’s Reformed Pastor. Since every edition you can buy today is abridged, how do you choose between them?

Fresh out of seminary, I quickly learned to trust Banner of Truth to give me faithful editions of the old dead men who are my heroes. Banner has proven not to be much help fighting the battles of today but they have done a decent job rehearsing the glorious battles of past centuries. They allow our dead heroes to speak for themselves, so when I first read Baxter’s Reformed Pastor, I read the Banner of Truth edition.

Later, I came to have a copy of a couple works issued by Multnomah Press in its “Classics of Faith and Devotion” series and one was The Reformed Pastor. I’d had it a few years when I picked it up to look through it. As I lifted the book, I thought “this is light!” Opening it, I felt the pages and thought, “this is printed on very thick paper and the book is very thin; I wonder what they left out?”

Going through the book page by page, I looked for what they’d left out and, a third of the way through, I found this short statement inserted directly into the text:

At this point, Baxter inserts a long discussion on the methods of exercising "church discipline." Much of this is omitted here because it is related to the conditions of his own time in the seventeenth century, rather than to our own circumstances today.

Of course, it is precisely Baxter’s lengthy exhortation to be faithful in church discipline which pastors and elders need today. For instance, it's in that section of the Banner of Truth edition that I read (and have never forgotten): 

Sure I am, if it were well understood how much of the pastoral authority and work consisteth in church guidance, it would be also discerned, that to be against discipline, is near to being against the ministry; and to be against the ministry is near to being absolutely against the Church; and to be against the Church, is near to being absolutely against Christ. Blame not the harshness of the inference, till you can avoid it, and free yourselves from the charge of it before the Lord.1

And this:

They say, "You are so precise and you keep talking about sin, and duty, and make such a fuss about these things, while pastor so-and-so, who is as great a scholar as you and as good a preacher, will be merry and joke with us and leave us alone, and never trouble himself or us with this sort of talk. You can never be quiet and you make more commotion than needs to be made; you love to frighten men with talk of damnation, when sober, well-educated, peaceable pastors are quiet, and live with us like other men."

[They] will give you leave to preach against their sins, and to talk as much as you will for godliness in the pulpit, if you will but let them alone afterwards, and be friendly and merry with them when you have done, and talk as they do, and live as they, and be indifferent with them in your conversation. For they take the pulpit to be but a stage; a place where preachers must show themselves, and play their parts; where you have liberty for an hour to say what you [desire]; and what you say they regard not, if you show them not, by saying it personally to their faces, that you were in good earnest, and did indeed mean them...2

This is what Multnomah decided to remove from their reprint of a primary source, and it’s obvious why. As Baxter himself writes:    

It is a sad case that good men should settle themselves so long in the constant neglect of so great a duty [as church discipline]. The common cry is, "Our people are not ready for it, they won't bear it." But, isn't it rather the fact that you will not bear the trouble and hatred which it will occasion?3

Rule Four: if you must read an abridgment, choose an old one done by men who aren’t your contemporaries and don't have your sins.

The point I’m making over and over is that we live in an evil age when lies are the currency of the Reformed scholarly and publishing world. We must face the truth that we can’t trust famous celebrity scholars or publishers to tell us what God, Calvin, or Baxter said or have written.

And although most Reformed men are perfectly content to feed on lies, if you treasure your own soul and the souls God has given you responsibility for, you must care. 

Now then, why not start where we started this post—with Martin Luther’s commentary on Galatians. Here’s an old post helping you choose the right edition.

  • 1. Richard Baxter, The Reformed Pastor, (Banner of Truth, Carlisle PA: 1974) p. 111.
  • 2. Richard Baxter, The Reformed Pastor, (Banner of Truth, Carlisle PA: 1974) p. 85.
  • 3. Richard Baxter, The Reformed Pastor, (Banner of Truth, Carlisle PA: 1974) p. 47.
Tim Bayly

Tim serves Clearnote Church, Bloomington, Indiana. He and Mary Lee have five children and big lots of grandchildren.

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