Lee Gatiss presents a modernised text of part 2 of the first Homily, “A Fruitful Exhortation to the Reading and Knowledge of Holy Scripture”.
In the first part of this sermon, which exhorts us to the knowledge of Holy Scripture, it was declared how the knowledge of Scripture is necessary and profitable to all; and that, by the true knowledge and understanding of Scripture, the most necessary points of our duty towards God and our neighbours are also known. Now, concerning the same matter, you shall hear what follows.
Ignorance of Scripture
If we profess Christ, why are we not ashamed to be ignorant of his doctrine, seeing that everyone is ashamed to be ignorant in that learning which they profess? Someone who does not read books of philosophy is ashamed to be called a Philosopher; or to be called a Lawyer, an Astronomer, or a Physician, if they are ignorant in the books of law, astronomy, and medicine. How can anyone, then, say that they profess Christ and his religion, if they will not apply themselves as far as they conveniently can to read and hear, and so to know, the books of Christ’s gospel and doctrine?
Although other sciences are good, and to be learned, yet no one can deny that this is the chief science, which passes all others incomparably. What excuse shall we therefore make at the last day before Christ, if we delight to read or hear human fantasies and inventions more than his most holy gospel, and will find no time to do that which chiefly above all things we should do? What excuse is there if we would rather read other things than that, for which we ought to drop every other book? Let us who profess God and have faith and trust in him, therefore, apply ourselves, as far as we can have time and leisure, to know God’s word, by diligent hearing and reading of it.
But those who have no good affection for God’s word commonly allege two vain and feigned excuses, to colour this their fault. Some try to excuse themselves by their own frailty and fearfulness, saying that they dare not read Holy Scripture, lest through their ignorance they should fall into any error. Others pretend that the difficulty of understanding it, and the hardness of it, is so great that it is only appropriate for clergy and learned people to read it.
Fear of error
As touching the first: ignorance of God’s word is the cause of all error; as Christ himself affirmed to the Sadducees, saying that they were mistaken because they did not know the Scripture (Matthew 22:29). How then should those who wish still to be ignorant ever avoid error? And how should they come out of ignorance, if they will not read nor hear that thing which would give them knowledge? The one who now has most knowledge, was ignorant to begin with; yet they did not abstain from reading for fear that they should fall into error. So, for the same reason, you may as well lie still and never go anywhere, in case if you go, you fall into a swamp; nor eat any good meat, in case you eat too much; nor sow your corn, nor labour in your occupation, nor use your merchandise, for fear you may lose your seed, your labour, your stock. And so, by that reasoning, it would be best for you to live idly, and never to take it in hand to do any manner of good thing, in case perhaps some evil thing may happen because of it.
If you are afraid to fall into error by reading Holy Scripture, I shall show you how you may read it without danger of error. Read it humbly, with a meek and lowly heart, to the intent that you may glorify God, and not yourself, with the knowledge of it. And read it not without daily praying to God, that he would direct your reading to good effect. And take upon you to expound it no further than you can plainly understand it. For, as St. Augustine says, the knowledge of Holy Scripture is a great, large, and high place; but the door is very low, so that the high and arrogant person cannot run in; but must stoop low, and humble themselves, in order to enter into it.
Presumption and arrogance is the mother of all error; and humility needs to fear no error. For 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 others who know, and will not presumptuously and rashly define any thing which it does not know. Therefore, the humble may search any truth boldly in the Scripture, without any danger of error. And if they are ignorant, they ought all the more to read and search Holy Scripture, to bring them out of ignorance. A person may profit by only hearing of the word; but they may much more profit with both hearing and reading.
The difficulty of Scripture
I have said this regarding those who are afraid to read, because they are ignorant. But concerning the hardness of Scripture, I say this: those who are so weak that they are not able to tolerate strong meat, they may still suck the sweet and tender milk and defer the rest until they grow stronger, and come to more knowledge (1 Corinthians 3:2; Hebrews 5:12-14). For God receives the learned and unlearned, and casts away none, but is impartial to all. And the Scripture is full of low valleys, plain and easy ways for everyone to use and to walk in, as well as of high hills and mountains, which few can climb up.
“Whoever gives their mind to the Holy Scriptures with diligent study and burning desire,” says St. John Chrysostom, “it cannot be that they should be left without help. For either God Almighty will send them some godly Doctor to teach them — as he did to instruct the Eunuch, a nobleman of Ethiopia, and treasurer to Queen Candace (Acts 8:26-35); who having a great affection to read the Scripture, although he did not understood it, yet, for the desire that he had for God’s word, God sent his Apostle Philip to declare to him the true sense of the Scripture that he read. Or, on the other hand, if we lack someone learned 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 in which we are ignorant.”
In another place, Chrysostom says that our “human and worldly wisdom, or science, is not necessary for the understanding of Scripture; but the revelation of the Holy Spirit, who reveals the true meaning to those who with humility and diligence search for it.” The one who asks shall have, and the one who seeks shall find, and the one who knocks shall have the door opened (Matthew 7:8). If we read once, twice, or three times, and still do not understand, let us not cease to read; but still continue reading, praying, asking others. And so, by continual knocking, eventually the door shall be opened, as St. Augustine says.
Although many things in Scripture are spoken in obscure or mysterious ways, there is nothing which is spoken under dark mysteries in one place, which is not also spoken about more familiarly and plainly in other places, to suit the capacity both of the educated and the uneducated. And everyone’s duty is to learn those things in the Scripture that are plain to understand and necessary for salvation, to print them in memory and effectually to exercise them; and, as for the dark mysteries, to be content to be ignorant in them, until such time as it shall please God to open those things to us.
In the meantime, if we lack either aptitude or opportunity, God will not put that down to our folly. Nevertheless, it is not fitting that those who are able to read should set aside reading because some others cannot. Nevertheless, we ought not to neglect reading of the whole simply because some places are hard. And briefly to conclude: as St. Augustine says, “by the Scripture all are amended; the weak are strengthened, and the strong are comforted.” So that surely none are enemies to the reading of God’s word, except those who are ignorant, and do not know how wholesome a thing it is; or those who are so sick, that they hate the most effective medicine that would heal them; or so ungodly, that they would wish the people still to continue in blindness and ignorance of God.
Thus we have briefly touched on some of the attributes of God’s holy word, which is one of God’s chief and principal 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 fan into flame this precious gift of our heavenly Father (2 Timothy 1:6). Let us hear, read, and know these holy rules, injunctions, and statutes of our Christian religion, of which we have made profession to God at our baptism. Let us with fear and reverence lay up, in the treasure chest of our hearts, these necessary and fruitful lessons. Let us, night and day, muse and meditate on and contemplate them (Psalm 1:2). Let us ruminate and, as it were, chew the cud like a cow, that we may have the sweet juice, spiritual effect, marrow, honey, kernel, taste, comfort and consolation of them. Let us ponder, quietly, and certify our consciences with the most infallible certainty, truth, and perpetual assurance of them.
And let us pray to God, the only Author of these heavenly studies, that we may speak, think, believe, live, and depart hence, according to the wholesome doctrine and truths of them. And, by that means, in this world we shall have God’s defence, favour, and grace, with the unspeakable solace of peace, and quietness of conscience; and, after this pitiable life, we shall enjoy the endless bliss and glory of heaven: which, may he grant to us all, that died for us all, Jesus Christ: to whom, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, be all honour and glory, both now and everlastingly. Amen.