“Make careful choice of the books which you read: let the holy scriptures ever have the pre-eminence, and, next to them, those solid, lively, heavenly treatises which best expound and apply the scriptures, and next, credible histories, especially of the Church . . . but take heed of false teachers who would corrupt your understandings.”
As there is a more excellent appearance of the Spirit of God in the holy scripture, than in any other book whatever, so it has 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 and papists to keep it from you, doth shew that it is most necessary and desirable to you.
The writings of divines are nothing else but a preaching of the gospel to the eye, as the voice preaches it to the ear. Vocal preaching has the pre-eminence in moving the affections, and being diversified according to the state of the congregation which attend it: this way the milk comes warmest from the breast. But books have the advantage in many other respects: you may read an able preacher when you have but a average 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 every day. 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 that 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 traditions.
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 good, but mediocre, 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.
Mr. Baxter’s guide to evaluating books (with my feeble thoughts thrown in):
1. Could I spend this time no better? Often a godly man is known for his devotion to extensive reading that furthers his love for God, fosters an understanding of His Word, and creates within him a desire for absolute obedience to his Lord. Such reading is good as long as it is doesn’t push out other, more pressing, things. Our obedience to God must be lived out; are we, by our devotion to the written word (however worthy) using it to escape our obligations (to family, neighbors, the church) in the here and now? For instance, can we rightly bury ourselves in a book for hours while our homes go to pot or our neighbor is down with illness and in need of food?
2. Are there better books that would edify me more? It is far too easy to find ourselves caught up in reading for fun rather than using our time wisely in reading for edification. It is also easy to read the good writers who write in modern vernacular while ignoring the best writers, the more noble and worthy writers, whose words might be harder, but more edifying, to seek to comprehend.
3. Are the lovers of such a book as this the greatest lovers of the Book of God and of a holy life? Do the writers we favor lead us to God or away from God? What we read should either further our devotion to Him, enable us to teach the Lord’s Truth better or enable us to break down the falsehoods promoted by those claiming to be teachers from the Lord. While there is value in reading for relaxation, still we should not read anything that will fill our minds with mindless junk or filth (romance novels…ugh…come to mind).
4. Does this book increase my love to the Word of God, kill my sin, and prepare me for the life to come? Is this something that you would be comfortable reading in the presence of the Lord (for surely you are)? Is it enhancing your love for things Holy or is it filling your mind with doubt and confusion? Does it lead you to the Cross or away from it?