Essay / Theology

The Christian Studying (Bickersteth/Watts)

bickerstethEdward Bickersteth (1786-1850) wrote a book called The Christian Student which, according to its subtitle, was “designed to assist Christians in general in acquiring religious knowledge.” It’s a big, rambling scrapbook of a volume, which Bickersteth stuffed with quotations from his wide reading and festooned with his own incisive observations. Bickersteth was a world-class worrier, and it’s hard to tell from this book whether he was more worried that Christians won’t study at all, or that they’ll study the wrong way. Don’t make him choose. Stated positively, though: he wants Christians to study well.

In a crowded footnote beginning on page 180, Bickersteth provides a series of “Questions for Self-Examination, chiefly extracted from an old writer.” The un-named “old writer” seems to have been Isaac Watts (1674-1748), who had published the questions in a way framed specifically for seminary students; Bickersteth simply re-phrases them “to assist Christians in general.”

Perhaps if you have studying to do, you will find these questions helpful:

What is my great design in giving myself to study, and what is my daily view and purpose in pursuing it?

Have I entirely given up myself to our Lord Jesus Christ to serve him unreservedly and supremely?

Do I every day seek direction and blessing from God in all my studies?

In labouring after knowledge in human sciences, do I always make the service of Christ my supreme design?

Do I pursue my studies daily as one that must give account of my time and of all my advantages?

How many hours have I this day spent in study, or for the pursuit of knowledge, allowing for the great maxim, that to pray well is to study well?

Do I pursue practical divinity as well as the knowledge of doctrines and controversies?

Am I solicitous that my soul may grow in grace by every increasing degree of Christian knowledge?

Do I choose my company by their seriousness, as well as by their ingenuity and learning?

Do I take constant care to avoid all company which may be dangerous to my morals or to my studies?

Have I been in any company where I have received good myself, or done good to others?

Have I indulged myself in anything so as to put my mind out of frame for evening worship?

Have I suffered any thing to carry away my heart from God, so as to make me neglect devotion, or perform it in a slight or careless manner?

Do I watch against all evil appetites and passions, and endeavour to subdue them early, that I may learn by my own experience, and teach others by my own example?

Am I ever seeking the spiritual good of all around me?

These are questions for self examination, and you can apply them to yourselves with the stringency or leniency you think is appropriate. But if you find yourself in need of stronger medicine than these, Bickersteth also quotes the “severe, but very important remarks” of William Law’s Address to the Clergy, a passage where Law unveils the dangers of scholarly pride. Theologians in particular may be tempted to think that they can do no wrong when they are working diligently in defense of the truth, says Law:

A scholar pitying the blindness and folly of those who live to themselves, in the cares and pleasures of this vain world, thinks himself divinely employed and to have escaped the pollutions of the world, because he is day after day, dividing, dissecting, and mending Church opinions, fixing heresies here, and schisms there, forgetting all the while, that carnal self, and natural reason have the doing of all that is done by this learned zeal, and are as busy, as in the reasoning infidel or projecting worldling.

All that work that goes into Christian scholarship may in fact have as its motive force nothing but private ambition. If a theologian actually said aloud everything that was in his head as he wrote, no doubt he would often finish a paragraph with “that’ll show ’em!” or “now Jesus must be very pleased with me indeed.” It turns out that “carnal self, and natural reason have the doing of all that is done” in the study, and their effect is only compounded by the temptation to regard one’s vocation as being highly exalted above the “projecting worldling.”

In fact, Law goes further and says that the worst vices seem actually to be more at home in the hearts of people who have literary and scholarly accomplishments or aspirations.

Worldly lusts and interests, vanity, pride, envy, contention, bitterness, and ambition (the death of all that is good in the soul) have now, and always had, their chief nourishment, power, and support, from a sense of the merit and sufficiency of literary accomplishments.  Humility, meekness, patience, faith, hope, contempt of the world, and heavenly affection (the very life of Jesus in the soul,) are by few persons less earnestly desired, or more hard to be practised, than by great wits, classical critics, linguists, historians, and orators in holy orders.

Again, these are only offered for self-examination.


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