Reading Secular Literature

Ministry, Quote

oldbooksI came across this interesting exhortation in the Bern Synod of 1532:

Chapter forty: Moderation in reading secular literature

Indeed worldly books, such as histories, may also be read, but with careful discrimination and critical judgment, and with the intention that they be sued to train the intellect and to inform about the nature of the flesh. But fundamentally they serve neither for the improvement of our hearts, nor for the assistance of the congregation. Therefore, all doctrine, admonition, reproof, and correction should come from the Spirit of Christ and divine Scripture, though it may also happen that sometimes with brief words a pagan history might be cited to the congregation, and this we do not refuse. Out hope is that each will remember that he is a steward of the mysteries of Christ, and a servant of His Spirit, and accordingly will make more use of spiritual writings than of carnal. The ministers of the canton are sadly not all too industrious, yet we view this caution as not without cause.

What do you think? What is the place in the Christian life for “worldly books” or “pagan history”? How should we think about fiction? Is it profitable, harmful, or just a waste of time?

Quote from: compiled with introductions by James T. Dennison, Reformed Confessions of the 16th and 17th Centuries in English Translation: Volume I, 1523-1552 (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2008), 271.

(By: Nick Kennicott)

4 thoughts on “Reading Secular Literature

  1. I take it from the quotation about worldly books being read that it was referring to whether or not secular books should be read aloud from the pulpit as a quotation, since it says, “a pagan history might be cited to the congregation.” If I correctly understand it, then the subject is limited to using secular citations in preaching, which Paul himself did when he quoted pagan poets.
    As to whether or not Christians should read secular fiction, the statement “with careful discrimination and critical judgment” is a good guideline.

    1. Thanks Bob – agreed. I do wonder just how far they were willing to push this. As for me, I would argue that Paul was very familiar with the Greek philosophy of his day, and that of Homer, Socrates, and Plato as well. In fact, I think the argument can be made that some of what Paul writes is a response to Platonistic thinking, pointing out that while Plato had some good ideas, he didn’t go quite far enough (e.g. the theme of Justification through Romans in relation to Plato’s Republic).

      I agree that careful discrimination and critical judgment is crucial – in fact, I’d say even more so when reading much of what passes as Christian literature these days. As for things like Twilight or 50 Shades of Gray, I see no profit for the Christian – the imagination can be motivated by more wholesome, albeit secular fiction.

  2. As far a preaching and teaching goes, Acts 17 and Titus 1 are obviously relevant in that they do exist as an example of chaste utilization of secular sources/quotations (or an contact point in apologetics). But its also notable that they don’t seem to be the norm.

    As far as wider reading, it seems that both general revelation and common grace need to be a part of the conversation. I can glorify God by enjoying works of beauty that stimulate the mind and stir the heart, even if I’m making divine connections the original author wouldn’t.

    Of course, the reading of sinful trash need not apply.

    1. I agree completely, and I think they way you stated it is perfect: “I can glorify God by enjoying works of beauty that stimulate the mind and stir the heart…”

      I think the church’s theology of common grace is lost, by and large. We have gained a great deal of advance in our world by the common grace of God, and I’m thankful for it. The same applies to all the great music, art, and literature that we have to enjoy – given that it’s not sinful.

      Interesting, isn’t it, that a Synod made a statement like this in their final documents for church order/practice?

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