James Durham: On Reading

One of the purposes of Meet the Puritans is to encourage the reading of, well, the Puritans and other literature that stands in that tradition. But how do we know what to read? How do we know what will be helpful for us? Well, one of my favourite “Puritans”, the Scottish preacher and theologian James Durham (1622-58) has a little essay “Of Reading, and Hearing” which helps us answer these questions (Found in his Commentary on Revelation [1658, Repr. Old Paths, 2000], 81-83).
Durham begins his advice on reading noting that we are to be discerning readers. He applies the warning of 2 Tim 4:3-4 to reading, “they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables.” Just as in listening, so in reading, we are called to give ourselves to teachers of the truth. We are just as much to avoid “itching eyes” in reading as “itching ears” in listening! 
Durham believed that this was important as “reading is a special means of edification, if well employed”. But by contrast bad reading can be “a great step to destruction.” As such Durham believed that “Christian wisdom” had to be exercised that our reading will be helpful for us, and not harmful. For many Christians are not able to “discern poison from good food.”
But it was not just the need to avoid error that concerned Durham. He was also a realist. In general people have little time to read. He noted “its but a little time that many can spend in reading.” As such, if our reading is to be spiritually helpful for us we need to use the little time we have profitably, on the best things.
But how then to do this? He gave four practical pieces of advice to enable us to read well:
  1. Read books that other godly Christians have found helpful. That is in our reading we should focus on books “judicious tender Christians have found good of before, or shall recommend.” In these cases, these books “have been tried and tasted, and therefore may be, as good food in which there in no hazard, meddled with.” This is sound advice. Today, in addition to advice from Christians you know and respect, the Banner of Truth’s Puritan Paperbacks or Reformation Heritage Book’s Classics of Reformed Spirituality provide excellent places to start. In both these series you will find books that have blessed generations of God’s people.
  2. Read books where the authors are known to be helpful. Durham states that “if by other writings, preaching, or otherwise he be known to be sound and serious” then it is likely that other writings of the same author will be profitable. Today we might expand that advice to publishers which are known to be helpful. Here again we can reference Banner of Truth and Reformation Heritage Books. But to them can be added Christian Focus, Evangelical Press, P&R Publishing, Crossway and a number of others. Read books from sound authors and sound publishers with confidence. But Durham rightly cautions that “no man’s name ought to bear such sway with any, as to make them digest anything without trial.” Everything is ultimately to be tried and tested by the word of God, no matter how “safe” the source. 
  3. Avoid books where the authors are known to be unhelpful. In essence Durham warns against time being wasted on writings which are “dangerous and unprofitable.”
  4. If the book and the author is unknown to us, caveat lector. Durham cautions against wasting time on unknown authors (or publishers) until it has been proven they produce good quality material. He says we would not go to a doctor for help with natural diseases without some proof of their training and evidence of their qualifications. Likewise, we should not go to a book for spiritual help and counsel without knowing whether it will likely do us good. Today book reviews and, dare I say it, book blurbs (in moderation!) can helpfully show which books from new authors/publishers are worth reading.
To close, Durham was not opposed to all Christians reading widely. He noted that some are “called to acquaint themselves with writings of all kinds”. But, for Durham, these are principally church officers who are charged to “convince gainsayers.” Generally, Christians should seek to read books that will be spiritually and theologically helpful, and so be “saved from much hurtful and unprofitable labour in reading.” If we listen to Durham’s advice, we will indeed be saved from this, and blessed with much spiritually helpful reading.
Donald John Maclean